If Alex Wood begins the season in the rotation, the Braves could have just one left-hander in the bullpen. Do you think they will add another left-handed reliever?
-- John H., Greenville, S.C.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the Braves were hoping that a pair of left-handed relievers -- Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters -- would serve as Craig Kimbrel's top setup men. Now we are wondering if Luis Avilan will begin this season as the only southpaw in the bullpen.
Although there is still a slim chance that O'Flaherty will opt to return, the odds have steadily decreased over the past month. It seems more likely that he will end up with the Orioles or another club that is interested in what he could provide once he misses at least the regular season's first month while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Venters' rehab from this same surgery will likely keep him out of action until at least June.
As the Braves project their bullpen makeup for the season's first two months, they are hopeful that Avilan will continue to be as effective as he was during the first season and a half of his Major League career. At the same time, they are confident that their top right-handed setup men -- Jordan Walden and David Carpenter -- are quite capable of handling left-handed batters.
During his career, Walden has limited left-handed hitters to a .202 batting average and a .283 on-base percentage. In 15 fewer plate appearances, right-handed hitters have batted .246 and produced a .316 on-base percentage against him.
As he legitimized himself as a dependable big league reliever last year, Carpenter limited right-handed hitters to a .183 batting average and a .239 on-base percentage. Left-handed hitters batted .224 and produced a .313 on-base percentage against him.
Although Wood will likely begin the season in the rotation, there is a good chance he could be moved to the bullpen if Atlanta reaches a point where Gavin Floyd and Brandon Beachy prove healthy enough to be reliable starters. That could strengthen the bullpen and also allow the club to control Wood's workload, as he will be on an innings limit during his first full Major League season.
But until Venters or Wood join the bullpen, the Braves could benefit from the presence of another left-hander. One top internal candidate is Ryan Buchter. While compiling a 2.76 ERA in 51 appearances for Triple-A Gwinnett last season, the 26-year-old Buchter limited left-handers to a .124 batting average and a .286 on-base percentage.
Do you think the Braves should have given Dan Uggla more time to prove himself after he underwent LASIK surgery?
-- Todd O., Sumter, S.C.
Over the next couple of weeks and months, there will be a lot of talk about how Uggla is going to react this season after being left off the roster for the National League Division Series in October. But by then, the damage had been done. The club's mistake was in giving him just 41 plate appearances before essentially removing him from the lineup after he'd undergone the procedure.
When a player struggles during Spring Training, managers and club officials often point out that those statistics are a small sample size or that it just "takes some time" for players to get comfortable.
The Braves were more than patient with Uggla as he hit .186 with a .696 OPS in the 112 games he played before the LASIK was performed in August. But instead of allowing him to get comfortable with his "new eyes," they determined they had seen enough after he hit .133 (with a respectable .366 on-base percentage) in those first 41 plate appearances afterward.
Given that Uggla batted .185 over his last 236 games, there is certainly reason for some to argue that his struggles are bound to continue. But if the club truly believed that the surgery would prove beneficial, then Uggla should have been given at least another week to get comfortable and gain his timing with his new vision.
If Schafer continues to realize that his speed and athleticism are best when he is not attempting to hit for power, there is a chance he could get his wish to eventually regain his role as an everyday big leaguer. But for now, he has to be comfortable with his assignment to serve as a valuable and versatile backup outfielder.
Schafer hit .309 with a .397 on-base percentage in the 144 plate appearances he compiled before fouling a pitch off his foot on June 26. The resulting injury forced him to miss six weeks. In 119 plate appearances after returning from the disabled list, Schafer hit .170 with a .248 on-base percentage.
If he performs the way he did before the injury and Upton struggles again, there is certainly a chance Schafer could gain a more enhanced role. But given his struggles during the season's final two months, Schafer once again has to come with the mind-set he did last year, when he earned a roster spot and then proved quite valuable in that backup role.
If Luis Vasquez has a strong Spring Training, could he potentially make the roster?
-- Brent W., Kailua, Hawaii
There have been plenty of glowing remarks about Vasquez since the Braves signed him in early November. The veteran reliever made quite an impression in the Dominican Winter League, with his sidearm delivery routinely producing fastball readings that exceeded 95 mph.
If all the reports prove to be accurate, there is certainly reason to believe Vasquez will begin the season in the bullpen. But when dealing with these kinds of pitchers, you always have to be a little skeptical. Why was he available as a Minor League free agent? And why has this 27-year-old right-hander played seven Minor League seasons and totaled just 16 games above the Double-A level?
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.