This Braves spring holds precious few real positional battles worth a long, lingering glance. Perhaps that’s a sign your little rebooted baseball team is all grown up.
It will be nice to see if Cole Hamels really does exist and whether he eventually can make it back to Atlanta under his own power.
Watching the King Felix experiment should be better than most reality programming, whether it affects the Braves’ rotation. The top tier of starters seems set. And we can almost issue an ironclad guarantee that Julio Teheran will not be this season’s opening-day pitcher.
There are young’uns to sort out and put in their place, maybe one or two of them will even make a brash push to escape the minors. But the Braves don’t really need any of them to step forward immediately. That’s a good place to be.
As for the bullpen, well, all they require in there is one of those deli take-a-number dispensers. So stacked and stocked are they, just let them conduct a daily random drawing to see which inning each will work.
But then there’s third base, the corner of concern now that Josh Donaldson got a better offer. There’s a real reason for spring training, an intra-clubhouse competition that stands above the rest.
Introducing the candidates, as they stand now:
» Austin Riley
He, of course, is the 22-year-old who when summoned from Triple-A Gwinnett last season immediately declared: “Hulk smash!” He was the National League’s rookie of the month for May. Despite a late start, he tied the Braves’ franchise record for home runs before the All-Star break (16).
It did not, could not, last. Major league pitchers decided to get all canny on him, and Riley did not respond in kind. The curse of the strikeout weighed heavily upon him (he ultimately struck out on 36% of his at-bats in 2019). In his last month, after returning from a knee issue, Riley hit .132 with one home run and was left off the postseason roster.
Early in spring, Riley has celebrated a newer, more efficient swing, which translated into laymen’s terms means that when swinging a bat he won’t look like one of those inflatable tube figures swaying in front of a car dealership.
“I’m very confident,” he says now. “It’s the most consistent (the swing) has been. I’m not coming into spring and the cages and working on something. I got a routine I’m going through every day that’s consistent and feels comfortable. That’s huge.”
And Riley has opted to hold onto the positive parts of 2019 while minimizing the tough finish. If only we all could be so selective. “Knowing I can come up to the big leagues and get it done, along with having that swing that’s consistent, that gives me more confidence,” he said.
He also owns outfield and first baseman’s gloves. But, the Braves thus far have been working Riley strictly at third.
» Johan Camargo
After hitting .272 with 19 homers in 2018, Camargo believed himself positioned to take over the third-base job in ’19. Then the Braves acquired Donaldson. And a dispirited Camargo slumped – his body language was a sad mumble – and he was even sent down briefly to fix himself.
But here he is today a new man who has discovered the virtue of vegetables and hard work. In the tale of the tape in the fight for third base, there is not quite as much to tell with Camargo, 17 pounds lighter now. Everyone seems to love the transformation. As Camargo prepped to meet some media Wednesday, general manager Alex Anthopoulos passed by and joked he should leave his shirt off to show off his new physique to the cameras.
“I learned from that last year. This year my mind is stronger than last year. I’m ready for this season,” Camargo said.
“As far as the competition (for third) goes, I don’t look at it that way. We are both going for it,” he said.
A basic lack of trust in either option has fueled the persistent feeling the Braves would be much better off at some point dealing for the likes of a Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado. Well, of course, they would be. Anyone would be. But let’s say reality gets in the way of such a fabulous coup. Can the Braves get by, or even thrive, with a Riley/Camargo solution?
The Braves are going to tell you that yes, this is a perfectly good option. Because it is spring and everyone is a star waiting to happen.
Some will say it in the strongest terms.
“Josh obviously was tremendous for us, everyone can agree with that,” said the man stationed closest to third, shortstop Dansby Swanson. “But the two guys we got are arguably just as good.
“I think they have a lot of talent defensively. I think they have a lot of talent offensively. It’s just a matter of them doing it consistently, and that’s the big separator in this game. It’s what’s made Josh so good for so many years, not only the ability, but the ability to do it every day and perform well every day. Obviously, I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you who’s going to play, but I know whoever’s over there, there’s going to be a lot of comfort there.”
Said another voice from the infield, first baseman Freddie Freeman: “My plan B is I love Camargo and Riley.”
To which Freeman added: “Is Austin Riley going to do what he did the first four weeks he got called up – I don’t think anybody can do that. I think Austin, hopefully, is on the same track as Ozzie (Albies) was two years ago. (Albies) had a great first half, struggled the second half, and then had a great second season last year. Austin looks great. His swing is a lot cleaner, shorter.
“Johan Camargo in 2018, he was great. I don’t know what else you could ask of someone. If he does that and Austin does what he can do, it’s going to be a great battle in spring training.”
OK, so there seems to be some valid reason to spend the next six weeks down here in the subtropics beyond the beach, the seafood and the golf. Let the fact-finding commence.
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