BRADENTON, Fla. – The Braves deployed another prospect- and backup-laden lineup Tuesday for a road game against the Pirates, their 11th Grapefruit League game and the fifth in a seven-game span requiring a bus ride of more than an hour each way. Two games were 2 ½-3 ½ hours each way.
That was why the Braves had no player with more than 19 at-bats before Tuesday, when 62 major leaguers had at least that many. Of the 109 players in the Grapefruit League and Cactus League with at least 18 at-bats, the Braves had two, center fielder Ender Inciarte and bench candidate Micah Johnson.
Inciarte and Freddie Freeman played a lot in their last couple of games before leaving the Braves over the weekend to join their respective World Baseball Classic teams – Canada for Freeman, Venezuela for Inciarte – in a tournament that could keep them away from the Braves for a week or more, depending on whether their teams advance out of the first round.
Spring training is nearly a week longer than usual this year because of the WBC, and the extra time in camp is why Braves manager Brian Snitker was fine with letting veteran players (and a few others) skip most if not all early road trips.
The road schedule gets more reasonable soon and Snitker said the Braves, who had two wins in 10 games before Tuesday, would soon begin taking more of their projected lineup regulars to road games. After Tuesday, the Braves have only one road trip of more than an hour in the next nine days, and that’s an approximate 75-minute bus ride to Clearwater to face the Phillies.
“Even by the end of the week, some guys have got to go (on trips), that’s just the way it is,” he said during pregame batting practice Tuesday in Bradenton. “It’s not an easy schedule to navigate. Guys with a lot of service time, you try not to have them travel three hours. Today we’ve got half the squad here. I mean, you lose two (position players to WBC), we’re just kind of bare-bones anyway.
“But yeah, you look at the schedule, it’s good because now we start to play the Tigers quite a bit, which is good because it’s an easy trip (the Tigers’ are in Lakeland, a half-hour from Braves camp) and just kind of keep everybody on schedule. And, too, I look at the at-bats and everybody’s right where they should be (at this point of spring) anyway. There’s nobody getting slighted even with all of this. Everybody’s getting plenty.”
Snitker pointed out that in a typical spring the Braves would only be 3-5 games into their Grapefruit League schedule, so having just 10-15 at-bats at this point wasn’t a concern. The Braves don’t leave Florida for another three weeks until after a March 29 game against the Yankees, and they have one final spring-training game against the Yankees March 31 at new SunTrust Park in Cobb County before opening day April 3 against the Mets in New York.
The only projected starters in the lineup Tuesday were second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman Adonia Garcia, after catcher Kurt Suzuki was the only one on Sunday’s long trip to Fort Myers to face the Red Sox.
The Braves were off Monday, one of two off days in the schedule this spring (there is normally just one). With three weeks to go, there is still time for Braves regulars to get a minimum of 45-50 at-bats.
“They’re probably going to get more than that even,” Snitker said. “I’m not worried about that stuff right now. Some guys are going to have to travel every now and then, just because of the way it is with the schedule. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of handling that right now. A year ago we’d be three or four days into spring training (games) right now. We’re just so far ahead of schedule. I’ve got to be cognizant of that, too, with these guys.”
The biggest positive of the early spring schedule has been the opportunity for the Braves to not just see some of their top young prospects, but to see them play in multiple games. Most conspicuous among them: outfield prospect Ronald Acuna, who just turned 19 in December and isn’t even in major league camp, but he was brought over from the minor league side once again Tuesday to make another start, the seventh game he’s played.
Acuna has only played 40 games above rookie-league ball in the minors, and none above low Single-A, yet he’s already had a three-hit Grapefruit League game and was 6-for-11 with two doubles and no strikeouts before Tuesday.
“They’re getting at-bats, they’re playing,” Snitker said. “With Acuna and guys like that, it’s fun to watch all them guys play…. I told (general manager John Coppolella), you know how much fun this thing is going to be (in the future)? We’ve got all them young kids, they’re putting themselves in position where it’s going to be like back when we had Kelly Johnson and (Yunel) Escobar and (Ryan) Langerhans and (Brian) McCann and (Jeff) Francoeur and all those guys.
“There’s some young, talented kids and they’re going to be young big leaguers. They’re just good players. Really good players.”