As the Braves packed the last of their equipment to put on a truck bound for Lake Buena Vista, Fla. earlier this week, manager Fredi Gonzalez met with media to talk about his expectations for spring training. Here are excerpts:
Q. Are you excited for spring training?
A. I’m starting to get the itch to go down there, smell the grass and hear the sounds of the bat hitting the ball and the guys playing catch. It’s a good time to get going.
Q. What are your ideas about third base and Chris Johnson’s role?
A. At the very minimum you go into it as a platoon situation. That can always change. You start hitting the ball, you start playing well you find yourself in there more and more. And I’ll tell the same thing to Juan (Francisco) when I see him in spring training.
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Q. How do you feel about it, knowing it’s not easy to replace Chipper Jones?
A. I feel good. Watching Juan do what he did last year, he did a nice job when Chipper needed a break. Now he gets an opportunity to play a little bit more or maybe flat out win the job. I think we replace what Chipper could bring us with the left field, with Justin (Upton). If everything falls right, (that’s) your No. 8 spot in the lineup and a third base platoon situation. That’s not bad at all really.
Q. Did Francisco drop a few pounds as you had hoped?
A. He looked OK to me when we saw him in the Dominican right after the winter meetings, the 10th or 11 of December. We’ll see. He’s got a great opportunity, and he knows that. I expect him to be in good shape and I expect him to have a heck of a spring training…If he’s not, shame on him. It’s a good opportunity.
Q. Is Simmons your leadoff hitter because of how the roster shapes up?
A. The way the roster shapes up and there’s really no other guy that we could give that opportunity. I’m sure somebody else will pop up. If we give a guy a day off, we could run Reed Johnson up there.
Q. How big a change is that from wondering how Simmons would handle the eighth spot last season?
A. He did fine there. I don’t think he needs to change anything with the approach to be in the leadoff spot. He’s going to hit leadoff - I talked to Hensley Meulens, the WBC (manager for the Netherlands) – he’s going to lead him off. I told him ‘You do whatever you want. You can put him anywhere you want to win a ballgame.’ He’s only going to see two pitches, and he’s going to hit one for a double. Don’t go out there thinking he’s going to take a six-pitch at-bat and a walk.
Q. Does he need to see more pitches to help others in lineup?
A. I don’t think so. I think he’s going to be in a good spot with all the veteran hitters behind him. I don’t think he needs to do anything to compensate. He needs to get at-bats and see what he can do. I’m sure he’ll grow into that spot. Maybe take a strike early in the game or 2-0 count or 3-0 count, but other than that, I don’t think he needs to change a lot.
Q. Is there even more excitement after two big moves this offseason?
A. I’m really excited about the team, more excited than I’ve ever been about a team going to spring training. It still boils down to you’ve got to play the schedule and who is going to stay healthy…Our goal here is always to get in the playoffs and get deep in the playoffs, and I feel really good about our club.
Q. Do you feel that confidence because of the pitching staff, too?
A. Yeah everybody’s talking about the guys in the outfield but our pitching staff is pretty good. I’ll say better than pretty good. Our bullpen got better with the kid (Jordan) Walden, a guy that’s pitched in the back end of games (32 saves in 2011). If everything goes well, he’s throwing the seventh inning for you, which is good. In the last two years the way we’ve set up, we go (Eric) O’Flaherty, (Jonny) Venters and (Craig) Kimbrel or Venters, O’Flaherty, Kimbrel, the other team knew that we had those two lefties in the seventh, eighth inning. So now we could throw (Walden) and split those lefties up.
Q. When do you expect Brian McCann to be back?
A. I wouldn’t put it past Mac to be there for Opening Day. He’s talked about doing it and he feels good. The only thing (that would prevent him from) being there is how spring training goes. But the last thing that the doctors want before they clear him, he’s got to be able to dive or slide to make sure that shoulder holds up. Maybe that will give him an extra four or five days but hearing him talk, and I know he’s a competitor, he wants to get back in there as soon as he can.
Q. When can McCann play in exhibition games?
A. Mac can do everything right from the very beginning, from what I understand. Playing the games are going to be difficult because it’s not a real controlled environment so he may be getting at-bats in the minor league (camp) maybe some simulated games…We’ve talked about both him and Paul Janish (coming off shoulder surgery too) getting a lot of at-bats early on in the backfields.
Q. Is he cleared to do everything but sliding?
A. Pretty much. I’m sure his throwing is maybe a little behind schedule. But he started throwing about two weeks ago, playing a little catch, he started swinging the bat. He’s really, really close.
Q. Is Christian Bethancourt an option to start the season?
A. Yeah sure. He’s on the roster. (Matt) Pagnozzi who’s got a little bit of major league time. (Evan) Gattis may be an option if we want to do that bring him as a backup catcher. (Jose) Yepez is with us.
Q. Will you look at Gattis as catcher more now?
A. He’s going to catch a little bit in spring training, play a little left field which he picked up last year in the minor leagues. His bat is what’s going to play but having the opportunity to see him play a couple different positions always helps. It’s always nice to have a guy on your roster who could be that third catcher.
Q. Will you use spring training to experiment with your lineup?
A. I’ve kind of kept it the way we’ve talked about it (at the top with Simmons, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton). It depends on Mac and (Freddie) Freeman. You like to go left, right, left, right if we could do it. It’ll play out. I knew I had a lot of lineups (108 last year). It was coming in here sometimes trying to mix and match with a guy that’s pitching against you, but now you feel like you have enough good hitters that your No. 3 hitter and No. 4 hitter are not going to change. It doesn’t matter who’s pitching with those 3, 4, 5, 6 guys.
Q. So McCann at No. 4 then?
A. Mac or Freeman…a healthy Mac, the Mac that we’ve known for the last five years, he’s your 4 hitter. Then you bump Freeman to sixth, you put B.J. (Upton) in the fifth hole and if everything goes well with Justin in the 3 hole. But if it doesn’t well Jason has hit in the 3-hole, put maybe B.J. in the No. 2 and tinker the other way.
Q. Where do you want Tyler Pastornicky to work in spring training?
A. He’s still going to be at shortstop but for me, and I talked to Tyler about this, why can he not be the next Martin Prado? Play a little second base, play a little left field, play third. Maybe we’ll give him a first base glove and put him at first base if we had to because he’s athletic enough to do it. He’s offensive enough to be able to hit and run bases at the major league level so why not? I think we’ll play him everywhere.