Three Cuts: Final spring stretch brings clarity to Braves’ roster

With Opening Day just two weeks away, FOX Sports South offers a few detailed and perhaps interconnected takes on the state of the Braves, as they reach the final stages of Grapefruit League play (thank goodness):

1. Freddie Freeman has managed to have a monster spring … without being overworked

I have watched bits and parts of at least seven Braves games on either SportSouth or MLB Network this spring; and in that span, I haven’t seen Freeman log a single at-bat.

Oddity aside, we’ll simply have to rely on the absurd effectiveness of the stats, with Freeman boasting two homers, seven RBI, five runs, a .355 batting average, .487 on-base percentage and 1.165 OPS through March 21 — along with a rock-solid K-BB rate of 6/8.

For what it’s worth … that’s Joey Votto-in-his-heyday territory.

Which brings us to this: During spring games, opposing pitchers aren’t necessarily obligated to pitch around Freeman, knowing the consequences of random at-bats aren’t that severe.

But things will most certainly be different once the regular season begins, especially while the Braves are experimenting with various combinations of lineup protection — immediately after Freeman, who’ll likely secure the 3-hole on a daily basis.

From a broader perspective, it seems Freeman (just 18 homers, 78 RBI, .288 batting in 2014) will rebound from last year’s so-so campaign.

Of equal relevance, manager Fredi Gonzalez hasn’t taxed Freeman too much during exhibition play, knowing the 25-year-old slugger requires only minimal reps to be ready for Opening Day.

Therein lies the beauty of Freeman (career numbers: 86 HR, 358 RBI, .366 OBP) essentially having the same swing since childhood — with very few variances. That bedrock of consistency, along with a penchant for staying healthy throughout the year, leaves mininal doubt during the lazy days of Grapefruit play.

Of course, for me, it’d be nice to see at least one Freeman at-bat before things get cranking on April 6 (against the Marlins).

2. Wandy Rodriguez has reportedly clinched the No. 4 slot in the Braves’ rotation

The above statement hardly qualifies as a surprise, since Rodriguez was one of the more notable free-agent acquisitions during the offseason. Plus, Mike Minor (shoulder ailment), Atlanta’s No. 4 starter heading into spring training, will likely miss the beginning of the regular season.

The penciled-in status also brings some clarity and intrigue to the following question: Will Rodriguez — who has a 2-0 record, 0.69 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 12 strikeouts in four spring appearances — start the Braves’ home opener against the New York Mets on April 10?

The 2015 Braves, who might have a smaller margin of error than years past, needed a veteran pitcher or promising rookie to step up during spring action, complementing the Big Three of Julio Teheran (14-13, 2.89 ERA, 186 strikeouts last year), Alex Wood (11-11, 2.78 ERA, 170 Ks) and Shelby Miller (25 victories with the St. Louis Cardinals for 2013- 14).

All three pitchers are 24 years old and serve as the foundation of the Braves’ rotation for at least another five years.

With Rodriguez (five-year average of 11 wins, a 3.48 ERA and 161 Ks from 2008-12) locking up the fourth slot, the competition for Atlanta’s No. 5 spot seemingly trickles down to veteran Eric Stults (2.57 ERA this spring), Cody Martin (hasn’t allowed a run in three spring outings) and Mike Foltynewicz — a principal gem in the Evan Gattis/Houston Astros trade over the winter.

2a. It’s only a matter of time before Foltynewicz becomes a long-term fixture of the Braves rotation

Forget about the spring numbers (0-2, 5.40 ERA, 3.00 WHIP).

Foltynewicz has the repertoire (a number of ‘plus’ pitches, including a fastball in the high-90s) and the commanding mound presence to be a dominant pitcher in the majors — sooner than later.

He just needs a little seasoning as a starter, a process that will likely include Triple-A for the first month or two.

As such, Foltynewicz doesn’t need to repeat last year’s big-league experience … where the former 1st-round pick from the 2010 MLB Draft (24 slots ahead of future Cy Young candidate Taijuan Walker) slogged through 16 appearances with the Astros last August/September — all in relief.

3. Don’t judge the Braves outfielders by their batting average and slugging tallies — mainly pay attention to on-base percentage

I have no clue if Eric Young Jr. has the athletic range to sustainably handle center field for all of April, while Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J.) rehabs from a foot injury.

Just like I possess no fantasy gut feeling on whether Nick Markakis (offseason neck surgery) will eclipse his three-year average of 12 homers, 54 RBI and 26 doubles.

But it’s fun to obsess about the OBP rates for both eamarked starters — along with Eury Perez (.353 spring OBP), Todd Cunningham (.381) and Jace Peterson (.442), if the club uses him as a super-utility asset, compared to second base-only.

And even if that’s the case, Peterson stands as a shining example of the Braves’ new approach to winning baseball in 2015, in terms imposing their will onto opposing pitchers — instead of simply waiting for the three-homer to absolve an otherwise middling day at the plate.

3a. I’m having trouble buying how the Braves may be more exciting to watch … even if they don’t win

There are four primary reasons for fans regularly buying tickets to games:

1) The fans come to see a headlining act from the visiting team (Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Felix Hernandez, etc.)

2) The fans come to support a winning club that’s hell-bent on competing for the playoffs — at nearly any cost.

3) The fans enter on the proverbial ground floor with a group of potential dynamos — the clear building blocks of an eventual championship contender.

4) You can’t beat the act of spending a warm, cloudless summer night at the ballpark with friends or family (one of baseball’s most effective marketing tools).

In other words, spare me the talk of this team — or any team, for that matter — being "more fun to watch" if they’re in the ballpark of only 75-78 victories by season’s end.

It’s still about winning. It’s still about playing meaningful games in mid-September. It’s still about this club carving its niche in a highly competitive, sports-mad city/state/region; and it’s still about fans rallying around players who won’t be here-today/gone-tomorrow assets.

And if Atlanta bears the look of a club in transition — the result of a substantial overhaul during the winter — here’s hoping the stars of tomorrow (Foltynewicz, Jose Peraza, Christian Bethancourt, Rio Ruiz, Jace Peterson, Tyrell Jenkins and/or Manny Banuelous) are working hand-in-hand with Freeman, Markakis, Teheran, Wood, Miller and closer Craig Kimbrel.

After all, every sacrifice should have an end-game.