Editor’s note: This look at the Atlanta Braves bench is the first installment of a mini-series before Spring Training begins later this week. Enjoy!
The Braves start Spring Training games this week, and it can’t start fast enough. I know I’m completely sick of this bizarre winter weather, and we could all use a little “Spring” in our step. With that, it is time to kick that off with a look at some of the players you should pay attention to during the month of March: the bench players. As most fans know, the starter slots for the Braves are mostly set with the exception of catcher, but the bench slots can change on a whim. 2013′s Spring Training saw Evan Gattis emerge as a viable bench player, and he has parlayed a solid regular season into a starting slot. Who will be that emerging up-and-comer this year?
Let’s begin with the most up in the air slot, which seems to be catcher. If we assume that Evan Gattis has made enough of an impact to get the starter job, which many people project, then the Braves are going to likely carry two other catchers in Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit. Laird was actually very impressive last season in 141 plate appearances, with a .281 batting average, .367 OBP, and no errors behind the plate. So, why would Gattis get the nod over Laird? The difference was Gattis’ power, and his 21 home runs in just 354 ABs. What Laird will provide off the bench is a veteran backup for Gattis, a change of pace guys if Evan gets into any extended slumps, and a solid hitter for average in pinch situations.
What about Doumit, though? Why did the Braves bring him in, and is he likely to be a valuable bench asset? Doumit can actually split time as both a catcher and a corner outfielder, which could be key for the Braves in terms of flexibility. Ryan is a decent power hitter who struggled a bit in his last season with the Twins. Doumit over his career has been a .438 slugger, but in 2013 he only posted a .396 slugging percentage. That kind of drop-off precipitated the Twins to look for other options. The Braves are betting that it was just a one-year slump, and the Doumit can come off the bench with some pop, and fill in for Justin or Heyward when they need a day off. However, the Braves made a trade for Doumit in the last year of his deal, so his spot isn’t exactly guaranteed if he can’t perform, and when you factor in his defensive woes, playing time could be at a premium.
The other catcher you’re likely to see at Spring Training this year is the much discussed Christian Bethancourt. If anybody is going to take over Doumit’s spot, it’s going to be Bethancourt. Even if Christian doesn’t make the club this year, you can almost guarantee you’ll see him in 2015 when Doumit and Laird’s contracts expire. Bethancourt hit .277 in AA Mississippi in 2013, with an OPS of .741. He looks like he’s ready for a move up to AAA at the least, but the problem last season was his fielding suffered a bit. Runners really got the best of him with 62 stolen bases and an average 32% caught stealing rate, in addition to 12 errors and 13 passed balls. That was a step back from his 2012 AA season when he only had 8 errors, 5 passed balls, and a CS rate of 39%. As a fan, keep your eye on Bethancourt both in the field and behind the plate. The Braves are going to have some tough decisions with this talented kid down the stretch.
Looking around the rest of the infield, there are several players that will provide backup slots for for the regular starters. On the roster for Spring Training the Braves have invited Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky, Ernesto Meija, and Elmer Reyes. Tyler Pastornicky did a great job last year filling in for SS and 2B before he took a serious injury to his knee that knocked him out of the season. That was especially devastating because Tyler had been set to take over for Dan Uggla for at least a couple of weeks, and possibly longer given Dan’s struggles. Pastornicky was hitting .300 in limited 30 ABs, so it’s hard to get a read on how much improvement he’s made at the plate, or how the injury will affect him in 2014. Right now, the Braves are projecting he’ll be ready for opening day.
Ramiro Pena hit .278 in 97 ABs in 2013 while filling in at 3B, SS, and 2B. Just like Pastornicky, Pena suffered a season-ending injury, but this one was to his throwing shoulder. I believe Pena will be on the bench for his hitting and his ability to spell Chris Johnson when he needs a day off. Ernesto Meija and Elmer Reyes are names that most fans likely haven’t heard of, but they will be battling with Pastornicky and Pena for the infield bench slots. Do they have a chance? I don’t think Meija has a great shot given that he hit .247 at AAA last year, he’s 28 years old, and he’s been in the minors for 9 seasons. He’s one of those players where if it hasn’t happened by now, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Elmer Reyes is just 23 years old, hit .285 at A+ ball last year, but he’s struggled in the field with an astonishing 44 errors in two minor league seasons at SS. Considering how well Simmons fields, I think putting Reyes in that slot as a backup is just too much of a fielding drop-off, not matter the bat. If Elmer is on the team, he would be a late inning option only at the plate.
The outfield bench is going to depend highly on how BJ Upton plays. If he bounces back, I don’t think the Braves will carry any backup outfielders in addition to Doumit and Jordan Schafer. If you remember, Schafer was set to take over for BJ during the awful slump. He didn’t have an amazing hitting year, only putting up a .247 average. However, he was great at drawing walks with a .331 OBP and then stealing 22 bases. That kind of speed and table-setting makes Schafer a viable option to lead off a game or inning, or as a replacement outfielder. Jordan probably would have played more down the stretch if he was hitting better, or if Gattis was hitting worse. As it was, the Braves were desperate to get Gattis’ stick into the lineup, putting him in an OF slot, while moving Jason over to center and Justin to right.
The other guys competing for an OF bench slot would be Jose Constanza, Todd Cunningham, and Joey Terdoslavich. Constanza has been something of an Atlanta bench fixture for the last 3 years, getting several shots to play in the major leagues. However, those opportunities have gotten smaller and smaller with all the available options, and the fact he’s not a power hitter in the slightest. The Braves need power production from their OF slots, so any loss there is huge. Also, when pinch-hitting late in the game, the Braves are looking for more than just a singles and on-base guy, which is mostly what Constanza is known for.
Todd Cunningham got a brief taste of the majors when he was called up for 8 at-bats in July and August. He’s a 24 year old kid who is hitting .265 in AAA with a decent OBP. Again, the problem is that he’s not a power guy at all, so I don’t think the Braves will use him as much in a pinch. Joey Terdoslavich got the benefit of playing the most last season of the 3 possible bench outfielders, with 97 ABs in the majors. However, he struggled to make contact with 24 Ks, and a .215 batting average. I don’t see either of them getting the nod over Doumit, Constanza, or Schafer since they can both hit for higher average more consistently against MLB caliber pitching.
With all of that said, I’d want to see how Doumit, Bethancourt, Pena, Schafer, and Pastornicky look as the final answer to each of the battles in the Grapefruit League. Those are the likely guys that will be fighting for full time slots on the 25-man roster, and I’m looking forward to the battles and the games.