Rotation health concerns, more Braves spring training thoughts

Braves pitcher Kris Medlen, who posted a 15-12 record with a 3.11 ERA in 2013, left Sunday's game against the New York Mets with a forearm strain.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

Another week in the books, another week closer to the regular season. There are potential problems between now and then, however. Here are five observations from the Braves’ second full week of spring training games, starting with the news concerning Kris Medlen’s forearm:

Considering the myriad injuries and the commendable patchwork job Frank Wren and Fredi Gonzalez pulled off during last season’s NL East title run, it’s easy to forget that the Braves were fortunate (for lack of a better term, because they were most certainly unfortunate in the injury department a year ago) in where the injuries hit their starting rotation. Yes, the losses of Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy did not help matters, but the three most productive pitchers in the rotation — Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran — combined to start 93 games and pitched nearly 600 innings.

That’s roughly 40 percent of the season’s pitching workload falling on the healthy shoulders of your three best starters.

With Minor (3.4 fWAR) already behind schedule after undergoing an offseason urinary tract procedure, Medlen’s forearm injury on Sunday afternoon only underscores this fact now. The 28-year-old projected Opening Day starter immediately made for the dugout after throwing a fourth-inning pitch to the Mets’ Matt Clark, and, as MLB.com’s Mark Bowman points out, it was a similar reaction to a pitch he made back in 2010 that led to Tommy John surgery a couple weeks later. The severity of the injury is unknown. The Braves are calling it a right forearm strain, with Medlen undergoing further examination on Monday. But in the context of a guy who has already undergone the all-too-common elbow surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament, any forearm discomfort is far from good news.

Without entering a doomsday scenario prior to Medlen’s upcoming evaluation, there’s a very real possibility that two of the team’s three best starters from a season ago will enter the year on the disabled list. That’s not the best starting point in what looks to be a 162-game race with the Washington Nationals for the division crown.

If there is some DL time ahead for Medlen, that would leave Teheran as the only Braves Opening Day player to log more than 85 MLB innings pitched in 2013. And the early rotation, at least until Minor is good to go, could read as follows: Teheran, Beachy, Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia and perhaps a guy like David Hale if Atlanta opts against a four-man rotation.

For now, Medlen’s pending MRI is the most important bit of information concerning the team’s immediate future.

On a more encouraging note for Braves management, two of the team’s most gifted players are playing like it this spring. Of course, it’s spring and anything short of injury (See: Above) is usually not worth getting too high or low over, but it’s a positive sign that Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward are locked in and producing early on. They produced well last spring and, disregarding Heyward’s two fluke DL stints (appendectomy, fractured jaw), turned in very good seasons.

And while the power hasn’t quite matched its 2013 spring levels, the numbers are there for the taking:

These are potentially two of the National League’s top talents entering (or already in) typical prime years and if they are at their best — Heyward setting the table, Freeman anchoring the middle of the lineup — it’s good news for Atlanta for at least the next two seasons. While Freeman is now locked in for another eight seasons, Heyward is still out to prove that, when healthy, he’s one of the best all-around players in the game. Playing on a two-year extension that buys up his arbitration years, the Braves’ versatile outfielder is still out to get paid like a star. He, along with Freeman, is off to a good start these past few weeks.

Back to the team’s power numbers. As mentioned in a post for the Chopcast last week, Atlanta’s home run totals are not even close to approaching last spring’s impressive tally. After leading the National League in home runs in 2013 — hitting about one home run per 34 plate appearances; 181 in all — the power has yet to return in Florida.

Through 493 at-bats (the most any team has received this spring), the Braves are tied for last place with just three home runs.

Their last-place counterpart, the Detroit Tigers, have logged just 390 at-bats up to this point, making the Braves the least potent power team in baseball this spring. Jason Heyward’s two bleacher shots obviously leads the team, and the only other homer came off the bat of minor league outfielder Todd Cunningham. Where’s Justin Upton & Co., who this time last year were en route to 49 homers — a mark that looks all but unattainable about halfway through the preseason schedule — and a .464 slugging percentage?

The slightly-better news, at least for the aforementioned slugging percentage, is that Atlanta still ranks in the top-10 in extra-base hits, featuring 31 doubles, led by Ramiro Pena, Chris Johnson and Jordan Schafer.

Still, expect more than three home runs over the next two weeks.

There has been much talk about how big of a drop-off Chris Johnson will suffer in Year Two in Atlanta. After challenging for the batting title in 2013, it’s almost as if it’s a given that the team’s third baseman will regress, as if his inflated career batting average on balls in play (.361 BABIP) will eventually lead to a Johnson-centric stock market crash.

There’s some solid baseball logic behind that regression theory, though predicting huge declines in production does partially ignore the fact that throughout his minor league career, and in his two previous MLB stints with Houston and Arizona, Johnson has shown a knack for making more-than-solid contact. He’s a career .289 hitter who laces about a quarter of his batted balls for line drives. Historically speaking, when he swings, he’s not just grasping at straws. He’s swinging with a purpose.

Will that lead to another .321 average? Probably not. But be careful with those 50-point drop-off projections.

All this is to say: Johnson is hitting the ball rather well this spring, making decent contact with six hits in 23 at-bats, including those three doubles.

The Atlanta Braves received an up-close-and-personal look at the new rules regarding home plate collisions on Sunday, and whether or not the right call was made is certainly up for debate. First, here’s the play at the plate involving Braves’ outfielder Matt Lipka against the Mets on Sunday (courtesy of Faux Frank Wren):

For a refresher course on how the new rules apply, here’s the gist of it: (1) A catcher may not block the plate without the ball; (2) A runner may not run out of his direct path to home plate to make contact with a catcher not blocking the plate; (3) Both home plate collisions and blocking the plate are allowed if the catcher already has the ball or if the throw pulls the catcher into the runner’s path; (4) Everything is left to the umpire’s discretion; (5) Everything is replay-eligible.

So the Lipka call is clear as day, right?

The catcher is blocking the plate before he has the ball, refusing to give Lipka a clear path to home plate. Should probably be called safe. But what about that glaring loophole that MLB left open, the one that states a catcher may block the plate "to field the incoming throw"? The throw obviously comes in slightly up the third-base line, so by that interpretation the Mets catcher was doing nothing wrong here, right? Lipka should probably be clled out. Expect more of this back-and-forth to come this season — replays galore.

There is so much extra room for interpretation with these new home plate rules — mandates that are in the spirit of player safety without much obvious utility: Don’t most collisions take place when a catcher already has the ball or when the throw pulls him into the runner’s basepath? If the only punishment is a simple out, as opposed to an ejection or worse, what’s the risk in changing nothing and going "all-out" in said plays? Mainly, how many collisions will this truly prevent? — that it’s going to take home plate umpires time to adjust. Not to mention probably keeping baseball’s replay desk busy, at least early on.