The slow march toward Opening Day continues. Here are five things to ponder as the Braves check off another week of spring training and more that much closer to April 1.
1. Uggla’s struggles at the plate
In talking with Dan Uggla he said he had pinpointed the problem in his plate approach that led to his worst statistical season in the majors in 2012 and had corrected it.
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But in his last 14 at-bats this spring, the second basemen has three hits and overall has a .205 average, one home run, four RBIs and a .558 OPS. Oh, and he’s struck out 15 times. It’s not exactly a confidence-builder for Atlanta fans that watched him turn a .220/.348/.384 slash line with 19 HRs and 168 strikeouts a season ago.
It may seem alarming, but here’s where we drop in an asterisk with the “it’s only spring training” disclaimer.
Aside from last spring when he hit .277, Uggla has largely been a slow starter, with averages of .212 .197 and .206 in ’11, ’10 and ’09, respectively. Plus, after a forgettable ’12, Uggla should be expected to want to work his way back into a rhythm. It’s why he has just three walks in 44 Grapefruit League at-bats.
The plate discipline is there after leading the National League with 94 walks, so it may not be worth buying into the early returns, however magnified they may be after Uggla’s 2012.
2. WBC highs and lows
Andrelton Simmons, who will be the Braves lead-off man this season, is delivering in that spot for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, hitting .370 with two HRs, six RBIs, 19 total bases and 1.104 OPS.
Meanwhile, closer Craig Kimbrel has looked un-Craig-Kimbrel-like for Team USA.
He has a 6.75 ERA in three appearances, including Thursday’s loss to the Dominican Republic when it scored twice in the bottom of the ninth off Kimbrel, who had gone all of last season without allowing two runs or two hits in any appearance, to secure a spot in the championship round.
Three of the five batters that Kimbrel faced got hits before manager Joe Torre pulled him.
This is exactly the Simmons that the Braves are hoping they have atop their lineup this year — they don’t necessarily need him swinging for the fences, which we touched on in the latest Chopcast – and this WBC experience, playing in a pressure situation, bodes well for a season in which many think he’ll become a star.
There will be some who will wonder whether WBC troubles could be setting a bad tone for Kimbrel, who allowed all of seven runs in his historic ‘12. But given the short preparation time this spring for the WBC — he had a 6.75 ERA in four outings before leading the Braves — the axiom of pitchers being ahead of the hitters may not apply here. 3. Freeman’s sizzling
On the flip side of Uggla is Freddie Freeman, who following a year in which he dealt with eye issues and an index finger injury, is fully healthy and is hitting .333 with three home runs, seven RBI, a .794 slugger percentage and an OPS of .932.
Batting fourth with the Uptons surrounding him in the order (Justin will be at third and B.J. at fifth), Freeman will be in a position where teams won’t pitch around him and this start is a strong indication that he’s poised to thrive in that spot.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez relayed a conversation he had with hitting coach Greg Walker, who called Freeman the best young hitting prospect he’s been around and if this spring is any indication, Freeman’s third full year in the majors may be when we see him deliver on that superstar potential.
4. Minor’s location
We’ve seen some strong starts out of Mike Minor of late, allowing one hit in three scoreless innings against the Tigers and vs. the Yankees he gave up three hits and zero runs.
He was putting together a similar performance Thursday vs. the Cardinals, yielding just one hit and a walk through four innings. But he got into trouble in the fifth as St. Louis tagged him for five hits, three walks and four runs.
Before that fifth inning, Minor was riding a 13-inning scoreless streak and 58 of the 88 pitches he threw were strikes, which may be the real takeaways from his last three outings.
He said he’s still working on his changeup, which is the fourth pitch in his repertoire, and the Cardinals pounced on it. But overall, he’s looking more like the pitcher who had a .221 ERA and a .193 opponents batting average after June, not the one that had a .620 ERA and .270 OPA before it.
5. Wood makes an impression
Alex Wood, last year’s second-round pick out of Georgia was reassigned to minor league camp after Thursday’s game against the Cardinals, but he clearly took advantage of his time.
The 22-year-old righty, who had a 2.22 ERA and a 52/14 K/BB ration last year with Class-A Rome finished with a 1.29 ERA, three strikeouts and three walks in seven innings of work for the Braves.
He’ll be stretched out as a starter in the minors but with a sweeping, unorthodox delivery, Wood could very quickly become an asset for Atlanta in its bullpen and given his work this spring that time may not be that far off.