Three burning questions for Braves’ bench

Utility infielder Ramiro Pena (left) and outfielder Jordan Schafer will start as reserves, but stand to see their playing time expand if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton struggle again.

The Braves’ bench proved crucial to last season’s National League East title run, given that all but one player in the Opening Day lineup (Chris Johnson) missed time with an injury.

Those bumps, bruises and strains, along with the struggles of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton allowed for breakouts from the likes of Evan Gattis, Anthony Varvaro and Alex Wood and the resurgence of Jordan Schafer.

While Atlanta was relatively quiet this offseason, it’s the reserves ranks where it did make the most movement, setting us up for some major questions in need of answers this spring. First and foremost …

On the assumption that Fredi Gonzalez will be carrying a seven-man bullpen — they bounced around between six and seven a year ago — at least until Jonny Venters returns in late May/June, that leaves five spots on the bench.

Four of those positions appears to be locked down with catcher Gerald Laird (.281/.367/.372 last season), outfielder Jordan Schafer (.247/.331/.346 with a team-high 22 steals), utility infielder Ramiro Pena (.278/.330/.443) and offseason acquisition Ryan Doumit, who had troubles last season but is a year removed from a .275/.320/.461 2012 with the Twins in which he hit a career-high 18 home runs. 

That leaves just one opening and plenty of viable options, including infielder Tyler Pastornicky, who played in 20 games and hit .333 from July 3 until he tore his ACL on Aug. 14, outfielder Jose Constanza (.258/.258/.516 in 21 games), Joey Terdoslavich (.215/.315/.266 over 55 games) and oft-injured offseason signee Mat Gamel, the former top prospect who has 269 plate appearances through age 27.

The favorite out of that group would seem to be Pastornicky, though there is the debate that he’s too similar to Pena to have two players capable of playing second, third and shortstop eating up two of the five bench positions. But last spring, Gonzalez raved about Pastornicky’s versatility, touting him as a potential Martin Prado-type and wound up seeing time at second, shortstop and centerfield.

While Pastornicky is the most logical pick, Gamel, provides some intrigue. Out of minor league options — meaning it’s make the 25-man roster or bust — Gamel can give Atlanta depth at the corner infield spots along with the prospect of power at the plate (he has 53 homers in 290 games at Triple-A), something none of the other bench options can provide.

Braves Burning Questions

When the Braves traded left-hander pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin to the Twins for Doumit in December, the thinking was that it was adding another potential body behind the plate as the franchise looks to Evan Gattis with the Brian McCann era over.

Then came a January report when Twins beat writer Mike Berardino was told by second baseman Brian Dozier that Doumit is "not catching anymore" after "talking it over with his family." Doumit had suffered in August after taking a Jason Castro foul tip of his mask against the Astros — and it wasn’t the first.

"I’ve had many concussions before — many," Doumit said. "I’ve kind of gone down this road before. It’s best to kind of nip it in the bud before it gets any worse."

That report was debunked by the ‘Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brien, who tweeted "at least 1 other Twins writer spoke to Doumit’s agent a week before trade to #Braves and was told Doumit was still interested in catching."

Even if Doumit didn’t want to get behind the plate anymore, it wouldn’t be back-breaking for Atlanta. Outside of an injury, an off-day for Gattis or a pinch-hit situation, it’s unlikely Doumit would get that much action at catcher.

Doumit’s biggest value is that he’s also played right field and left field, along with first base and been a designed hitter in his nine seasons. As general manager Frank Wren said after the trade "he’s almost two players in one."

Projected by The Hardball Times’ Oliver projections to appear in 143 games and in 69 by Steamer’s forecast, the expectations are probably closer to Steamer, which has Doumit hitting .251/.315/.404 in that role with eight homers and 32 RBIs.

On a bench that looks to be defined by Swiss Army knives, Doumit, who has has hit at least 13 homers in four of the last six seasons, could end up being the most potent of the group.

It’s unfair to expect another instance of Gattis, who added to his legend off the bench as a rookie, going 6 of 10 with four home runs — tying Tommy Gregg’s 1990 franchise record — and 11 RBIs as a pinch hitter.

But there is the potential for another reserve (or two) to have a major impact this season, though it’s likely rooted in whether or not a couple of maligned starters can get things back on track.

Upton and Uggla’s woes were well-documented as Uggla had the lowest batting average (.179) of any qualifying player and Upton didn’t fare much better at .184. If they are unable to turn things around, will Gonzalez be willing to look elsewhere at second base and centerfield?

Pena, statistically, is stronger at third — he has six career DRS at that position — than second, where he’s at minus-5 in 167 innings, though the difference between him and Pastornicky (Pena had a minus-2 DRS in 59 1/3 innings in ’13; Pastornicky was at zero in 30 innings) is negligible. Neither has Uggla’s power, but consistency and far lower strikeouts rates (16.8 for Pena last season; 15.2 for Pastornicky), may be a tradeoff fans are wiling to live with.

In 975 1/3 innings in center last season, Upton had a .983 fielding percentage with two DRS. Meanwhile, Schafer had a one DRS and a perfect fielding percentage in 74 2/3 innings. They represented the Braves’ only real base-stealing threats last season, as the only two in double digits.

The point in that comparison is that there’s not that much of a difference between the two defensively or on the base paths. With Schafer hitting .247/.331/.677 in 94 games last season while Upton posted career lows of a 268 OBP and .289 slugging percentage to go with that sub-Mendoza Line average, there’s enough of a track record to believe Schafer can fill the role if needed.

Ideally, the Braves would like to see Upton, in the second year of the five-year, $75.25 million deal he inked in Nov. 2012, and Uggla, who is due $26 million over the next two seasons, rediscover their games. But they at least have viable options who could breakout should the struggles of last season replicate themselves.