Inbox: Is B.J. Upton's slow start cause for alarm?
Beat reporter Mark Bowman answers questions from Braves fans
If B.J. Upton continues to play like this, how much longer will he bat second?
-- Mike J., Auburn, Ala.
The popularity of this question has grown after Upton went 1-for-12 with six strikeouts during this week's Opening Series against the Brewers. If this trend continues, the Braves will obviously have to look at placing Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons or Chris Johnson in the No. 2 hole.
But making a knee-jerk reaction after three games -- or a span of 12 plate appearances -- would not be wise. Along with manager Fredi Gonzalez giving B.J. the impression that he doesn't believe in his ability to turn things around this year, Gonzalez would also be displaying the kind of indecisiveness that can prove problematic for managers.
Since the Spring Training season began, Atlanta has naturally hoped B.J. would start playing like the B.J. of old -- a player whose speed can prove beneficial near the top of the lineup if he gets on base with the frequency that he did while compiling a .346 on-base percentage with an average of 37 stolen bases from 2007-11.
In other words, the Braves are hoping to see more of what Upton did during Wednesday's ninth inning, when he hit a sharp single to left before swiping second base.
As B.J. progressed through the spring season, he showed some signs he was capable of regaining the consistency he lacked while compiling a .286 on-base percentage and averaging 160 strikeouts the past two seasons.
One thing we all have to remember is that the veteran center fielder is bound to flirt with that 150-strikeout total again. Even when Upton compiled that .346 on-base percentage during his first five full Major League seasons, he was striking out once every four plate appearances.
Over the past two seasons, Upton struck out once every 3.4 plate appearances. If he continues to trend in this direction, there would be reason to move him back down in the lineup. But if you have a manager who is willing to alter his plans after three games -- especially the first three of the season -- then you probably have a bigger issue in the long run.
Do you think the Braves can compete for another National League East title?
-- Tommy M., Roanoke, Va.
Over the past few weeks, I have held the belief that the Braves have to consider themselves fortunate if they exit April with a winning percentage around .500. In order to keep their head above water as they go through this opening month with an injury-depleted starting rotation, they will need some surprising performances -- like the one Aaron Harang provided on Wednesday, in working 6 2/3 stellar innings vs. the Brewers.
The Braves are fortunate in the fact that they are far from the only NL East member that has been plagued by injuries. The Nationals will not see prized offseason acquisition Doug Fister make his first start until May, and underappreciated catcher Wilson Ramos is dealing with a hand injury that will sideline him a month -- and quite possibly burden him throughout the season.
The Marlins are quite capable of becoming the early-season darlings in the NL East. Their starting rotation is loaded with talented young arms, and Giancarlo Stanton is no longer the only asset in the lineup. But if they start to get healthier, the Braves and Nats will once again be the teams battling for the division crown in September.
Last year, Atlanta's pitching staff carried the load for a slumbering, inconsistent offense. This year, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Co. will likely have to do the same for a pitching staff that will look much more formidable as long as Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd stay on schedule to join the rotation over the next couple of weeks.
If this rotation does start to become more whole over the next couple of weeks, there is no doubt the Braves have the ability to defend their NL East crown. But they have to escape April with their heads above water.
Will we see the Braves lock up any more of their core players this year?
-- Jack T., Spartanburg, S.C.
It does not appear anything is imminent. But if the Braves were to lock up another player at some point this season, Minor would be the most likely candidate. Minor, who gained a $3.85 million salary as a Super Two player this year, has three arbitration-eligible seasons remaining. This would not be a bad time for Atlanta to attempt to gain some cost certainty regarding Minor, who ranks fourth among all Major League left-handed pitchers with the 2.90 ERA he has compiled since July 2012.
Minor's decision to recently end his affiliation with Bo McKinnis and hire BB Abbott as his agent certainly doesn't guarantee an extension will be given at some point. But by aligning himself with Abbott (who has represented Chipper Jones and Brian McCann), Minor led some around the industry to believe this was another sign that he wants to stay in Atlanta as long as possible.
Is there a chance Alex Wood will be shut down at some point this year because of an innings limit?
-- Janet P., Griffin, Ga.
The Braves have entered this season knowing that they do not want Wood throwing much more than 170-180 innings. It's not like this figure will sneak up on them. But it remains to be seen whether the club will have enough depth to occasionally skip Wood or push him back a couple of days to moderate his workload and strengthen the possibility that he will have some wiggle room down the stretch.