McAuley | Braves Positional Preview: The Infield

Braves Positional Preview Series:

 

 

The Atlanta Braves are coming down the home stretch of the busiest winter in the franchise’s history. With the disappointment of 2014 leading to wholesale change in the front office, we learned very quickly that the same would hold true when it came to the player personnel.

The influx of new talent came from numerous trades and a handful of free agent acquisitions, all designed to bring the vaunted “Braves Way” of doing things back to the forefront. Rebuilding the talent pipeline by stocking the farm system was the central component, regardless of the team’s reluctance to place the “rebuilding” tag on the process.

Over the next five days, we’ll delve into each of the areas on the 25-man roster: infielders, catchers, outfielders, starting rotation and bullpen. With many new faces and a couple of positional battles to be had this spring, this primer should cover all the bases as the team packs its bags for Orlando.

With that said, we get set to go around the horn with the Atlanta infielders.

Part 1: The Infield

The Braves have as many questions as they do reasons to be hopeful about the 2015 season. That is certainly true of the infield. Anchored by Andrelton Simmons, commonly referred to as the best fielding player in the game at any position, the Braves will always be a cut above defensively. They ranked fifth in the majors with a .986 team fielding percentage a year ago, committing the fifth fewest errors (86). Simmons trailed only teammate Jason Heyward (32) for the big league lead with 28 defensive runs saved.

First Base

When it comes to offense, the Atlanta infield has one thumper and a lot of unproven commodities. Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate in 2013, but even he was not immune to the offensive woes that struck the Braves lineup last season. He was hardly part the problem, but Freeman saw a 31 point drop in batting average and his OPS dipped from .897 to .857. The team’s overall issues with run scoring also affected his RBI total, which went from 109 in 2013 to just 78 in 2014 despite a career-high 708 PA.

At just 25 and in the second season of an eight-year, $135 million contract extension, the Braves made a conscious decision to build around Freeman. He’s a better defender than he often gets credit for, but the impact he makes with the bat will always be his biggest contribution. His strike zone expanded just a bit last season, especially on breaking balls, but Freeman works pitchers over. He saw the fifth most pitches in baseball with 2,826 and had a major league leading 583 foul balls in 2014 (Special thanks to BaseballSavant.com for that really cool leader board).

Long story short, Freeman will once again be the best hitter in the Atlanta lineup. His numbers could trend back toward his 2013 totals if he can simply find a way to make Marlins pitchers pay doubly for what they did to him in 2014 (.135 with 21 K in 81 AB). His supporting cast has changed greatly from a year ago, but a conscious effort was made to bring in more contact hitters. That could bode well for Freeman’s run production numbers.

Shortstop

We’ll save the second base round-up for last, and switch the focus back to Simmons for now. Like Freeman, the Braves extended their young shortstop a year ago. Unlike Freeman, the impact part of Simmons’ game is his work with the glove. While he brought the expected gold glove caliber defense to the fray, Simmons took a big step back at the plate. New hitting coach Kevin Seitzer will try to help him get back on track.

Despite being one of the better contact hitters on the team, he struggled to turn in quality at-bats. Perhaps it was a bi-product of hitting 17 home runs a year prior, but Simmons’ swing got long at times and his aggressive approach worked against him last season. The homer total fell to just seven, which is still one more than he hit in his entire minor league career. Even though he was one of the toughest hitters in MLB to strike out, ranking ninth with 9 AB/K in 2014 and fourth with 11 AB/K in 2013, Simmons does not draw many walks —­ just 84 BB in 1,416 PA. That’s part of the reason he holds a .252/.297/.372 career slash line.

With an improved approach, he should still be able to hit for higher average as he enters his third full season. Simmons turned in a .299/.352/.397 slash line in the minors and hit just six home runs in those 1,024 PA. De-emphasizing the “swing from your heels” mentality that crept into his at-bats far too often will be the key for Simmons.  His line drive stroke will provide some extra-base hits. Some of those will even go over the wall, but he’ll have to make some necessary adjustments if he wants to see an offensive uptick in 2015.

Third Base

Speaking of hitters looking for bounce back seasons, third baseman Chris Johnson is another man hoping to prove 2014 was just a blip on the radar. He’s also another of the Braves extension players from a year ago, though his came in early May and was met with some head scratching. Johnson, 30, got 3 years and $23.5 million from Atlanta after vying for a batting title as he replaced the retired Chipper Jones in 2013.

He would not enjoy a repeat performance. After a nice opening act in 2013, Johnson saw his slash line fall from .321/.358/.457 to just .263/.292/.361 in year two. That came thanks in part to an unsustainable .394 BABIP in 2013 dropping to .345 in 2014. Consider last year’s major league leader, Starling Marte of the Pirates, posted a .373 BABIP. Johnson had a career-high 611 PA, but saw his walk rate (3%) bottom out to sixth lowest in baseball while his strikeout rate (26%) jumped to 15th highest.

