Atlanta Braves Column: The year of the ‘Pinewood Derby’

Growing up I was in Boy Scouts and every year we had the pinewood derby. We would craft cars out of wood, stick some wheels on them, and let gravity roll them down a ramped track. The one that ran down the hill the fastest would win.  It’s a little silly, because a lot of it was luck, but hey it was fun to watch!

This year the Braves spring training is a bit of a pinewood derby for who gets to ride the pine of the Braves bench for this season. 7 names enter and whichever ones rolls down the ramp of spring training the fastest (and maybe gets the luckiest) may win the spot.

For the Braves, most of the starting lineup is pretty solid. After that, things get more interesting. There is a real chance the Braves go with an 8 man bullpen making things even tighter for those wonderful spots riding the pine until that high leverage moment (or pitching change). Here’s a glance at who has a chance and why you should and shouldn’t write them off.

The pool is better this year than last year, but it’s still mostly AAAA guys (but aren’t most bench players). These are guys who are currently probably a tad better than AAA players, but not likely to nail down a consistent major league role. There are really only two kinds of players for the Braves bench; prospects that may still have some room to grow, and AAAA veterans that are very much specific role players. The Braves may yet sign an outside name, but assuming they go in house the options are …


The Prospects…

Micah Johnson

Johnson, acquired this winter from the Dodgers, is one of a few names that haven’t reached their ceiling. He’s been on the prospect list for several years but has failed to really live up to expectations at the major league level. I would consider him a not so poor man’s Mallex Smith. When acquired from the Dodgers he was listed as a second baseman, but it looks like the Braves intend to use him as a speedy outfield option. In the minor leagues, this guy looked like he was going to be a leadoff phenom. He has +++++++ speed (I seriously can’t get enough pluses there), and in the minors he made lots of contact. His major league career has showed the bat seriously lag, whether that is just some jitters in the lights or a sign of something more significant is still yet to be determined. The Braves are banking on the former. He’s looked really good this spring, and maybe he’s getting the bat lined up to do some big things. At the very least he will be a terrific stash at AAA in the event of an outfield injury. I think his ceiling is that of someone along the lines of Ender Inciarte, and a floor of a speedy utility man that can be used in late game situations for a slap hit or a stolen base. With a team already built around speed I think he starts at AAA despite being ready for the big leagues.

Johan Camargo

Camargo has looked like a different player in the last year. At one time thought to be a legit prospect, some of the shine wore off as the Braves have added depth to their farm. But he showed up last year in different shape. He went from a bit of a boy to a grown man… and his stats tell the same story. Early on with his change in body type we saw the bat really lag as he tried to figure out how to put the new found build and muscle to use, but he seems to have turned the corner and has truly raised his value in the last 10 months. This spring he’s looked like a very solid bench option. While he’s always been thought of as a decent fielder, it’s his bat that has looked much improved this spring. His contact rate is still a little inconsistent as he finds a balance between contact and power, but this kid has the ability to be a very strong utility piece for the Braves. No, he won’t be supplanting Dansby, but he could be a terrific piece for resting Swanson or Phillips and could even cover a game or two at third if needed. He certainly has the arm. He also has raised enough value that he could be a very decent piece of trade bait for Coppy to use at some point this season. My guess, he has a legit shot at making the bench. If not he’ll start at shortstop at AAA and probably see time in Atlanta at some point this year.

Rio Ruiz

We’ve heard about Rio for a few years now and at one point it was hoped he might be the future at 3B. While it looks like the ship of him taking that job by himself may have sailed, he certainly looks like a very legitimate platoon option. His left hand hitting numbers look pretty atrocious, but he is still young and has had limited consistent opportunities against LHP in the last year. With more reps he might see those numbers rise a bit, but don’t expect too much. That being said he is in the best shape he’s ever been in (a consistent theme with much of the Braves organization this spring). There is still room before reaching his ceiling so he could still make some jumps. My guess is that he makes the team out of Spring Training and at the first sign of any slump from Adonis Garcia (or injury as Garcia came up a bit gimpy in today’s spring training game) Ruiz will certainly get playing time at third. He has some pop in his bat, and I think if he ever became a regular 3B he would be a 10-15 HR guy at his peak. That’s not bad for a bench bat (it’s not bad for a starter). Besides, if you can play 3B there is a decent chance you can play 1st so he makes sense as a (VERY) temporary backup for Freeman if there were injury.


