1 - Batting Practice Hat
Count me among those who are excited for the Braves' new batting practice hat. This isn't some political stance or anything, I just really like "old school" logos. I think it bridges the gap between fans and brings them more together when you blend old with new. I will be among the first to purchase the new hats (unless backlash from others causes MLB to pull it) and will proudly wear it knowing that it represents both the present and past Braves who've donned the uniform. That's how I look at the logo and I can't wait to see the real deal.
2 - Position Battles
Not a whole lot of drama to look for on the field this spring considering the Braves added the Upton bros. to solidify the outfield. However there are still two position battles that I will be keeping my eye on this spring, the first being the battle between acquisition Chris Johnson and former top prospect Juan Francisco at 3B. Obviously this battle has already been previewed both here and other sites, but in case you've been hibernating all winter it's worth noting a few items. One, than Roadrunner has lost weight and tore the cover off the ball in the Dominican Winter League, next that in a small sample size Johnson has a reverse platoon split, yet his minor league stats reflect a traditional split, and finally when it comes to Fredi making decisions, anything is possible. Ultimately it will be interesting to see if one outperforms the other leading into the regular season.
The other position battle I am most interested in is the last spot in the rotation. Sure, due to lack of contenders and injuries - as well as a good winter - the job is Julio Teheran's to lose. That being said I'm interested to see how perhaps prospects JR Graham and Sean Gilmartin perform to put some pressure on the Columbian fireballer. A job earned is better than a job given. There is also potential for some outside competetion from Mexican League acquisition Daniel Rodriguez. Hopefully Teheran continues performing well enough to pitch every five days until Beachy returns from injury.
3 - AAAA Players
The Braves enter spring training with three interesting players on the roster: outfielders Jordan Schafer, Jose Constanza, and 1B/Baseball Smasher Ernesto Mejia. Each player has their own unique set of skills and performs at a high level in the minors, yet doesn't have a place on the roster or can't translate their game at the next level. These three AAAA players are worth keeping an eye on for the last bench spot. A quick look at years' past shows a young Jordan Schafer having a monster spring prior to being the Opening Day CF for the Braves, only to get injured in the first month of the season and not yet return to form. Many of you will also remember Opening Day 2012 when during a key pinch hit at-bat Fredi sent Jose Constanza to the plate, who after a foul ball infamously licked his bat, and the Braves went on to lose. There always seems to be interest in trying to see if these guys can find that spark again and perform on a regular basis. In the case of Schafer can he hit and prove to be above average in the field, with Constanza his only tool is speed, and for Mejia will crushing the ball despite having no fielding position be enough to garner a spot on the major league roster?
4 - Players on the roster
Listed are four players with different circumstances who's spring performances could be indicative of the final roster construction, but also the Braves on-field performance.
Evan Gattis - The big thing I'm looking for when watching Gattis this spring is how much time he spends catching? If Gattis proves to be serviceable behind the plate he could be on the fast track to a roster spot on Opening Day. The power seems legit but if Gattis spends the majority of spring in left field his odds decrease of making the Opening Day roster
Brian McCann - Opening the door for a guy like Gattis is McCann, and how he is progressing in his rehab. Reports earlier this week suggested that doctors won't clear Mac for full baseball activities until at least April 15th. Given how his stats have tapered off really since the oblique injury in 2011, I'm more than happy with giving McCann extra time to fully heal and hopefully return to All-Star form and be the face of the Braves for the future. Barring any setbacks I anticipate seeing how McCann is swinging the bat by the end of spring training.
Tyler Pastornicky - Can Pastornicky become the new Martin Prado as Wren and Fredi suggest? Rev is man without a permanent postion, but who could potentially fill in at multiple postions. The bat seems to be able to perform at a replacement level, and we know about the ability to be in the vicinity of shortstop and play second base. So the question remains can Pastornicky pick-up the outfield or third base and how many positions will he play this spring? Pastornicky could easily earn the final bench spot if he hits decently and plays compentently at multiple positions including the outfield.
Jordan Walden - How does the flamethrowing righty fit into one of the best bullpens in the league? Walden's usuage this spring probably won't have a ton of bearing on how Fredi plans to use him during the season. This is just due to the nature of spring training, where guys get in their work and aren't necessarily pigeon-holed into specific game situations yet. That all being said, it will be interesting to see how Walden performs this spring given that he's not competing for a closing job. You hope to see the blazing heat and also keep an eye on how many walks the former Angel gives up. If Walden maintains his strikeouts and limit the walks, he is just another reason why you can't get to the Braves in the late innings.
5 - Statistics to watch
At the end of the day Spring Training doesn't count for anything. The records don't count, the stats don't matter, and the players are a plenty. However, the competitive nature in me always wants the Braves to have the best record and the best stats. And because it's baseball we still count everything. So for fun here's some stats to keep an eye on this spring (whether they are an accurate indicater or not, who knows). 1) Andrelton Simmons OBP - Simba posted on .335 OBP last season, and with the move to leadoff it will be especially intriguing to see how the young shortstop gets on-base this spring. Remember he won a batting title in the minors and had a .372 OBP doing it. 2) Dan Uggla SLG - Uggla could use a big spring in a big way. While Uggla had a career year for base-on-balls, his power stroke seemed to be utterly lost, posting his first season without 30 HR and a .384 SLG. Popeye needs to find the power this spring and try to climb back to being a force in the batting order. 3) Team strikeouts - This stat seems to pretty much speak for itself, as everyone knows the Braves are going to strikeout more this year the trade off hopefully being tons of power and runs. So it will be interesting to see just how many strikeouts the team racks up during spring ball. 4) Craig Kimbrel's WBC IP - I'm all about patriotism but the fact that Major League Baseball doesn't seem to care all that much about the WBC makes me leery of one of the Braves' key cogs participating (Kris Medlen dropped out due to the impending birth of his first child). So while I will root for the ol' red, white , and blue, I will mostly be watching to hope that Kimbrel doesn't get overused in this global exhibition. 5) Juan Francisco PH AVG - In what is probably the hardest stat to put any stock in this spring, I am most interested in Roadrunner's batting average when he enters later in the game. The obvious glaring need the Braves still have is a LH bench bat. And if Francisco earns the everyday job at 3B, this becomes more important in my opinion. Francisco historically performs better as an everyday player and for his career is a .181 AVG as a pinch hitter. So despite the nonsense that is spring training stats, this is certainly an area to keep an eye on.
Bottom Line Folks, the season is almost here!