CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 23: Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves follows the flight of his grand-slam home run in the 4th inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on August 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Braves are less than a week from Spring Training. What are the burning questions heading into camp?
The Atlanta Braves may not have made many moves in the offseason, but do not think for a second this is an organization not focused on winning in 2012. Led by manager Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves expect to be contenders once again after falling just one game short of the playoffs last season.
Armed with a deep starting rotation, stellar bullpen and lineup capable of scoring plenty of runs should it remain relatively healthy, the Braves have few pressing questions heading into Spring Training. With pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida this weekend and position players following shortly after, baseball will be here before we know it.
Here are a few of the burning questions for the Braves.
Tim Hudson will be turning 37 years old over the summer and had to undergo offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. Hudson is a tremendous athlete and is in great shape, but most believe he will at least miss a start or two to begin the season, if not more. All eyes will be on the veteran pitcher as he begins throwing off a mound in a few weeks.
Tommy Hanson struggled to keep his shoulder healthy in 2011 and has now made an adjustment to his pitching motion with the guidance of Roger McDowell. Hanson is still only 25 years old and many feel this could be a make-or-break year for the former top prospect. He is reportedly feeling great and will begin throwing with the rest of the pitchers next week.
How does Tyler Pastornicky handle the starting shortstop gig?
Due to financial restrictions and a little faith, Pastornicky will be given every opportunity to handle the starting shortstop gig in 2012. The 22-year old came to Atlanta along with Alex Gonzalez in the summer of 2010, a deal that has really come back to bite the club.
Pastornicky will very likely bat eighth in the lineup, and nothing more than a decent batting average and on-base percentage will be expected from him. He has the potential to steal upwards of 20 bases, but do not expect much power from the young shortstop. That simply is not his game.
There is very little chance Pastornicky could lose his job in Spring Training should he really struggle, but it may cause Frank Wren to quietly begin checking around the market for any available shortstop options. Jack Wilson is the only in-house candidate capable of filling in.
Who rounds out the bullpen?
Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty have guaranteed themselves a spot in the bullpen after their performances last season. Kris Medlen and Christian Martinez are both capable of working both long and short-relief, which makes them very valuable to the club. Expect both of them to earn a spot.
The last two spots are up for grabs, but I have to think Jairo Asencio will be a front-runner seeing as he pitched tremendously well in the Dominican Winter League. The final spot could go to Arodys Vizcaino, but the team may decide to season him a bit more in Triple-A. Fredi Gonzalez mentioned that Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado could come out of the bullpen, but I do not believe that happens for a multitude of reasons.
If not Vizcaino, I would expect a guy like Cory Gearrin to claim that final spot.
How does Jason Heyward look?
After a tough season in 2011, one that saw him hit the disabled list multiple times and have his fortitude questioned by Chipper Jones, Jason Heyward vowed to work harder than ever and reportedly dropped about 20 pounds. He began working with hitting instructor Greg Walker a few weeks back and those in attendance have said the swing looks awfully similar to the one he had as a rookie in 2010.
Health has always been a concern with Heyward and it is absolutely imperative for the club to hold him out of the lineup should he feel any discomfort. There is no reason to lose a potential All-Star in Spring Training because of pride and trying to prove you're tougher than everyone thinks.