Braves start the dress rehearsal in Florida

sports@macon.comFebruary 12, 2013 

It’s normal for most baseball teams to have several questions going into spring training. There are things to figure out, like lineup construction, the rotation, the bullpen and the final few spots on most rosters.

Back in the 1990s when the Atlanta Braves were in the middle of their tremendous run of success, spring training was used to simply get everyone ready for the season. They would usually fill that final bullpen spot and final man on the 25-man roster. There just weren’t many open jobs on those great teams.

It has been different the past few years. The health of Chipper Jones, due to his age, has been an issue. Left field has been a revolving door forever. And the once stable rotation has been in flux in most seasons.

But this year is much different for the Braves. Chipper Jones is now gone, and while we’re not sure who is going to be the full-time replacement at third base, Atlanta seems to have two decent candidates in Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson.

Yes, third base is a question, but the uncertainty that was in place last month has been somewhat alleviated with the addition of Johnson to either platoon with Francisco or win the job outright.

While the Braves have had Martin Prado in left field the past two years, we all knew he was going to play a lot at third base to help out Jones. That made the revolving door in left field slow down a bit, but it was still moving. Consider that shut now with Justin Upton in place.

The trade bringing Upton to Atlanta from Arizona to join his brother B.J., who was signed as a free agent, has everyone buzzing. It has been a while since we’ve had people this excited about the Braves going into a season.

Changing a roster will do that, and we all knew with Jones’ retirement, the roster was in for a big shakeup. But to add two talented players like the Upton brothers has most fans pumped about how good this lineup might be this season.

The lineup will be something to watch this spring. While it will be tough to know how manager Fredi Gonzalez will construct his batting order with catcher Brian McCann not ready to go at full speed early on, Gonzalez will be able to play around with it enough to give us an idea of what he’s going to want to do.

It seems like shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will be in his first full season this year, will get the chance to be the leadoff hitter. Who else do they really have who has the speed to set the table for the power hitters in the middle? Simmons’ ability to be successful at that spot will be something we’ll have to watch.

Gonzalez has the chance to have a good righty-lefty split between a good portion of the lineup. He could follow Simmons with Jason Heyward and then have Justin Upton hitting third, which is where he mainly hit in Arizona. Then the cleanup hitter could be either lefty hitting Freddie Freeman or McCann, when he returns from his shoulder injury.

B.J. Upton might hit fifth, followed by McCann or Freeman, and then you’ll have Dan Uggla probably hitting seventh, with the third baseman hitting eighth.

While the Braves are saying Julio Teheran will battle Sean Gilmartin for the fifth starter’s spot, Teheran would have to have a disastrous March to lose the job. The front office is anxious to see what Teheran can do if he’s the starter. The rest of the rotation, with Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm, is ready to go.

The bullpen is pretty much set. Craig Kimbrel will have Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters back as his two main setup men. Newly acquired Jordan Walden will take Chad Durbin’s place, followed by Cristhian Martinez, lefty Luis Avilan and former Mercer pitcher Cory Gearrin.

McCann’s health will be a concern, but the Braves are confident he’ll be ready to go in mid-April at the latest.

So instead of a spring training full of questions, get ready for simply a dress rehearsal. It’s going to be a sneak peak of a season with several new big names that will make this a new era of Braves baseball.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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