COMMENTARY | With spring training winding down, the Atlanta Braves are still asking themselves some of the same questions they had at the beginning of spring.
Will the high strikeout numbers be a problem? Will third base be a revolving door all year? Who is going to lead this pitching staff?
These questions are not likely to be answered before opening day, and some won't be answered until the season is over. But let's look at what needs to happen for these issues to be fixed, or if they'll even be a problem for this playoff contending team.
Looking for an ace
There is no question the strength of the Braves for years has been their pitching staff. While that may shift this year with the additions of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, Atlanta still expects to have one of the best rotations in baseball.
However, as good as this rotation has been in recent years, it is still looking for that true No. 1 at the top.
Tim Hudson is the unquestioned leader of this staff, but he's far removed from being an ace. If Hudson's spring numbers are any indication, the Braves will be lucky if he's a middle-of-the-rotation arm this year.
Mike Minor proved in the second half of last season that he can be a very good major-league pitcher, but an ace he is not.
There are three potential candidates who could emerge as the team's ace as the 2013 season progresses.
Unlike the case for Hudson, if spring training stats mean anything Julio Teheran is on his way to being a great addition to the Braves' pitching staff for the entire 2013 season. As of March 18, he's thrown 20 innings this spring, allowing three runs on seven hits and six walks while striking out 25.
He was once viewed as a potential ace in the rotation, and based on his winter-league and spring numbers, it looks like those projections could come to fruition. He is still just 22 and has yet to prove he can handle major-league lineups during the regular season, but if he fulfills his potential the Braves could very well find their future ace.
The other two obvious choices that could be ready to assume that role sooner are Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.
Beachy was well on his way to claiming that status in 2012 before being shut down, and he won't be able to prove he's that guy again until late-June.
Medlen earned ace status in the second half of 2012, but he'll need to prove that wasn't a fluke this year.
In order to be a legitimate World Series contender, the Braves need that shut-down pitcher at the top of the rotation.
Replacing Chipper Jones
There is no replacing Chipper Jones. Finding someone to put up similar -- or possibly even better -- numbers will be easy. But neither Juan Francisco nor Chris Johnson will be able to fulfill the role Jones played for the Braves over the past 20 years.
However, they are both performing well during spring training, which is complicating the process of finding someone to man the hot corner on a daily basis.
Francisco is hitting .326 as of March 17 with four home runs, while Johnson is at .333 with three home runs.
With two weeks left it's hard to imagine one of the two significantly running away with the job. Most likely, the Braves will begin the season using both in a platoon role. In a perfect world, you'd like for one to grab hold of the spot.
Johnson has been worked at first base some this spring, which will allow him to get in the lineup more often when Freddie Freeman needs a break.
Both of these guys hitting so well is not a problem, but mixing and matching them and keeping them hot with frequent at-bats will be a struggle this season for Fredi Gonzalez.
Swing and a miss
The biggest concern, or knock, you hear on the Braves' lineup this year is the amount of strikeouts they're going to pile up.
In 2012, the Braves were seventh in the league, fourth in the National League, in strikeouts with 1,289.
They had three players in the top 20 in strikeouts. Michael Bourn was one of them, but he was replaced by B.J. Upton, who struck out 14 more times than Bourn last year.
Of course, when dealing with high-strikeout guys there is usually the reward of high home-run numbers. If the Braves are leading the National League in home runs, I don't think strikeouts will be a huge problem.
Strikeouts aren't necessarily as big of an issue as timely strikeouts. With runners on base, some hitters need to do whatever it takes to put the ball in play. But with two outs and nobody on, I say it's all right to let your sluggers rip away.
It's a forgone conclusion that the Braves will be among the leaders in strikeouts this season. Even in spring training they're third in strikeouts, as of March 17. But they're fourth in home runs.
As the Braves move forward this year, they'll need to learn how to put the ball in play more effectively. And some hitters need to realize that just making contact is more effective than taking a hack.
While the Braves don't have as many pressing issues as other teams, fixing these minor problems can help turn them into a serious contender in 2013.
Jake Mastroianni has written for several websites pertaining to the Braves and baseball in general. He also has experience working in media relations for minor league baseball, as well as at the collegiate level.
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