The Known Quantities…

Emilio Bonifacio

Bonifacio has undoubtedly left a bad taste in some Braves fans mouth as his mediocre play in the last few years has left many wondering why he ever got a role in the first place. This year he has shown up at camp reportedly down about 8 lbs, and looking “rejuvenated”. It’s shown up so far in his play as his defense has looked stellar. He’s also batting nearly .300 and has a HR and 3 RBI (as of me writing this) in 17 plate appearances. Look, I don’t expect Boni to be a .300 hitter, but he does have legit speed. You know exactly what you are going to get, and he is a very solid AAAA guy. Is he going to excite you, no… at least not often. But he has a 4.9 war over his career (that’s not bad at all… not good, but certainly not bad). And he offers someone that can play any outfield position, as well as pinch run late in games. I know you guys hate this, but it really wouldn’t shock me to see him get the early call for the Braves bench. Not that he’s necessarily the best long-term option, but because he is the most predictable option. Camargo, Johnson, and Ruiz all wouldn’t be hurt by a little more time at AAA for developing, while Bonifacio really isn’t going to learn much more at a lower level. He is what he is, and that is a solid plug for a hole. He’s not going to add much to the team, but he’s also not going to take anything away.

Matt Tuiasasopo

This guy should get the bench role just for the awesomeness that Braves twitter can create with his name. Signed to be a AAA guy, someone forgot to inform him and he has shown up to Spring Training like he expected to make the team. I love him. His defense is terrible. But who cares, the guy has a big swing and some big pop. He doesn’t have any ceiling left, but I don’t know that it matters. I see this guy as a very poor man’s Ryan Klesko (think Ryan when he was a bench bat). He’s going to come up, swing out of his shoes, and possibly stick it over the fence. He can also play 1B, 3B, and the corner outfield positions, not bad for the Braves where we don’t have a lot of depth. If Tuiasa-BigBo could hit around .245 and hit 7 HR that would be a terrific bench piece to add. With a Braves team built mostly about speed, he doesn’t have it. But what he does have is what a lot of the team doesn’t, big pop. I like him because he’s different and fills a role the Braves really haven’t had in awhile. Of course if he hits only .200 then he’s a waste of a spot and that is certainly a possibility. I’m a fan, but I get it if you aren’t. (To be fair he’s probably the least likely to make the team of anyone listed).

Chase D’Arnaud

Chase is chase. Being married probably hurts his fan-base. He can sing. As to playing baseball… eh… he’s ok. He brings ‘chemistry’ to the team, if you believe in that stuff. He’s fun to watch cause he has fun playing the game. But I don’t think he adds a lot to this team. He has a real shot at getting the bench role because he was fair last year. I really hope he doesn’t. It’s nothing personal. Seems like a great guy, just doesn’t bring much to this team. All you Chase lovers feel free to @ me with why he should make it, but I just can’t make a legitimate case (and I tried).

Jace Peterson

If anyone has a locked position I’m guessing it’s Jace. He can play almost any position, he’s streaky as heck, but can really swing it when he’s locked in. He also seems to get on base when you need him to. I think there might still be a little bit of ceiling left, I’m not sure, but he feels like a poor man’s Sean Rodriguez (and the Braves paid a good bit for Rodriguez). Jace works his butt off (not that that always matters) and I do think he brings some good things to a bench role. I think if he makes the team he plays a lot (at least 4 games a week). He’s not a huge defensive drop in left field from Kemp or Markakis (#goldglovers). With Jace you seem to love him or hate him, I fall more on the love side and hope he makes the team, but the bench seats are tight and I could see him missing out. That being said if anyone had the best odds of making the team I would put them on him.


Let those young guys roll…

If I’m the Braves in this season, I’m using the bench to develop players. Let those young guys roll and hope they’ve got a little flow down the track and I’m pulling from the prospects pile as much as possible. However, with the new stadium the front office also is wanting to win more games, so you might see them go with a more predictable bench. Of course, injuries will ultimately determine a lot about the bench, but these are the options you have. It truly is a race down the track to see who rides the pine. No matter who the front office picks I think it’s a better bench than last year and I think it’s one that can make a little noise from time to time.

All of that being said, I hope we sign at least one bench bat from outside the organization.


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