Johnson may not be guaranteed another season of 600+ plate appearances either. He raked against LHP yet again in 2014, hitting .394 in 114 AB, but his struggles against RHP (.231/.256/.314 in 486 PA) may open the door for Alberto Callaspo or even Jace Peterson to steal some playing time if the trend continues. Both of those men are in the mix at second base as well, which may grant Johnson an early reprieve. Recently acquired Rio Ruiz could be Atlanta’s long term answer at the hot corner, but his arrival in the big leagues is still a couple of years away.

Second Base

Now we come to what could be the most interesting storyline of the entire spring: Who will be the Braves everyday second baseman? Yes, there are quite a few candidates and it could end up being a platoon, but it sure beats another year spent wondering about the state of Dan Uggla. In fact, the second baseman’s name that is going to be front and center throughout Grapefruit League play this time around is Jose Peraza. That is a most welcome change.

We’ll start with Callaspo, 31, who is the odds-on favorite to open the season with the everyday job, with Peterson and Phil Gosselin also fighting for the opportunity. A veteran switch-hitter coming off a miserable .223/.290/.290 line in 127 games for Oakland last season, Callaspo signed a one-year, $3 million contract in December. It’s an opportunity to rebuild his value on a short-term deal.

He has a little pop, hitting double-digit homers in four of his six full seasons, and puts the bat on the ball consistently (just 331 K in 3695 PA in his career). Those are two things that would prove useful if he returns to pre-2014 form. It’s worth noting that Callaspo hasn’t played second base consistently since 2009 and has actually logged more games at third throughout his nine-year career. As noted earlier, he could see time there depending on how Johnson fares.

Peraza, 20, is the Braves top prospect according Baseball America and just about every other hot sheet. He has a chance to skip Triple-A and jump straight to the majors, a la Rafael Furcal in 2000. There are plenty of similarities between the two, not the least of which would be the ability to solve Atlanta’s lead-off dilemma. Peraza is a contact hitter who can find the gaps, evidenced by his 2014 slash line of .339/.364/.441 between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. He roped 20 doubles and 11 triples, while showing off his game-changing speed by stealing 60 bases for the second straight season.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has already stated that he plans to give Peraza a serious look this spring, bringing him on every road trip and plugging him at some point in every game. While a ticket to Triple-A Gwinnett appears to be the most likely scenario, there’s still a chance Peraza could force the issue with a strong showing. Even if he doesn’t break camp with the big club, Peraza’s arrival in 2015 would inject the Atlanta lineup with a dynamic top of the order speed threat it has lacked for most of the last decade.

Check out these numbers (visit the tweet to enlarge):

 

The Reserves

Gosselin and Peterson could both figure heavily into what the Braves hope will be an improved bench. Both men provide versatility and can play second, short or third. Gosselin, 26, earned some extended time in 2014, getting into 46 games and making 30 starts spread across three positions. He batted .264 for Atlanta after hitting .344/.379/.487 in 96 games with Gwinnett. There’s not a lot that stands out about him offensively, but Gosselin makes consistent contact and makes the plays at second.

Peterson, 24, is a former 1st round pick by the Padres in 2011 who came over in the Justin Upton trade. The lefty hitter batted .307/.402/.447 in 96 games at two levels and was up and down with San Diego throughout the season. Peterson has stolen 148 bases in 389 minor league games, so he brings a speed dynamic that neither Gosselin nor Callaspo have to offer. He’s also shown himself to be more than capable of handling both righties and lefties, which is always helpful. Though he showed good plate discipline and was fairly difficult to fan in the minors, Peterson batted just .118 and struck out 18 times in 53 at-bats with the Padres. Thus, insert small sample size disclaimer here.

Kelly Johnson, 33, returned to Atlanta on a minor league deal and received a invitation to spring training. He has played all over the diamond in recent years. Again, this is a case where versatility could help the player earn a roster spot and make the bench more stout than it was in 2014. Johnson earned the odd distinction of  playing for every club in the AL East over the past three seasons, including three different stops last year alone. Outside of some occasional power, Johnson hasn’t enjoyed much success at the plate of late. After hitting .284/.370/.496 with a career-high 26 homers for the Diamondbacks in 2010, Johnson has batted .225/.306/.390 over 1898 plate appearances in the four seasons since. To make matters worse, he’s struck out once every 3.4 AB. His chances of winning the second base job are remote at best, but Johnson could play his way onto the 25-man roster with good Grapefruit League campaign.

Next Up: The Catchers (Feb. 10)

The Braves have cleared the way for Christian Bethancourt to become their catcher of the future. After getting his feet wet in 2014, the heralded backstop prospect will have to prove he is capable of handling the rigors of the everyday job. Will the glove live up to expectations? Will the bat provide the necessary production? Much will be asked of Bethancourt in 2015.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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