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Wren, Fredi take evaluation trip to Dominican

ATLANTA -- Braves general manager Frank Wren has been encouraged to hear and read about the success many of his players have experienced in winter leagues this year. This past weekend, he took manager Fredi Gonzalez and a few of his top front-office officials to the Dominican Republic to get a firsthand look at some of these players who could play important roles in Atlanta this year.

This trip provided a glimpse of a slimmer Juan Francisco and allowed the Braves to become comfortable with the fact that either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado are likely going to begin the year as Atlanta's fifth starter. There was also the opportunity to evaluate the development of Christian Bethancourt, who remains on track to be Atlanta's starting catcher by the start of the 2014 season.

Unfortunately, the flu prevented Jose Constanza from playing in front of this Braves contingent this weekend. But the speedy outfielder has spent the past two seasons providing a glimpse of what he will offer when he comes to Spring Training to battle for an Opening Day roster spot.

"Every healthy organization has competition coming from within," Wren said. "I think we've got competition from our fifth-starter's spot coming from within, and I think we've got competition for however we configure that last spot in our lineup. That's going to be interesting to see how it plays out in Spring Training.

"We're also attempting to work through potential deals. But if we went to Spring Training tomorrow with the players we have, I think it would be a very interesting Spring Training in a positive way."

As things currently stand, Wren will spend the next few weeks continuing to evaluate the possibility of acquiring another position player -- either a left fielder or third baseman -- to round out his team's starting lineup.

If Wren does not find an attractive option to fill this need via trade or free agency, Francisco and Constanza could find themselves beginning the 2013 season in a prominent role.

Because it appears more likely to acquire an outfielder, the assumption has been the Braves will begin next season with the versatile and invaluable Martin Prado at third base. But if an acquisition is not made, Gonzalez will also have the option to keep Prado in left field and utilize Francisco as his primary third baseman.

Francisco adhered to the Braves' request that he shed some pounds from his big-boned frame. In addition, the left-handed slugger has continued to show his impressive power potential while hitting .315 with seven home runs and a .565 slugging percentage in 29 games with Licey this winter.

There are certainly some concerns about Francisco's high strikeout rate and ability to consistently hit left-handed pitching. But the 25-year-old infielder showed some glimpses of his potential while hitting .407 with three home runs in 27 at-bats this past July. But he then hit just .167 with one homer in the 54 at-bats he compiled over the regular season's final two months.

"I think we saw that when he played semi-regularly last year," Wren said. "It was different than the end of the year when he was playing sporadically. The guy we saw in the middle of the season is plenty good enough to play every day in the big leagues."

If the Braves are not comfortable with Francisco getting consistent at-bats against left-handed pitchers, they would have the option of using Reed Johnson in left field and Prado at third base when the opposing team starts a lefty.

Instead of putting Francisco in the lineup on a consistent basis, the Braves could primarily use Prado as their third baseman while platooning Johnson and Constanza in left field.

These are just a few of the many options the Braves have discussed while recognizing the fact that there is not a guarantee that they will acquire another everyday player before the start of the regular season.

"We may need to be creative to put the best team out there," Wren said. "That's why I think we have to remember we don't have to make any decisions for the next 3 1/2 months. There's a lot of things that can happen. We could decide in Spring Training that we need this or that. But right now, we feel comfortable about how our team comes together. Can we get better? Sure. But we also feel like we can be very competitive the way we are."

From a pitching perspective, the Braves' only remaining questions seem to involve Teheran and Delgado. As long as neither is involved in a significant trade, one of these pitchers will begin next season as Atlanta's fifth starter, and the other could be placed in the bullpen.

After enduring some growing pains this past summer, Teheran and Delgado have spent the past six weeks pitching for Licey and showing why they have both been highly regarded prospects. They both made their final winter league start this past weekend.

Teheran remains the Braves' top overall prospect despite posting a 5.08 ERA with Triple-A Gwinnett this past summer. He regained a more athletic delivery in August and finished the season in encouraging fashion.

While pitching in front of the Braves' contingent on Sunday night, Teheran displayed this refined delivery and allowed one hit and recorded eight strikeouts over six scoreless innings. He allowed just two hits while completing 16 2/3 scoreless innings over his final three starts.

Delgado posted a 5.11 ERA in six appearances (five starts) for Licey. But he limited opponents to a .233 batting average and recorded 25 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. While pitching in front of Wren and Gonzalez on Saturday, Delgado allowed two runs and recorded six strikeouts in five innings. In the process, he hit 96 mph with his fastball and showed an improved curveball.

"I think last year was a transition for [Teheran and Delgado]," Wren said. "They got their first taste of the big leagues and realized what else they needed to work on and do delivery-wise. Now we're seeing that put into action this winter. Their deliveries look better, and overall, their stuff is crisper than it was this summer."

Atlanta Braves, Christian Bethancourt, Jose Constanza, Randall Delgado, Juan Francisco, Julio Teheran