LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Ten games into the spring-training schedule, the Braves had the worst record (2-8) in the majors. Their pitchers had the worst ERA (6.88) and worst opponents’ batting average (.320), and their hitters were 25th in the majors in runs scored (ahead of only the Astros among teams training in Florida) and 24th in OPS (.678).
So what should we make of that?
Then what have we learned?
Not much about the current team, but plenty about the future, which looks perhaps even brighter than we though, since a few Braves position-player prospects have impressed when thrust into Grapefruit League games way sooner than they would’ve been in the past.
Because spring training is nearly a week longer than usual this year in order to accommodate the World Baseball Classic that began Monday, the Braves decided before spring training to let their projected lineup regulars and established backups ease into things. They gave veterans the choice of skipping early spring road trips including long bus rides to Jupiter and Fort Myers, knowing full well that there would still be nearly four weeks of Grapefruit League games to go after Sunday’s 3 ½-hour bus ride (each way) to face the Red Sox and Monday’s off day, the first of two off days on the spring schedule (normally there is only one Braves off day in the Grapefruit League schedule).
So, while some Braves fans might have a bit of consternation over the early spring results, the team and its front office have no such concerns. The plan going in was to take advantage of an opportunity to give a bunch of top prospects, even some of the youngest and least experienced ones, a rare opportunity to play in major league games, to both see how they handled themselves and give them an experience that should pay off in the long run.
The team's starting pitchers, lineup regulars and key relievers are healthy, and that's what matters most at this point.
Meanwhile the Braves have, for the most part, been quite pleased by what they’ve seen from prospects including outfielder Ronald Acuna, third baseman Austin Riley and pitchers led by Max Fried, the left-hander who returned last year from a long Tommy John surgery rehab and has shone in two Grapefruit League games despite having no minor league experience above low-Single A.
Consider Acuna, who turned 19 in December and has played just 40 minor league games above the rookie-league level and none above low-A, is 6-for-11 this spring with two doubles and no strikeouts in six games. Six hits for a teen who isn’t even in major league camp, but was brought over from a minor league mini-camp for more than half of the Grapefruit League games in the first nine days.
Acuna had three hits and two doubles in one game, and he isn’t the only teen-aged Braves prospect not in major league camp who’s had already had a multi-hit Grapefruit League game. Power-hitting prospect Riley went 2-for-2 with a double as a late-innings replacement Saturday against the Marlins.
“They’re not intimidated,” said Chipper Jones, the retired future Hall of Famer who’s in camp as a special advisor. “If I had gotten called up when I was in A-ball, to play in a big league game, no chance. (Jones clarifies, says he wouldn’t have been ready mentally.) No chance. Now, these guys aren’t intimidated by anything. It’s crazy.”
Only four Braves have played more games this spring than Acuna (six). Of those four players, two are utility-infield prospects with no major league experience (Johan Camargo, Dylan Moore). The others are 22-year-old third-base prospect (Rio Ruiz), who got seven major-league at-bats in his first call-up in September, and Micah Johnson, 26, who had two stints in the majors with the White Sox and Dodgers and has played in nine spring games while trying to win a bench job as an infielder/center fielder.
A few more numbers: The Braves are 25th in MLB in runs scored and lead only the Astros in that category among Grapefruit League teams. They’re 24th in OPS (.678). Braves hitters are second in majors in walks (41 in 10 games), which is good, but they are also sixth in strikeouts (82), which is not.
Again, for an idea of how insignificant those and other early spring results are – any spring, but particularly this one -- consider the World Series champion Cubs played one more game than the Braves before Monday and had just two more homers than Atlanta and a .236 average and .304 OBP compared to the Braves’ .234 and .328.
Braves pitchers had a 1.76 WHIP that was tied for second-highest in the major, and their ratio of strikeouts (67) to walks (39) in 85 innings wasn’t good, either.
None of the Braves from last year’s lineup or bench have played in more than six of the first 10 spring games, and only four presumed locks for the opening-day roster players have more than 15 official at-bats including the WBC-bound pair, Freddie Freeman (8-for-16, one double, five RBIs) and Ender Inciarte (3-for-18). They played more than others in a couple of games late in the week in preparation for playing full games with their WBC teams beginning this week.
Dansby Swanson was 7-for-16 with a double, a home run and three walks, Jace Peterson was 2-for-19 with two walks and five strikeouts. And that’s it, only a handful of likely roster regulars who’ve had more than 15 at-bats this spring through the first 10 Grapefruit League games.
