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Thursday May 26th, 2016 3:19AM

Braves have few questions for spring training

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Fredi Gonzalez says it's easy to see why he has never been more optimistic at the start of spring training.

With pitchers and catchers reporting Monday in Kissimmee, Fla., the Braves' manager already has a clear picture of what his team should look like in April.

Barring any surprises, the only question is third base, where there likely will be a platoon to replace the retired Chipper Jones. The third baseman - Chris Johnson or Juan Francisco - probably will hit eighth. Every other position looks set.

"If everything falls right and everybody is doing what they're supposed to be doing, to worry about the No. 8 spot in the lineup and the third base platoon situation, that's not bad at all, really," Gonzalez said.

Thanks to offseason moves that added the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, to the Braves' outfield, the spring training schedule for Gonzalez could look something like this:

- Check on catcher Brian McCann's rehab from shoulder surgery.

- Update the third-base competition.

- Take a look at the battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

- Play golf.

Gonzalez is confident the Uptons will replace the offense lost when Jones retired, Martin Prado was traded and Michael Bourn was not re-signed.

The rotation is almost set. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm are the top four starters. Brandon Beachy is expected to return from elbow surgery by midseason. Julio Teheran may be the leading candidate for the No. 5 spot until then.

After that, the only questions are the last spot or two on the bench and in the bullpen.

Gonzalez and Braves general manager Frank Wren believe the team is stronger after winning 94 games and losing to St. Louis in the wild-card game last season.

"I'm really excited about the team, more excited than I've ever been really about a team going into spring training," Gonzalez said. "It still boils down to you've got to play the schedule, and it still boils down to you've got to stay healthy."

McCann, a six-time All-Star, is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Gonzalez said McCann should be cleared for hitting and throwing from the start of spring workouts, but he may be kept out of exhibition games until he also is given the go-ahead for sliding and diving.

The full clearance may not come until mid-April, which would force McCann to miss the first two weeks of the season.

"I wouldn't put it past Mac to be ready for opening day," Gonzalez said. "He's talked about doing it and he feels good and he could do it. I think the only thing is how spring training goes."

Veteran Gerald Laird, signed as a free agent, is the new backup to McCann.

At third base, Johnson came to Atlanta with Justin Upton in the seven-player trade that sent Prado, right-hander Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers to Arizona.

Johnson hit .281 with 15 homers and 76 RBIs last season. Francisco hit .234 with nine homers with 32 RBIs while playing behind Jones.

Johnson, 28, said he is not willing to assume there will be a platoon.

"Going into spring training, obviously I'm eyeing that starting job," Johnson said following a workout at Turner Field last week. "I know there's going to be a battle in spring training to figure out if someone can take it."

The 6-foot-2 Francisco is listed at 245 pounds, and the Braves would like to see a slimmer version report to Kissimmee.

Gonzalez said Francisco "looked fine" when he saw the third baseman in December.

"He's got a great opportunity and he knows that, so I expect him to be in good shape and I expect him to have a hell of a spring training. ... I expect him to be ready to go," Gonzalez said. "If not, then shame on him."

Gonzalez plans to have shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who hit .289 in only 49 games in his debut last season, hit leadoff.

Hard-throwing right-hander Jordan Walden, acquired from the Angels for Tommy Hanson, adds more balance to the bullpen. He joins left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty as setup men for closer Craig Kimbrel.

"The other team knew that we had those two lefties in the seventh and eighth," Gonzalez said. "Now with the chance of Walden, we can split those lefties up and make it more difficult for the other team to counter us with the two lefties in back-to-back innings."
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