Atlanta Braves: Grapefruit League impressions are positive

Atlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheran throws a pitch to home.
Julio Teheran has impressed enough to earn a spot in the Atlanta Braves rotation. (Brad Barr/USA TODAY Sports)

We’re into full spring swing, and the speculation surrounding the Atlanta Braves is in sixth gear. With spring training into its final two weeks, the expectation of opening day is becoming increasingly hard to handle.

As some of you may recall from last year, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in spring training results. There are so many factors at play that make February and March less “real” than the regular season, and I just don’t think it’s a good indicator of how the season will play out.

What things, you ask? For one, many players are trying out new stances in the batter’s box. Pitchers are working on delivery mechanics or pitch perfection. Some players are adjusting to new teams and teammates. And young players up from the minor leagues are swinging away in order to impress; they’re less concerned about working counts or hitting situationally, since they have nothing to lose. Not to mention, most players aren’t playing full games. Pitchers are just getting into the fifth and sixth innings this past week.

Now, before you start arguing the point, understand that I don’t think it’s completely useless or that there isn’t something fans can take away from spring play. In a lot of ways, it’s a preview of what to expect. But, come on. Are the Kansas City Royals going to run the table in the American League? In terms of record, they’re way ahead of the pack, followed by the Seattle Mariners. Now, maybe that will be the case. But I have my doubts.

So, what can I say about the Atlanta Braves at this point? I think there’s a lot that can be taken away from spring training so far, and I’m going to cover the highs and the lows, what I think is working and what isn’t.

Pitchers are delivering

The Atlanta Braves starters are making some serious headway this spring, which is good news, considering the expectation is so high. Medlen, who is making his fifth start against the Phillies today, has thrown 13.2 innings so far, with 10 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.63. Mike Minor is looking like 2012’s second half guy, rather than the first half. That is great news for the Atlanta Braves, as Minor was arguably one of the best NL pitchers after the break last year. If he can keep up that level of dominance, he’s going to be a key part of the rotation.

After a rocky game in his second start, Paul Maholm has become a workhorse, throwing 14.2 scoreless innings. This is also amazing news, since he will likely be the number-four starter, and I definitely had my doubts about him last season. My biggest concern is Tim Hudson, who hasn’t exactly been the same pitcher I’m so used to seeing. Now, he has history on his side, and his biggest asset is consistency. But his age is always an issue, and one can’t help but wonder if this is the season it starts to get to him.

The battle for the fifth starter position is all but won by Julio Teheran, who has absolutely dazzled this spring. He’s given up three runs in 20 innings and has struck out an incredible 25 batters. Not to say that Sean Gilmartin hasn’t thrown well, but considering Teheran has been battling for a spot on the roster for the last three years, it seems like this will be the year he joins the team and has a spot in the rotation. I think it’s safe to say his mechanical adjustments, as well as using his breaking ball instead of trying to blow up the radar gun, have made Teheran the pitcher he’s been expected to be.

In the background, Brandon Beachy is moving forward with his rehab, and the Braves are hopeful he can rejoin the team in June, which means anyone in the rotation who is struggling may be relieved by the young stud who was holding down an even 2.00 ERA in 13 starts before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament.

Lineup looks solid

With the addition of both Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, and Jason Heyward coming into his third full season, the Braves offense stands to be a potent one. Obviously, the big concern is strikeout totals, which is certainly valid, but the power in this lineup is going to be a serious threat. Not to mention the added speed, which became a much bigger part of the Atlanta Braves’ game plan last year with Michael Bourn. This year, besides the Uptons, they have bench options in Jordan Schafer, Jose Constanza and Tyler Pastornicky. Now, Schafer has taken advantage of Constanza’s visa issues and made a serious bid for an extra outfielder spot, although many Braves fans may not be willing to give him yet another shot.

First baseman Freddie Freeman is flexing the power and the good eye he was showing last year before vision problems seemed to get the best of him, batting .327 with four home runs and slugging .596. This is definitely a good sign, as Freeman has a chance to be a big threat in the lineup. Justin Upton is struggling a bit, with .244 average and only two home runs, and a cringe-worthy 14 strikeouts in 45 at-bats. But brother B.J. is batting .408 with only nine strikeouts in 49 at-bats. Hopefully, their good-natured, sibling rivalry will be an asset this year and push both brothers to play to their full potential. Heyward is batting a paltry .209 with four extra-base hits, but I expect his regular season numbers to be much higher.

Frankly, the big surprises this spring have been Pastornicky, Evan Gattis and Joey Terdoslavich, all battling for a spot on the roster and crushing the ball. Pastornicky is batting .364 with nine RBIs and two home runs. Gattis is hitting .378, slugging .676 with 10 RBI. Terdoslavich is leading the way with a .417 average and eight RBIs. Which one makes the final roster is yet to be seen, but one can be sure the Atlanta Braves brass wants to find a way to get them in.

I haven’t even covered the third base position, with Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson going shot-for-shot for the chance to man the hot corner. Francisco, who lost weight in the offseason in order to better his chances, is hitting .326 with eight RBIs and slugging .630. Johnson is returning the favor by batting .333, also with eight RBIs and slugging .542. What will likely happen is they will platoon the position, depending on right- or left-handed pitchers, which isn’t a bad option.

Phew. That’s a lot. I haven’t even gotten to my serious concerns about Dan Uggla, Jonny Venters or Eric O’Flaherty. The latter two will probably sort their issues out before April 1, but Uggla is on every Atlanta Braves fan’s last nerves with his struggles at the plate.

All in all, I think the Atlanta Braves are headed into the regular season looking pretty solid. There are some holes, some gaps that need to be filled, but so far, nothing so glaring that they won’t be able to find solutions. As for predictions, I think it’s a good bet the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals will be battling for dominance in the NL East, though I’m not counting the Philadelphia Phillies out by any stretch. However, I don’t know what kind of Kool-Aid the Shake Shack is slingin’, but fellow TTFB writer Paul West is out of his mind thinking the Mets are going to take second in the division!

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