Saturday, February 7, 2015

Spring Training Preview: C/IF

(Been a little preoccupied so my blogs have suffered. Hopefully, I'll get back on schedule starting today.)

Previous previews: Starting Rotation / Bullpen

For the rebuilding Atlanta Braves, this offseason has been one of great change and even greater discontent from the fan base. I don't know about you, but I'm sick to death of hearing the old adage, "well, they weren't winning with those guys." But I get it...there were issues and rather than hope against hope that things would work themselves out, the Braves choose to be proactive and try to turn their best trade pieces into talent. It's not impossible to get behind this.

So, with that in mind, we'll continue the spring training preview series with a group that saw its starting catcher and presumptive starting second baseman get moved to new organizations. I'm grouping catcher into the infield preview for, what I think, are pretty obvious reasons.

With that in mind, let's say goodbye to... Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, Tommy La Stella, Ramiro Pena, and Emilio Bonifacio. While his power was thrilling and his story was legendary, Gattis had his flaws. He hated to take pitches and defensively, he was a mess catching. Worse, he was an even bigger mess at first base. Or in left field. His backup and Fredi Gonzalez doppelganger Laird also has moved on, finding word with Arizona. La Stella was involved in a surprise move back in November, but for how excited we were about him coming to the majors, most of that was due to him not being Dan Uggla and not because La Stella was a big prospect. We had similar hopes for Kyle Davies under the same precedent (well, he has to be better than Lance Cormier, right?). Pena and Bonifacio had their pluses as bench guys, but the latter got way too much money and the former struggled in his follow-up season to a surprising 2013.

Let's start at catcher and work our way around the horn. Christian Bethancourt is probably the starter at catcher for 2015. All moves have indicated as such after all and the rhetoric from the mouth pieces (DOB and Bowman) match that assumption. But what does that mean? Well, for an already bad offense, having C-Beth in the lineup 120 times is not exactly a plus. On the negative side, C-Beth has zero discipline and has never walked twenty times in a season. Even Andrelton Simmons thinks that is too aggressive. Bethancourt does have some pop. He's reached double digits in homers in two-of-the-last-four-years and was well on his way to a third before getting called up to the majors last year. Even so, that is one of his bright spots offensively. His prospect status has always been tied into his athletic abilities behind the plate and cannon of an arm. Will that be enough to turn Bethancourt into more than Henry Blanco? I have read some that believe his hit tool will eventually come around, but there is enough reason to be concerned.

And you can be all the more concerned because it's not like there's much behind him. A.J. Pierzynski had a good 2012, ballooned by an uncharacteristic 27 homers, but outside of that, his decline has been the kind you expect from an aging catcher. Not really known for his joyful demeanor, Pierzynski is an odd choice in my opinion to back up Bethancourt, but he should be good for at least one bench-clearing incident. Also around will be minor league free agents Jesus Flores and John Buck, though neither look like much of a threat. The most interesting option might be Yenier Bello, a Cuban who will turn 30 in a few days and whose visa issues limited him to just 15 games in the minors last season. He's probably battling to join Gwinnett coming out of spring training, but if he impresses, he could battle for a job in the majors.

The starting infield looks like Freddie Freeman at first, Alberto Callaspo at second, Simmons manning shortstop, and Chris Johnson returning at the hot corner. However, the stranglehold over playing time is certainly challenged at second and third base. Freeman returns for the second year of his mega deal he inked last season. He experienced a good follow-up campaign to his 2013 season that placed him in the Top 5 for the MVP, but it was still a step back. It's hard to ride the guy during a year where just about every other hitter didn't perform, but the problem with signing a $135M contract extension as people start thinking you should put up better numbers than .288/.386/.461 while losing 50 points on your OPS.

Skipping to shortstop, Simmons also has a long extension, but his drop offensively is a bit more hidden because he was signed for his defense. Still, a .273 wOBA is woeful. Only four players were worse last year and no, B.J. Upton wasn't one of those. The Braves don't need Simmons to do a lot offensively as he's a 2-to-3 WAR guy regardless, but they certainly don't want to play .244/.286/.331 nightly. In fact, the Braves probably will rely on Simmons more due to the trades this offseason. If Simmons could post a .270/.320/.400 season, he'd be a 5-6 WAR guy. If he doesn't...well, at least we can make one of these after every year.

Second base would appear to be Callaspo's...maybe. Jose Peraza is expected to take over in the near future, which might be this year. I wrote about some reasonable expectations for Peraza, but suffice it to say, our expectations should be very low for when he does get to the majors because even for the best prospects, it can take a little while to uncover the player they ultimately become. The stopgap, Callaspo, probably won't impress anyone. His offense is miserable and his defense has gotten worse. But, he doesn't strike out so that's something.

Callaspo's main competition also could be the main competition for Johnson at third. Jace Peterson was picked up in the Justin Upton trade and the rookie has experience at second, short, and third. He's a solid athlete which is what we tend to say about limited offensive players. He hasn't hit for much power and his stolen bases have been falling. Some seem to think he maxes out as a utility player and I tend to agree. His left-hand bat could make him platoon-worthy.

Phil Gosselin had his moments last year. He decimated International League pitching for a slash of .344/.379/.487, those his major league numbers were not nearly as notable. He often replaced La Stella late in games, though the Braves probably should have replaced Johnson for defense. Elmer Reyes has quietly posted a pair of solid minor league seasons and could be a bit of a late bloomer. Playing in the shadow of Peraza, Reyes posted a .728 OPS with Lynchburg in 2013 and a .751 OPS last year, showing little preference for Southern League or International League pitching. Still, his ceiling is very low.

The Braves also have a few guys on minor league deals who could make some noise. Corban Joseph looked like he would be in the mix early on this offseason, but he was not given an invite to spring training. That might have been due to the pickup of Kelly Johnson, a better player with a lot of experience in the big leagues. KJ also has outfield flexibility and could be in the mix there as well.

Overall, once you get beyond the starters at 1B and SS, there is only question marks. Bethancourt seems like the guy behind the plate and Johnson is probably going to be at third. Or maybe not. Typically, spring training isn't this wide open.

But typically, the Braves aren't rebuilding either.

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