The Braves have had a pretty solid bench the past couple of seasons. Who are the favorites to win the final roster spots this year?
-- Josh E., Charleston, S.C.
It appears there are just a couple available roster spots as the Braves prepare to begin Spring Training. But there are multiple ways general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez could choose to round out their bench and pitching staff.
Assuming that Tim Hudson will miss at least most of April while recovering from offseason back surgery, Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado will likely begin the season in the starting rotation. If the Braves choose Delgado, don't be surprised if Teheran begins the year in the bullpen. Gonzalez mentioned this as a possibility a couple weeks ago.
Regardless of how these two talented young pitchers fit in the equation, the Braves are heading to camp knowing that they need to fill three or four spots in the bullpen.
Many of you have continued to ask about Kris Medlen's role. The versatile hurler will be prepared to fill that final rotation spot if necessary. But I'm still thinking his versatility will prove more valuable in a relief role.
Sticking with this assumption, I'm thinking Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and Medlen are the only candidates to have locked down bullpen spots entering camp. Arodys Vizcaino could certainly begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen, but it's probably best for the Braves to look at the young reliever over the next few weeks before labeling him a "certainty."
So I'd say Vizcaino, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro, Rule 5 Draft selection Robert Fish and either Delgado or Teheran will be the top candidates to fill the final three spots in the bullpen.
If you are looking to follow a couple underdog candidates, I'd suggest Erik Cordier or 6-foot-8 non-roster invitee Adam Russell, who might be the biggest pitcher I've ever seen in the Braves' clubhouse. Think Adam Dunn, not Charlie Kerfeld.
The Braves seem to have just one available spot for a position player. Over the next six weeks, we'll gain a better understanding about whether that spot will be an infielder or an outfielder.
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The primary need is to establish who will serve as Michael Bourn's backup in center field. Jose Constanza and non-roster invitee Luis Durango are the top candidates. The Braves could also opt to keep both off the Opening Day roster and enter the season with the plan to occasionally play Jason Heyward in center when Bourn needs a breather. This would provide them with an extra infielder to begin the season. The top candidates would be non-roster invitees Drew Sutton and Josh Wilson.
Can you see a scenario where Chipper Jones bats second? I like the idea of him protecting Heyward in the three-hole, but I can also see how his plate discipline could help Bourn on the bases.
-- Neal C., Atlanta
There is no doubt Chipper could bat second, like he did for a short stretch late last year. But Heyward will not be moved to the three-hole on a permanent basis until he proves he is ready for that assignment.
These are just a couple of the lineup-related questions surrounding Gonzalez as he prepares for the season. He knows Bourn will be in the leadoff spot and Tyler Pastornicky will be batting eighth. There is a lot of uncertainty in-between.
You can argue that both Chipper and Heyward could fit anywhere from second through seventh in the lineup. At the same time, there is the debate whether Martin Prado should bat second or seventh. And does the presence of four left-handed hitters mean the lineup could look much different based on whether it faces a right-handed or left-handed starter?
There is certainly a chance Gonzalez will begin the season batting Chipper third and Brian McCann fourth. Given that both will likely require at least one day off per week, this seems to indicate the makeup of the middle of the lineup could vary on a daily basis. With the presence of Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla, this might not be a big deal. But it is one of the many things to consider when trying to project how this year's lineup might look.
At this point, we're also still guessing about Prado and Heyward. Prado's on-base percentage started to decline during the final four months of the 2010 season. He was still effective in the two-hole that year, but given the struggles he endured last year, it's certainly far too early to confidently project he is the best fit to be slotted in the lineup's second spot.
Heyward will influence the lineup's makeup as much as anybody. The optimal lineup is seemingly the one that would have his presence in the three-hole on a daily basis. Along with power potential and the ability to move on the bases, he would provide the middle of the lineup some of the stability that it might lack when McCann and Jones get their necessary rest.
Some of you are going to question, "What about Freddie Freeman in the three-hole?" Well, he might find himself positioned there. But that does not change the fact that Heyward will be the best fit for this role if he starts living up to expectations again this year.
What do you think were some of the factors that led to Uggla's struggles at the plate last year? Do you think he'll have put them behind him for the start of this season?
-- Drew B., Covington, Ga.
There is no doubt that he placed some extra pressure on himself after the Braves acquired him and gave him a five-year, $62 million contract last year. But during a conversation last week, he once again said that his primary problem was that he was three months into the season before he truly got his timing down.
The contract is one of many factors that could have led him to feel uncomfortable at the plate. Whatever the reason, he certainly had one of the most dramatic turnarounds any player will experience during the course of a season. His slash line during his first 86 games was .173/.241/.327. It improved to .301/.386/.596 during his final 75 games.
Will Freeman continue improving or will he have a "sophomore slump"?
-- Garland S., Albany, Ga.
Some fans have looked at Freeman's .339 BAbip (batting average balls in play) from last year and projected that he will not find as much fortune this season. Other, less statistically-savvy fans might look at his .298/.355/.478 slash line over his final 112 games and approach this season feeling much more optimistic about what he will produce.
Last year's numbers can lead to some sound projections this year. But they don't necessarily guarantee a player will be able to make the adjustments necessary to avoid the "sophomore slump." This slump can be influenced by a lazy offseason after a successful rookie season, or the inability to deal with the (on-field and off-field) expectations created by the previous season.
More often than not, the sophomore slump is a product of a player's inability to make necessary adjustments in a timely manner. Freeman seemed to do this at times last year.
There is a lot to like about Freeman's power potential and ability to drive the ball to all fields. But what impressed me most about what he did last year was the way he reacted after striking out 23 times in 48 at-bats from June 8-21. The 22-year-old first baseman bounced back and hit .354 with 32 strikeouts in his next 147 at-bats.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.