Braves almost ready to break camp

sports@macon.comMarch 23, 2013 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Well, spring training has come and gone, at least for me. It’s time to pack up and head north to Middle Georgia. Before I leave, here are some observations from a week watching the Atlanta Braves prepare for the 2013 season.

• Evan Gattis is for real. If you don’t know his name, learn it. We’ve written about him a few times here, and his story as a vagabond who traveled the west for a few years is known by now. He has continued his power surge in spring training, with five home runs in 49 at-bats. He had 44 home runs in 832 minor league at-bats, and if some have their way, Gattis might never see the minor leagues again.

Gattis definitely will be on the Atlanta roster to start the season, as Brian McCann recovers from his shoulder surgery. Some with the Braves believe Gattis will get even more playing time than veteran Gerald Laird, who was brought in to replace David Ross. But then what? When McCann returns, do the Braves send Gattis down to Triple-A to get more at-bats and to also see if Gattis is the potential replacement for McCann if the veteran leaves via free agency this winter? Or do the Braves keep Gattis on the big league roster and let him help Atlanta win?

It’s not an easy decision, but Gattis is making it more difficult by answering the questions many had about his defense. The Braves had moved him to left field last year to see if he’d be able to help out there, but the acquisition of Justin Upton kills that chance. Gattis has played so well this spring behind the plate that one Braves official said, “He’s just as good as McCann, maybe even better (at catcher).”

• A year ago, everyone knew Andrelton Simmons had great potential. He had just finished High Single-A and won a batting title. No one questioned his defense, but there were concerns about his bat. Now, a year later, the feeling around camp was Simmons is even more of a complete player than many first projected.

“He’s special,” said one of the many former major league managers hanging around camp. “He’s Shawon Dunston all over again for me.”

Dunston was an 18-year big league veteran who had a tremendous arm as a shortstop.

Many people will want to go early to Turner Field this year to watch batting practice, as the Braves are certain to fill the left field seats for the fans. It might be even more entertaining to go early so you can watch Simmons take grounders in the infield. He’ll be a Gold Glove winner, sooner rather than later.

• It’s amazing that the spring training after Chipper Jones retired third base is not an issue. Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson have combined for eight home runs and 23 RBI in 120 at-bats this spring.

So who will start? Both of them will. It might be a platoon. It might strictly be on who is hot at the time. But the Braves have time to let it play out and aren’t locked into a final decision -- at least not right now.

• As much as the offense has gotten the attention this spring, with the additions of B.J. Upton and his brother Justin, it’s the defense that has opened some eyes. Both of the Uptons are tremendous defensive players, and they join perhaps the best defensive right fielder in baseball in Jason Heyward.

Simmons and first baseman Freddie Freeman are arguably among the top defensive players at their positions. Dan Uggla, while struggling with the bat the past two years, has done well playing second and better than many of us expected when he came over from Florida.

The only questions are behind the plate and at third base, but even Francisco did well at the hot corner this spring and seems less of a concern than many first believed.

• After his six hitless-inning performance against Houston on Saturday, Julio Teheran’s spring numbers are near ridiculous. He has allowed only three earned runs in 26 innings (that’s a 1.04 ERA), with nine walks and 35 strikeouts. He’ll start the season as the fifth starter, but if Teheran keeps this up that spot might be short-lived.

• Expect young pitchers Sean Gilmartin, David Hale, J.R. Graham and even possibly Alex Wood to contribute in Atlanta this season if needed. Gilmartin and Hale will start in Triple-A Gwinnett, while Graham and Wood are expected to begin the year in Double-A Mississippi.

Graham did not allow an earned run in five spring appearances in big league camp, while Wood, last year’s second round pick out of Georgia, gave up only one run in five spring games. Both drew praise from coaches and are not far away from the big leagues.

• The Braves have scored double-digit runs in four games this spring, including twice this past week (when they scored 35 runs in two straight games). That makes everyone ready to get out of Florida and start the regular season as soon as possible.

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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