Five story lines from Braves camp
Starting pitchers are only going 2 to 3 innings, regulars are coming out of the game after 2 or 3 at-bats, and after about the 5th inning it’s really difficult to find anyone you recognize on the field. This is the beauty of the first week of Spring Training games. Unless you find yourselves at one of the minor league affiliates of the Atlanta Braves this season, you are unlikely to see or hear about the exploits of players like Bryce Ball, Travis Harris, and Shea Langeliers. But as MLB regulars ease their way into their workloads, minor league prospects and veterans looking for one last shot at a major league roster take the spotlight. Here are 5 major story lines from Braves Spring Training camp so far this season:
The New ballpark
Cool Today Park is finally a reality. The Braves brand new training complex in North Port, Florida, is a beautiful facility, complete with every amenity a player could ask for. State of the art training equipment, enormous indoor facilities, and 6 practice fields along with 6 multi-use fields provide a much more modern environment for the players to train in compared to the facilities at the Disney Wild World of Sports complex, and it is situated in an area that houses a number of other MLB Spring Training camps, cutting down on the team travel time. By all accounts, the Cool Today Park and complex is a huge hit with players, but the reaction from fans coming to see their team practice and play games has been less than flattering.
Currently there is little to no access to the practice fields where the majority of the activity happens outside of game action. This is where live batting practice happens, as well as fielding drills and pitcher bullpens. For fans, these areas are also where they have a chance to interact with their favorite players, get some autographs, and get their first look at some of the new faces in camp. While the stadium itself is impressive, the lack of interaction with the players has left a foul taste in their mouth. Fortunately, the Braves have made it known that changes are coming.
Of course, now fans are left with the impression that they were an afterthought in all of the planning that took place in the design and implementation of the new facilities, but at least the organization recognized their mistake and is working towards a positive resolution.
The injury bug has arrived
Pitchers and Catchers were still unpacking their gear when it was announced that Cole Hamels had strained his shoulder in his winter workouts and would likely be shut down for the first three weeks of camp. As disappointing as that was, the news that Freddie Freeman was scratched from a Spring Training game with inflammation in his surgically repaired elbow was a gut-shot for Braves fans. As much as the Braves staff would love to downplay this as insignificant, it’s hard for many fans to forget the various injuries that have been similarly downplayed in the past only to prove to be much more significant weeks and even months later. Braves manager Brian Snitker has said that Freddie begged him to play as early as this week, but the team decided that it was more prudent to give him until next week to recover.
Among other players that have been bit by nagging injuries, Adeiny Hechavarria is going to miss some time with a slight oblique injury, and A.J. Minter and Jacob Webb are both being brought along slowly in their work load and are a week behind schedule. Reports are that both are healthy, but it’s highly unlikely that there was no medical concern for their reduced workload after both were hampered with significant injuries last season. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Braves suck at injury updates, so a healthy dose of skepticism is to be expected here.
king felix impresses
Granted, the first couple of appearances for any starter is much more about staying healthy and building strength than actual results, but even if the outcome doesn’t matter it’s still better to pitch well than pitch poorly. In the two games that Felix Hernandez has pitched for the Braves so far, a grand total of 4 2/3 innings pitched, he’s given up 1 run, 3 total hits, and struck out 6. His fastball is being speculated in the 90-92 MPH range and he’s been working his split-finger and changeup regularly and seeing positive early results. The Braves are hoping that he can have a similar career rebirth to that of Anibal Sanchez from two seasons ago, and his first two outings have been encouraging enough to provide some hope he can help stabilize the rotation for the first two to three weeks of the season while Hamels continues to ramp up for the regular season.
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The much heralded duo of Drew Waters and Christian Pache came into camp looking to prove that they could be counted on to be ready if and when the Braves had a need for them this season. To this point, however, neither has been particularly impressive against an array of mainly fringe MLB players and minor league pitchers. Through the first six games of spring training games, Christian Pache is 1 for 7 with three strikeouts and Waters is a cool 1 for 9 with a team high six strikeouts. While there was no chance that either player would be considered for a promotion to start the season, it would have been encouraging to see them have at least some success early in camp and carry the momentum over to minor league camp in the coming weeks. As it is now, they are getting much needed experience and exposure with big league players and coaches, and that’s ultimately what they are here for anyway.
The legend of Bryce ball begins
While Waters and Pache are doing little to garner much excitement, another prospect is taking his opportunity and making the most of it. Bryce Ball, drafted in the 24th round of the draft in 2019, arrived to Spring Training with little fanfare. Once the cameras found him, however, the legend of Bryce Ball was born. Looming over everyone, including Freddie Freeman, the 6’6″ 135 lb slugging first baseman was hard to miss in the cage. As he began crushing balls into the batters’ eye and well into the right field seats in batting practice, the legend reached mythical proportions. He has yet to play a single inning defensively, but at the plate he has gone 1/4 with a mammoth home run, one of only three hit by the Braves to this point this spring.
All he’s done at every level of his career is mash. He finished his high school career in 2016 with 30 HR, and continued to slug at every stop. He had 21 HR in two seasons with Northern Iowa Community College, and finished his amateur career with Dallas Baptist carrying a .325 average and a .614 slugging, adding another 18 home runs. After being drafted by the Braves, he began his professional career by being named the Appalachia League Player of the Year, batting .324 with another 13 HR, and finished the season with the Rome Braves, hitting another 4 HR and .337 in just 21 games. Defensively he’s a mess, mostly due to still growing into his huge frame and the lack of experience overall at 1B, but with Ron Washington working with him daily and secure in the knowledge that Freddie Freeman is not going anywhere for the next couple of seasons, there is plenty of time for Ball to familiarize himself with the position. In addition, there is a good chance that after the next collective bargaining agreement is reached after the 2021 season the National League will finally join their American League counterparts and employ the designated hitter, which would seem to be a perfect use of Ball’s abilities.
So there you have it, the biggest story lines from the first week of Spring Training games. Friendly reminder: these games do not count, despite what the Marlins would like to have us believe: