Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is considering moving third-baseman Chris Johnson into the cleanup spot in the lineup. (Reuters)
LAKELAND, Fla. — Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is leaning toward batting B.J. Upton second and Chris Johnson in the cleanup spot when the season begins Monday afternoon. He realizes those might be unconventional choices, given Upton’s .184 batting average and .268 on-base percentage last season, and Johnson’s modest 12 home runs.
“I think the lineup we’ve been running out the last couple of days is the one that we may start with in Milwaukee,” Gonzalez said Tuesday morning, before watching the Braves pound out 16 hits in a 12-3 Grapefruit League win against the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, including a mammoth homer by Jason Heyward at a place where he’s hit a few.
Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird also homered against his former team, and Ramiro Pena tripled for his team-high 10th extra-base hit, including nine doubles. The Braves got six runs and 10 hits in six innings against Rick Porcello.
Upton has shown some encouraging signs, carrying a .350 OBP and four stolen bases through 18 games before going 0-for-4 on Tuesday to drop his batting average to .259.
Gonzalez has had Johnson in the cleanup spot in the past week, having changed his mind after initially planning to have catcher Evan Gattis bat there. Johnson’s .321 average was second in the National League in 2013, but only 56 of his 514 at-bats came in the cleanup spot.
Johnson had 100 or more at-bats in the fifth, sixth and eight spots, moving steadily up the lineup as the season wore on.
“I like Chris Johnson (at cleanup),” Gonzalez said. “He gives you good at-bats. And he’s a guy that’s not going to change his approach. He’s going to put the ball in play. He uses the whole field and has some big at-bats. … The other day, first inning we get a man on third, two outs. If you get a guy in there who punches out (the inning is over). Chris hit a double to get us that run, and that’s the type of hitter he is.”
Johnson’s three-run homer Monday against the Astros was his first. He had a two-out RBI single in the first inning Tuesday and has hit .290 with six doubles, 10 strikeouts and 10 RBIs in 62 at-bats.
The Braves mostly batted Freddie Freeman (313 at-bats) and Gattis (179 at-bats) at cleanup last season, but Freeman moved to the three-hole in the second half and is entrenched there.
Heyward will bat leadoff after thriving in that role late last season, and Justin Upton likely will bat fifth, followed by Dan Uggla and Gattis in the sixth and seventh spots (in either order), and Andrelton Simmons eighth.
Heyward tied Uggla for the team homer lead with his fourth Tuesday, a towering solo shot off Porcello that cleared the scoreboard in right-center field in the sixth inning, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Heyward’s first big-league homer was a tape-measure shot off Max Scherzer in Lakeland during 2010 spring training in Heyward’s rookie year, a homer that landed on and bounced over the metal roof of a batting-cage building beyond right field. He hit another homer on that roof in a game earlier this spring.