A few observations as a week-long trip to spring training winds down:
Coaches are saying the biggest surprise of the spring has been right-handed pitcher John Gant. There's always someone who comes out of the blue in camp to open eyes, and this year Gant gets the trophy. He was acquired last summer when the Braves shipped Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to the New York Mets. Gant did very well when he got to Double-A Mississippi (4-0, 1.99 ERA in seven starts, with 43 strikeouts in 41 innings pitched).
Friday against Detroit's main starting lineup, Gant pitched four hitless innings. Gant has a "vulcan" pitch that acts as a splitter, and no other pitcher in camp has a pitch that effective. Will the Braves be tempted to use him in the starting rotation in Atlanta, put him in the bullpen or give him more time in the minor leagues at Triple-A Gwinnett? It will be an interesting decision.
Braves coaches are also raving about shortstop Erick Aybar, who came over from the Los Angeles Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade. Aybar is "a true pro and just a good baseball player," one coach told me. With such a young roster, the Braves need that leadership.
Second base seems up in the air right now. The Braves have moved last year's starter, Jace Peterson, all around the diamond this spring. OK, sure, with top prospects Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson likely a year away from taking over in the middle infield, it might mean Peterson's future is as a utility-type player. But they still need someone for this season.
Peterson played well last season in his first year as the starter at second, but his numbers slumped in the second half as he battled a bad thumb. The Braves should make him the full-time starter at second now that he's healthy and build up his trade value, but it looks as if Gordon Beckham will see time there, as well.
The Braves might have to eat the contracts of Nick Swisher and Emilio Bonifacio, but this club needs Jeff Francoeur as a reserve off the bench. Francoeur is a great veteran who is well-respected and can help the team as a late-inning bat against left-handed pitchers. Plus, with Hector Olivera a worry in left field with the glove, Francoeur could come in to spell Olivera late in games.
Expect the Braves to search for a left-handed reliever in this final week of spring training. Ian Krol, acquired from Detroit for Cameron Maybin, has been awful. The bullpen looks better, but a southpaw reliever is desperately needed.
On the minor league side, the pitching depth is just ridiculous. It's the reason the Braves' farm system has been rated either first or second-best in baseball by nearly every publication this spring. At the four full-season minor league affiliates, just about every starting pitcher will be a legit prospect. That's unusual for any team to have that much pitching depth.
The feeling now is the Braves might let Swanson start the season in High-A Carolina and allow Albies to skip Carolina and go to Double-A. Both can play second base and shortstop, although both prefer short. But both players will be heavily evaluated at both positions by scouts this season.
Remember the name Austin Riley. He was Atlanta's pick in the supplemental first round last June out of a high school in Mississippi. Riley turns 19 next Saturday and will likely go to Low-A Rome. He's a big (6-3, 230-pound) third baseman with tremendous power potential. Riley might complement Swanson and Albies in the future infield at SunTrust Park in a few years.
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