The Braves wrapped up week 3 of exhibition play at spring training this week, going 4-3 with a convincing win with a split squad against the Yankees Saturday.
This week’s scores (3/10-3/16)
This week, as the roster was pared down, the final roster decisions were aligning. With his opposite field hitting and improved defense, Juan Francisco looks to be the Opening Day recipient of a slight majority of playing time at third base. Francisco is continuing the strong offseason he began playing in the Dominican Winter League where he hit .307 with 9 homers and 29 RBIs in 34 games. This Spring, Francisco is hitting .311 with 14 hits in 16 games. He does, however, have 14 strikeouts to match those 14 hits, a stat that was addressed here at BravesWire by Darren Schienbein early in the week. For as often as Roadrunner strikes out, he gets his walks and will get his hits. The tradeoff is certainly worth it.
Evan Gattis continued to impress with his bat this week, proving that he could very well be the backup catcher to Gerald Laird in Brian McCann’s absence. Freddie Freeman hit a monster of a home run at Champion Stadium against the Mets, reminding Braves fans that Freeman has 30 HR power. A healthy Freeman, vision in tact, will only add to the impressive lineup the Braves have built for 2013. This lineup can and will hit for power, but they will also hit for average–something each player has been working toward in their young careers. The Spring Training lineup has yet to see the return of Andrelton Simmons who remains with the Netherlands World Baseball Classic team as it advances to the semifinals in San Francisco. Simmons has flourished in the WBC, an experience just as important to his growth and preparation for the season as Spring Training would have been. The Braves are likely to have him back for at least the final week of exhibition play in Florida, if not a bit more.
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The biggest story lines this week involve pitching.
Kris Medlen was solid in his start against the Marlins on Wednesday, but was forced to leave the game after 4 2/3 innings because he was hit not once, but twice with comebackers on the mound. Medlen said he was fine after leaving the game, his removal was only precautionary. Medlen has only improved this Spring with locating his pitches and has expanded his pitch selection. His confidence with his curve ball is improving and while his velocity will top out at about 93 mph since returning from Tommy John surgery, his command is perhaps the best of the team’s rotation.
Paul Maholm was lights out against the Yankees yesterday, throwing 6 scoreless innings. Perhaps the Braves should play the Yankees every Sunday. Mike Minor threw a gem against the Bronx Bombers last Sunday. Maholm has slowly returned to the form we saw when he joined the Braves at the trade deadline last season. His is truly the story of two Springs. Early on he had little command and now he is in perfect control of his game. Maholm has improved his ERA to 2.33 in 19 1/3 innings. Additionally, Maholm has not given up a home run this Spring.
Tim Hudson came back from a horrendous start to throw a quality outing Friday. Huddy bounced back from that awful Sunday start when he gave up 9 hits and 5 runs in 6 innings against the Marlins. On Friday, Hudson threw an equal number of innings–6–this time only giving up 2 runs on 5 hits. This Spring has shown Hudson’s velocity to be down from previous years. The 37-year-old continues to say that his pitches are not the quality he expects of himself, leaving some wondering if this could be Tim’s final year pitching. Hudson has always said he wants to finish out his career with the Braves.
The once steady bullpen is more in question this Spring than manager Fredi Gonzalez and GM Frank Wren would like. Jonny Venters has had absolutely no command of his fastball. In the same game that saw Medlen hit twice, Venters entered and walked four straight batters. In addition to those four walks, Venters had a wild pitch that handed the Marlins a run. This was Venters’ second outing in a row where he allowed a run in a mere inning of work.
Reliever Eric O’Flaherty made a strong debut, returning to the Braves ‘pen for the first time this Spring to throw a scoreless inning against the Cardinals. O’Flaherty’s return to form will be important for a ‘pen that is questioning the command of Venters and the health of Jordan Walden. Walden, acquired in the Tommy Hanson trade, has been out for nearly a month with a bulging disc in his back. Walden threw batting practice on Saturday after two solid bullpen sessions. His return to Atlanta’s bullpen may happen as soon as this week. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Braves call up J.R. Graham at some point this season. Graham has been dominant this Spring, allowing no runs and only 6 hits in his 9 innings of work. His dominance is good news for the Braves as they’ve watched other members of the ‘pen, like long-man Cristhian Martinez really struggle. Martinez has racked up a 6.48 ERA in 8 1/3 innings.
The Braves continue exhibition play today against the Mets. Atlanta is currently 4th in the Grapefruit League standings behind the Rockies, Padres and Cardinals (no National League East teams) with 12 wins and 11 losses.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.