Consider this your primer to the Spring Training storylines series between now and the first spring game.
Position battles are always the focus of spring. If there is not a clear cut favorite for a starting job, it is naturally the most important thing to follow. However, the Braves are lucky enough to not have that problem this year.
The starting lineup is set across the board. Brian McCann will man his usual post behind the plate; Freddie Freeman is slated to begin his reign at first base full time; Dan Uggla was brought to Atlanta to fill the second base spot for several years; Alex Gonzalez is in his second year as starting shortstop; Chipper Jones is working his way back to full strength to man third base another year; Martin Prado is making the move to left field for Uggla; Nate McLouth is getting one more shot in center field; and Jason Heyward has right field on lock.
The starting rotation is equally locked by Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor. Minor is slated to win the fifth spot, and the Braves will give him every opportunity. It would take a complete collapse or injury in spring camp for the Braves to not come out of Florida with him in the rotation.
The bench is where things are not as concrete. David Ross remains the backup catcher. Eric Hinske is back as a corner infielder/outfielder/pinch hitter. The Braves picked up Joe Mather to do much of the same from the right side of the plate. The remaining two spots – utility infielder and fourth outfielder – are not as certain. Diory Hernandez is the favorite for the infielder job, and while he provides decent enough defense, his bat is well below average, even for a utility infielder. However, the only other in-house options are Brandon Hicks, who has fallen out of favor with a terrible bat, and Brooks Conrad, who has fallen out of favor with everyone except the city of San Francisco. Look for the performances of these three in spring.
The other spot on the bench not for certain is the fourth outfielder. Matt Young is the favorite among those in the Braves community, but his defense is decent at best as a fourth outfielder. He has proven himself worthy with the bat, and he should get every chance to win the job. The other conceivable option is Jordan Schafer. He will have to prove plenty to earn a spot on the Atlanta roster out of spring, and even then I don't know if it would be enough. The Braves have not given up on him as a center field prospect, and rightly so, but he has a long way to go, and he is probably best suited in the everyday lineup at AAA Gwinnett. Even so, this is worth watching.
The bullpen is almost locked, but there are several relievers worth watching this spring. Craig Kimbrel is getting his shot at the closing job; Jonny Venters is getting his shot as the setup man; Peter Moylan will resume his role in the seventh inning and double play situations; Eric O'Flaherty will most likely take the LOOGY role with Venters stepping into the eighth; Scott Linebrink will perform middle relief duties; George Sherrill is the second LOOGY, which the Braves have frequently used the past few years; and Scott Proctor is supposedly getting a shot as the last reliever.
There are others to watch, though. Brandon Beachy will be getting starts this spring and should come out as the top starter at Gwinnett. Rodrigo Lopez will be getting starts and should be right behind Beachy at Gwinnett. Juan Abreu, Jairo Ascencio and Cristhian Martinez are three hard throwers who have seen time in the majors or are close. Cory Gearrin, Erik Cordier, Lee Hyde and Stephen Marek are all also either close or are already major league ready.
You also can't forget the prospects who are getting their taste of big league camp. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, considered by most to be the top two pitching prospects in the system, will be with the big league team in Florida.
The Braves Non-Roster Invitees:
Position Players -
C Wilkin Castillo
3B Shawn Bowman
SS Mycal Jones
3B Ed Lucas
SS Tyler Pastornicky
OF Brent Clevlen
OF Jose Constanza
OF Wilkin Ramirez