I made my annual trek to baseball spring training a couple of weeks ago and the weather was wonderful in Lake Buena Vista. I got to see three Braves games, against the Nationals, Marlins and Phillies, and also traveled over to Tampa to see the Yankees play the Rays at Steinbrenner Field. To say the least. it was a very good trip!
Thanks to The Thomaston Times, I had my field pass and really enjoyed the experience of standing close by the batting cage as the Braves took batting practice. I had my grandson Ty Rechtorovic down on the field with me as he was a part of the On-Field Experience which allows fans to get on the field during BP. Of course these fans are restricted by a rope which limits their ability to get too close to the players. Ty did get some great autographs on his “autograph bat” however as Chris Johnson, Ryan Klesko, Freddi Gonzalez, Terry Pendleton, and Ramiro Pena came over to visit.
I have watched players’ autograph habits very closely over the years and still find their unwillingness to accommodate the fans to be puzzling. Spring training is advertised as the time that the players are more willing to interact with fans and they are more available. I still see players fail to take just a few minutes to sign autographs and pose for pictures when it is pretty obvious that they have nothing else to do. I know that these guys have some duties and responsibilities but sometimes they just refuse to sign. Sad!
As far as the Braves, spring predictions are rarely accurate. The makeup of the team may change drastically as the season progresses, so what I saw in Lake Buena Vista may be a skeleton of the final product in September. But I will comment on what I saw.
I am a bit concerned about the Braves’ catching situation. Losing Brian McCann was quite a blow, although I agree that the Braves were correct in not matching his offer from the Yankees. Evan Gattis has been handed the catching spot and he is far from a polished product. He will hit some, but his defense is suspect and that will hurt in the long run. Backup Gerald Laird is just that, a backup!
The infield looks solid, although second base is a question in everyone’s mind. I really like Dan Uggla. I know that I am in a very small group but I think he can rebound this year, not as a .300 hitter but as a .250-.260 hitter with power. Many disagree, but it is obvious to all that he is a key to the Braves’ hopes for post-season action.
The rest of the infield is made up of Freddy Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and Chris Johnson. Freeman and Simmons are All-Stars and Johnson is solid. I would like to see 15-20 homers from Johnson, but a rerun of last season would be acceptable. Freeman is as good as any first baseman in the NL and deserves more national attention. Ramiro Pena is a solid backup but I am not a big fan of Tyler Pastornicky.
The outfield is a key to the Braves’ success and I feel that all three starters under-achieved last year.Jason Heyward should be producing more homers and runs batted in. He is streaky and seems to be injury-prone. I’m still waiting for him to perform to his ability level.
Justin Upton needs to produce more runs. He certainly strikes out too often and leaves too many men on base. He has ability, but seems to be just short of reaching his best. Of course we all know that B.J. Upton was a big flop and I really feel that he will be the same again in 2014. I am not a fan of his and feel that his whole approach at the plate is flawed. Frank Wren certainly got fleeced on B.J.’s deal!
As for pitching, the Braves are hurting. What seemed to be a real strength has turned into a big question mark. Injuries have decimated the mound staff and there is not much that can be done. Losing Kris Medlen was a blow of enormous proportions. Losing Brandon Beachy was tough also, but Medlen was the staff ace and he can’t be replaced.
Adding Ervin Santana was a very good move but I’m not sure that Aaron Harang will be much help. Julio Teheran is an excellent young pitcher who should get better every year but the names of Alex Wood, David Hale, and Gus Schlosser won’t scare too many NL East foes. The bullpen, led by Craig Kimbrell, had better be good again!
My take on the Braves right now is a solid 2nd place team behind the Nationals. I certainly don’t think that they can match their 96-win season of 2013, but they will be competitive. I’ll re-evaluate at mid-season. Enjoy the first half!