Atlanta, GA —
Spring training is quickly approaching, we have the pitchers and catchers coming in and the Atlanta Braves are as excited as ever to see how everyone’s offseason went. We always hear about players that are coming into camp in the..(clears throat).. the best shape of their lives and how some individuals have tried some new type of routine to help give themselves a new edge. No matter how you come into camp, the time is here and only performance will tell how successful some have been!
Since the pitchers and catchers are first to report, we can start on them. Actually, this is the main focus this spring training. To see who will win this starting role in the catcher position, between Justin O’Conner and Andrew Susac. O’Conner and Susac are going to be fighting on this trip to Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. Both players saw playing time last year in Atlanta and neither has proven they deserve the job. Susac started the 2017 season behind the dish for 96 of the 162 games. In this span, we did not see an injury that cut down his games that he started but his performance was the true reason. The 27-year-old hit a measly .193/.288/.308 on the season and saw his RTO% drop by over 8 points from 31.9% to 23.3%. This was not good and the front office decided it was Justin O’Conner’s time to have a chance. O’Conner started the year in AAA Gwinnett slashing a line of .298/.388/.480 for the 60 games he had there. That is when the Braves made the move and brought him up. He then finished the year in Atlanta and saw an improvement at the major league level compared to his 2016 campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays. He hit .248/.293/.440 to complete the year and threw out 66.7% of the runners who tried to steal on him; no that is not a typo. Overall, we have not seen a history of his AAA numbers translating to the major league level but last season was a 37 point improvement in his average from ‘16 with the same sample size. These two will be going head-to-head this spring training to see who deserves to get the spot behind the plate.
Our next spring training matchup will be in the back end of the rotation. The Braves general manager went out and traded for Andres Santiago even though they know they have the option for the position in their own farm system. Their first other option is one who started 14 games in Atlanta last season, Travis Ballew; a 26-year-old right-hander. Scouts agree that Ballew has 4 average/above-average pitches he can use and sits 93-95. Last season he went 2-3 with a 4.11 ERA but kept a WHIP of 1.17; well below what general manager Zach Jadofsky likes. Then another option they had was to bring Daniel Gossett up from AAA to contend with that position. Gossett split the year between AA and AAA and completed the season ERA+ of 100 and a WHIP of 1.12 after dominating AA Mississippi. There are even other options with Chris Davis, Jason Hursh, and if you really want to reach deep in the well, they could bring up Wes Parsons , who is thought to be a Braves pitching prospect. But no matter what, the Braves went out and got Santiago; what does he have that our homegrown talent doesn’t? Well, first of all, he has logged almost 200 ip in the major leagues with the Dodgers and not only that, he is thought to be #4-5 caliber pitcher instead of a guy on the outside looking to break in. He has experience and that is why he is here. Santiago has 4 plus pitches, able to adjust his speeds and command the zone. But the front office has still stated that they look to see a battle for this final spot even though we believe Santiago will be the make that will break camp if all goes accordingly.
The next question mark we see is the final spot for the bullpen. We are seeing at least 7 players that have a chance to fill that 7th spot. Those players could be Nick Rumbelow, John Cornley, Brian Moran, Brandon Cunniff, Ryan Merritt, Garrett Gould, Brad Lincoln, and finally Cody Martin. Almost all but Merritt and Gould have seen actual major league time. This will be a cut throat process and we literally have no idea who is going to make their bed at Suntrust Park come April. Only time will tell and we currently have plenty of that.
The lineup is practically set but the bench is not. We have all new faces that are contending for bench position this season and have plenty of option to choose from. Again, very similar to the bullpen battle, we will be seeing 6 players going out for those 4 available spots. The players looking for the infield spots are Carlos Lopez, Ronny Rodriguez, and Hirohisa Ichihara. There is a chance that all three of these guys will break camp but that can also be a slim chance. The front office is still debating on if they should have 2 infield backups or three. If they had two, it would leave room for two backup outfielders instead of one. This offseason the front office really went out to try and get versatile bench options that could play all around the diamond. Lopez has experience at five positions, Rodriguez at four, and Ichihara at five. Each guy can play practically where ever our manager wants them to while all having experience at the major league level.
Then we have the outfield situation as well. We have Nori Aoki, Zach Cone, and Matt Szczur. Each guy can bring something to the team and all of them have the same options as the infield situation brought to the table; all can play all around the outfield. Szczur is practically the only bench guy that knows he has a job going into the season, injuries aside. Aoki and Cone will be fighting for a chance to stick along for the ride. Aoki has a 1-year contract and Cone was a 40-man waiver wire claim this year from the Rangers. We hope to see good stuff from Cone and the word around is that the front office is actually looking to trade Aoki away before the season starts. The front office has really fulfilled their goal this offseason and that was to give plenty of options for the bench with players going into the season.
Now, the last major issues we are hearing about in the front office is that newly signed manager, Buck Showalter, is butting heads with the front office. There are reports that he has not lived up to what he said he was willing to do after a few of the acquisition that the front office has made this offseason. An example of this is, now that Oswaldo Arcia is healthy Showalter is not fond of putting him in the starting lineup and this is one vision that the front office has; that Arcia was part of the plans. Also, there are issues as to how the lineup is going to be made up. The general manager wants to move more to sabermetric type schemes and Showalter is just an old-school coach who “has no time for that stuff’. Going into the offseason, both the front office and Showalter had a plan in place but things have not been held up on the manager’s side to the point where a possible firing is in place, a source stated. That source also said that the front office has interviewed a few managers for the positions and we might see a termination and a new manager introduced before spring training. There currently is no names being named.
But the best part of spring training is to see some of these young guys get the chance to play against major league talent. One prospect, in particular, we are excited to see this spring is Curt Wilkerson. The former first-round pick in 2015 finished up the season in AA last year and posted a 3.95 ERA over 15 starts. He is expected to start the year back at AA but will be exciting to see him face a few major leaguers this next month. Another player we are excited to see is Alex Verdugo. Verdugo came to the Braves this season in the Johnny Cueto trade back at the trade deadline on ’17. Verdugo is a 21-year-old outfielder that stroked the ball this past season hitting no lower than a .300 average over High A and AA between the Dodgers and Braves farm system. He isn’t quite an upper echelon prospect, but he is a solid offensive bat that the could make an impact in Atlanta in the coming years; possibly after Kemp’s time ends at Suntrust.
Overall, it seems they are very satisfied with this seasons group of guys that have invited to spring training. There is much anticipation to see who performs the expectations of the front office and who falls by the wayside. The Braves have not been in a playoff game since 2013 and the front office has every intention of making it this season!