Atlanta Braves

Five Braves positions that will be compelling in 2016

Atlanta Braves' Adonis Garcia looks to the sky as he crosses the plate after hitting a solo home run off of St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha during the sixth inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 26, 2015, in St. Louis. The Braves won the game 3-2. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
Atlanta Braves' Adonis Garcia looks to the sky as he crosses the plate after hitting a solo home run off of St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha during the sixth inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 26, 2015, in St. Louis. The Braves won the game 3-2. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst) AP

Barring injuries or other unexpected developments, the Braves plan to have Freddie Freeman at first base and Nick Markakis in right field for almost every game in 2016 and have newcomer Ender Inciarte as the primary center fielder -- at least until prospect Mallex Smith is ready, at which point they could possibly share the duties.

But what of the other five non-pitching positions? In a pivotal year of the Braves' rebuilding project, this figures to be an interesting season watching things unfold at these five positions:

Catcher

Incumbent veteran A.J. Pierzynski and free-agent signee Tyler Flowers will split the duties at a crucial position made even more important because of the influence a catcher has on a pitching staff laden with highly valued youngsters. It's unclear exactly how the split will work, but Pierzynski said catching about 80 games apiece would be ideal. Pierzynski is 39 but coming off a career-resurgent season in which he hit .300 with nine homers and a .769 OPS, fifth-highest among major league catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. Flowers began his career with the Braves, was a backup to Pierzynski for parts of four seasons with the White Sox through 2012 and has since carved a reputation as a strong game-caller and one of the game's best pitch-framers. He's a .223 career hitter with a .665 OPS in parts of seven seasons, and Flowers had 24 homers and 89 RBIs in 803 plate appearances (239 games) over the past two seasons for the White Sox.

Second base

Second baseman Jace Peterson returns after an in

consistent first full season in the majors, when he played through a thumb injury that might've been a cause for his diminished production. He could get competition from others, including veteran Gordon Beckham, who played 100 games at second last season for the White Sox and had career-worst offensive stats for the second year in a row (.209 average, .275 OBP, .332 slugging percentage). Solid on defense at several positions, Beckham may get a platoon look at second base or serve a utility role. Peterson, 25, hit .239 with a .649 OPS in 2015, his numbers dipping a few weeks after he sustained an 80-percent tear of a tendon in his right thumb. After hitting .309 with a .389 OBP and .426 slugging percentage in a 50-game stretch through June 21, he hit .204/.274/.294 in his final 87 games.

Shortstop

As much as most Braves fans hated to see two-time Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons traded in November, there's great anticipation for the arrival of shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, 22, who came from Arizona in another trade a month later. The Cobb County native was the No. 1 overall pick in the June 2015 draft. Solid veteran Erick Aybar, who came from the Angels in the Simmons trade, is under contract through 2016 and is expected to hold down the shortstop job until the arrival of Swanson, which could be at some point this season. The former Vanderbilt star has only 99 plate appearances in rookie ball, but Swanson's ascendance to the majors could be rapid given his age, college experience and relatively polished skill set. The Braves could even trade Aybar in July if Swanson looks ready by then.

Third base

After Adonis Garcia surprised everyone by hitting 10 homers (with a .277 average) in 198 plate appearances as a 30-year-old rookie, the Braves decided in the fall to move Hector Olivera to left field and pencil in Garcia at third base. The Braves re-signed versatile veteran Kelly Johnson, giving them a potential third-base platoon partner for Garcia, who hit .328 with a .982 OPS vs. left-handers and .256/.706 vs. right-handers. Johnson had 13 homers and a .758 OPS in 300 plate appearances vs. righties and played five positions for the Braves and six for the Mets after a July trade to New York. Garcia's defense, shaky at times last season, improved in winter ball in Venezuela, where he hit .370 with three homers and a .948 OPS in 36 games.

Left field

After watching Olivera struggle at times in his first big-league stint in 2015 while playing a position (third base) he played little in the past, the Braves decided in the fall to switch Olivera to the less-demanding left field spot. They believe it will allow him to focus more on hitting, the skill that led the Braves to trade plenty in exchange for the 30-year-old Cuban rookie in July. The Braves haven't entirely ruled out third base in Olivera's future, but they were satisfied by his left-field play in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and third base looks like Garcia's position to lose entering spring training. Inciarte also could see some time in left field if Smith is brought up during the season.

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