Braves looking for answers this spring

By Travis Jaudon, Staff Writer

The Atlantis Sports Book and Casino has set the Braves over/under win total for this season at 73.5. That number is lower entering spring training than it has been in a very long time. The Braves have more questions than perhaps any other team in the big leagues, and they don’t have long to answer those questions. This means, of course, that the upcoming exhibition season down in Florida will be the biggest spring training for Atlanta since Fredi Gonzalez took over as manager.

Atlanta has some holes in their club right now. A lack of power in the lineup, a cast of former closers in a new-look bullpen, and a left field platoon that is far from being a sure thing, to name a few. But, when I look at this team as it stands now, there are three questions that must be answered this spring. If not, Atlanta could find itself well below that 73.5 wins mark come season’s end.

Who will win the fifth spot in the starting rotation? The top-4 spots in the rotation are all but set coming into the spring. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Shelby Miller, and Alex Wood are a solid 1-4 combo, but the question of the final starter has yet to be answered.

The Braves have no shortage of contenders for this job. For the sake of time (and space) we’ll assume the Braves will select one of the top three options. Those options include Eric Stults, Mike Foltynewicz, and Wandy Rodriguez. Stults, who the Braves signed at the end of January, is currently listed as the fifth starter on the Braves website depth chart, but that really doesn’t mean much at this point. Stults, 34, is coming of one of his better seasons in the big leagues after notching a career high 11 wins in his first year with San Diego. He also logged over 200 innings last season, a fact that surely didn’t hurt his chances of being signed.

Foltynewicz, or “Folty,” is an intriguing prospect and the youngest (23) of those pitchers vying for the final spot in the rotation. The 6’4, 220-pound Foltynewicz came over in the Evan Gattis to Houston deal. He has had limited majors work as he made his debut in August of 2014, but he has the most upside of all the candidates, and a good spring would do wonders for his chances. Wandy Rodriguez is a veteran lefty that could provide the Braves with long relief help if he doesn’t notch the rotation, but he could also surprise a few folks and win the fifth spot. Rodriguez turned 35 in January and boasts a career 4.06 ERA in over 240 major league starts.

Can BJ Upton and Chris Johnson bounce back in 2015? I know, I know. Braves fans are more than sick of hearing about a potential Upton bounce back, but the fact remains, if he can hit anywhere close to his career averages, the Braves would benefit greatly. Upton has been nothing short of awful through his first seasons with Atlanta, but he has the capability and athleticism to perform at a higher level, although this isn’t saying too much. The Braves will need him to bounce back in a major way this season if they hope to contend.

Chris Johnson struggled in 2014 after putting up great numbers in 2013. The Braves third baseman has a contract, and he has, for now, the opportunity to hit somewhere near the middle of a high contact lineup. If he can return to his gap-hitting days of 2013, the Braves will look like geniuses for resigning him last season.

Who will protect Freddie Freeman? The Braves must find a bat to hit behind Freddie Freeman. The Braves first baseman will likely hit in the three hole, but he may struggle to see good pitches if Atlanta doesn’t put a decent bat behind him. Jonny Gomes and Chris Johnson are some stealth candidates for the job of cleanup hitter but the more likely options are BJ Upton or Andrelton Simmons. None of the aforementioned players are prototypical cleanup hitters, but someone will have to step up and take the job this spring. If not, the Braves will be left with a sitting duck in their three hole, and best hitter Freeman.