Nick Markakis and new second baseman Brandon Phillips each has 11 at-bats and Matt Kemp has 12. Markakis has played five games, Phillips and Kemp six.
The Braves have used 32 pitchers, and among 12 with ERAs of 9.00 or higher only three – relievers Blaine Boyer, Ian Krol, Chaz Roe -- came to spring training with any chance of making the opening day roster. Most of the others are prospects or retreads who’ll be gone or in the minors before opening day.
Patrick Weigel is one of the Braves’ top pitching prospects, but three late-season starts at Double-A Mississippi last year in his first full season of pro ball accounted for his only experience above low-A ball. On Sunday, he pitched against the Red Sox at “Fenway South” in Fort Myers. He didn’t retire any of six Boston batters, got hit hard. But in the big picture, it was nothing but a positive for the Braves because of the experience gained.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander, who had a 2.47 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 149 2/3 innings last season, was never going to compete for a spot on the Braves’ opening-day roster this year. But Weigel has had the opportunity to pitch in two Grapefruit League games this spring, performed well in one of them and learned something about what he has to work on in the other.
There have been exceptions, such as Roe giving up an unsightly seven runs and seven hits in one inning over two appearances. But for the most part, the pitchers expected to be on the Braves’ opening day roster have been fair to good early, and most importantly they’ve been healthy. That can’t be emphasized enough. Health is of utmost importance this early in spring.
And with that, here’s a closer look back at the first week-plus of the Braves’ Grapefruit League schedule and developments in that period:
• It’s been an unusual early spring for several Braves who signed on to play for their various home countries – and Freddie Freeman for Canada – the World Baseball Classic that starts this week.
• Expected Braves opening-day starter Julio Teheran’s preparation schedule will be a bit disrupted by the WBC, but Brian Snitker said Teheran wasn’t alone among Braves in having their typical spring training thrown off a bit. The whole team had its “flow” interrupted once the games began and the long bus rides – more of them this spring than ever before – began.
• The Braves got thumped twice by the Red Sox last week, but Snitker’s evaluation after a 9-1 defeat Friday underscored how meaningless the final score of spring games is compared to areas of emphasis for the team and manager entering a particular game. In this game, it was about Teheran and reliever Arodys Vizcaino.
• And in another one-sided loss, the perfect inning tossed by Paco Rodriguez was what mattered most for the Braves, since the lefty reliever hadn’t pitched in 21 months and could be a crucial piece of this year’s bullpen.
• In that game against the Cardinals, “Big Sexy” only made one mistake that cost him, and the 43-year-old pitcher looked sharp for the first week of March.
• The Braves might have a couple of legitimate corner-infield options at Triple-A to start the season in Rio Ruiz, who has continued to reshape his body and improve his prospect stock, and Christian Walker, acquired on a recent waiver claim.
• Both Ruiz and Walker homered in a split-squad game against the Phillies.
Alas, Christian Walker was claimed off waivers by the Reds on Monday when the Braves tried unsuccessfully to sneak him through.
• Another Braves 19-year-old with no minor league experience above low Single-A was brought from minor league camp as a roster extra, and proceeded to go 2-for-2 as a late-innings replacement. This time it was third-base prospect Austin Riley, after outfield prospect Ronald Acuna played so well in the first week of Grapefruit League games. Some of the Braves’ top minor league position-player prospects have gotten a chance to play in major league games because they had reported to minor league spring training a week early for a prospects mini-camp. Minor league spring-training games start later this week.
• Second-base prospect Ozzie Albies, the Braves’ top position-player prospect besides rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson, was to be re-examined Monday and could get clearance to begin full activities, which would put him on schedule to start playing games later in the week.
• Another promising Braves outfield prospect had his spring training end abruptly last week when Dustin Peterson broke the hamate bone in his left hand while swinging in an at-bat against the Yankees.
• Christian Walker isn’t the only Braves waiver-claim Walker making a good early impression in camp. Adam Walker showed his huge power during batting practice and hit home runs in consecutive games.
• Bartolo Colon hasn’t decided if he’ll join the Dominican Republic for WBC play after the opening round, but lefty Jaime Garcia has decided not to pitch for Mexico in the WBC.
• Garcia made his first spring start for the Braves and gave up a home run against the Yankees, but felt pretty good about it.