Massive shake-up means plenty of spring battles for Braves

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, February 19, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) — Look for plenty of introductions when the Atlanta Braves report for spring training Friday.

The team underwent a massive shake-up over the winter, trading away three of its top hitters — Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis — and getting mostly prospects in return.

The 25-man roster that breaks camp in early April will probably include less than 10 players who were with the Braves at the start of the 2014 season.

“We can’t look at who’s gone,” said third baseman Chris Johnson, one of the few holdovers. “We’ve just got to look at who’s here and what we need to do to win games.”

While many expect the team to fade from its usual role of playoff contender this season, the overhaul has set up plenty of intriguing battles this spring. Pitchers and catchers hold their first workout Saturday at the team’s Disney World training complex in Kissimmee, Florida, with the first full-squad session set for Feb. 26.

The Braves must settle on starters at second baseman and left field, with both spots likely to be filled by some sort of platoon arrangement. In addition, several pitchers will contend for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, and the bullpen will have an almost entirely new look beyond closer Craig Kimbrel.

After going 79-83 and finishing a whopping 17 games behind Washington in the NL East, the Braves insist they haven’t given up on contending, pointing to the signing of new right fielder Nick Markakis.

“Our goal — and it’s always been our goal — is to get into the postseason somehow,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, who kept his job but will be under plenty of scrutiny this season. “I like our club. I like our pitching. … It’s a club that, coming into the ballpark every day, you’re going to have fun putting the lineup together.”

Here’s some of the issues that figure to make news this spring:

WHO’S ON SECOND? Newcomer Alberto Callaspo, who batted .223 with four homers and 39 RBIs for Oakland last season, could hold down this position for a year — or even less — while the team grooms a top prospect, Jose Peraza. There’s a chance the 20-year-old could snatch the job early with an impressive spring. That said, the Braves will almost surely give Peraza a little more seasoning in the minors, considering he’s played only 44 games above Class A.

… AND IN LEFT? The Braves appear to be leaning toward a strict platoon in left field after the signing of 34-year-old Jonny Gomes and former Yankees prospect Zoilo Almonte. Gomes is coming off a dismal year, hitting just .234 with six homers and 37 RBIs for Boston and Oakland. But the Braves are hopeful that he’ll be more productive going mainly against left-handers. The switch-hitting Almonte had 18 homers and 69 RBIs for New York’s Triple-A farm club. His big league experience is limited, however — two homers, 12 RBIs and a .211 average in 47 games.

FILLING OUT THE ROTATION: Next to Peraza, the most intriguing player this spring will be hard-throwing right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, the big catch in the deal that sent Gattis to Houston. The 23-year-old has limited big league experience (18 1-3 innings), so a little more time in the minors may be required. If Foltynewicz isn’t ready, the Braves have non-roster signee Eric Stults (65 starts for San Diego over the last two years) as their main fallback position. Also, Wandy Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang are trying to revive their injury plagued careers.

BATTLING FOR BULLPEN SPOTS: The Braves hope former closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson can bounce back from disappointing seasons to fill setup roles for Kimbrel. Two other ex-closers, Jose Veras and Matt Capps, are non-roster invitees. Michael Kohn, James Russell, Arodys Vizcaino and Luis Avalon will be in the mix, as well, but another expected contender, Shae Simmons, is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery last week.

CAN B.J. BOUNCE BACK? After two miserable seasons in Atlanta, B.J. Upton is primed to go down as one of the baseball’s biggest free-agent busts. He’s still got three years left on his $75.25 million contract, so he’ll get one more chance to turn things around. Upton has been working with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer but will be on a very short leash. No matter what, Upton might have to share time in center field with speedy newcomer Eury Perez.