LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Though it is never wise to get overly concerned about the construction of a Spring Training lineup, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has already provided some indication that the top of his batting order could include four consecutive left-handed hitters, at least on those days when the opponent is starting a right-handed pitcher.
When the Braves opened the Grapefruit League season by tying the Orioles, 4-4, on Tuesday afternoon at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex, the first four batters in Gonzalez's starting lineup were Ender Inciarte, Erick Aybar, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. The switch-hitting Aybar is the only member of this quartet that does not strictly bat from the left side of the plate.
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"We might have to [bunch the left-handed hitters]," Gonzalez said. "It could work out that way. Looking at the lineups -- and I've made many of them -- you're going to get at least two left-handed hitters in a row, no matter how you slice it, and maybe three out of four or four out of five, because we're so lefty-dominant."
If Hector Olivera begins to live up to expectations and creates reason to believe he might be capable of handling the cleanup spot, the Braves might gain some more diversity near the top of their lineup. But Gonzalez will still be tempted to keep his two top hitters -- the lefty duo of Freeman and Markakis -- within those top three spots to maximize their number of potential plate appearances.
While bunching left-handed hitters might prove beneficial against right-handed pitchers, it could prove detrimental against those teams that have a reliable left-handed specialist to bring out of the bullpen.
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"It's not like you're going to pinch-hit for Freeman or Markakis," Gonzalez said. "Just the way the lineup is made up, there will be some cases where we're going to end up with three [left-handed hitters] in a row."
Inciarte has been targeted to fill the leadoff role since he was acquired from the D-backs in December. The plan to keep him in this role on an everyday basis could change if the talented center fielder extends last year's trends, when he slashed .332/.369/.457 against right-handers and .227/.253/.277 against lefties.
But until left-handed hitting prospect Mallex Smith reaches the Majors, the Braves do not have many other leadoff options. They could occasionally spell Inciarte with Emilio Bonifacio in center field. Despite the fact that he signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal in December, Bonifacio might have to prove himself in Spring Training just to gain a roster spot. He has produced a .420 OPS against right-handed pitchers and a .621 OPS against lefties dating back to Aug. 1, 2014.
The Grapefruit season will also give the Braves a better feel for what to expect from Aybar, who last year batted .270 with a .639 OPS -- his second-lowest mark since he became a regular in the Angels' lineup in 2010. The veteran shortstop produced a .281 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers last year, which does not provided much reason to consider him an option to occasionally spell Inciarte in the leadoff spot.
In fact, it might be more appealing to place Markakis first in the lineup once in a while. Though the veteran right-fielder produced a .305 on-base percentage against lefties while coming back from neck surgery last year, this mark stands at .341 over the course of his career.