LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There was little fanfare when Luis Avilan was cut from his first Major League camp last year. But by the time the season was over, Avilan had escaped relative obscurity and established himself as one of Atlanta's top relievers.
"I don't even remember him the Spring Training before," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I remember hearing some of the coaches say that his body changed for the better. He came up right before the All-Star break, and I walked right by him. I didn't know who he was. But he sure made his presence known right after that."
Avilan made just one Grapefruit League appearance before being sent back to Minor League camp last year. At the time there was certainly little reason to believe he would get a surprise call to the Majors in July and then post a 2.00 ERA in 31 appearances with Atlanta.
When Avilan was at Spring Training last year, his fastball sat around 91-92 mph. When he began the season at Double-A Mississippi, he dedicated himself to running twice a day. He credits those conditioning exercises for the primary reason he occasionally touched 95 mph with his fastball late last year.
"You have to work really hard and try to have some luck to get to the big leagues," Avilan said. "I'm the kind of guy who thinks if you work really hard, good things are going to happen."
Avilan's success has positioned him to be back in Atlanta's bullpen at the start of the coming season. He could team with Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty to give the Braves three left-handers in the bullpen.
Gonzalez ready for games to begin
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- After watching his team take countless rounds of batting practice and complete fielding drills over the past two weeks, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is looking forward to the chance to see his team open the Grapefruit League season Friday afternoon against the Tigers.
"After a certain amount of time, you want to see somebody with a different-colored uniform," Gonzalez said. "These guys are ready to go and play some games. We'll still get our work in. But we'll be able to play some games."
Tim Hudson is scheduled to throw the first pitch at Champion Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET. Hudson is scheduled to pitch two innings. Craig Kimbrel and Cory Gearrin are among the Atlanta relievers who are expected to pitch one inning.
With Andrelton Simmons batting leadoff and Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot, Gonzalez's lineup for Friday's game looks much like his projected Opening Day lineup. Jason Heyward will bat second, and Justin Upton will bat third. B.J. Upton will bat fifth and be followed by Dan Uggla, Juan Francisco and Gerald Laird.
Like last year, the Braves are expected to use a designated hitter during the early weeks of the Grapefruit League season. Blake DeWitt will begin Friday's game as the DH. After a couple of plate appearances, he will be replaced by the powerful Evan Gattis, who will most likely continue to draw attention over the next few weeks.
If Gattis impresses with his bat during the Grapefruit League season and proves he can play left field and first base when necessary, the Braves might be tempted to put him on the Opening Day roster. The 26-year-old's defensive skills as a catcher are likely not sound enough for him to play the position on a regular basis. But his offensive potential has given the Braves motivation to attempt to find a potential role for him at the big league level.
Competition at third is even for now
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to alternate Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson as his starting third basemen on an every-other-day basis during the early portion of Spring Training. He used a similar arrangement when Tyler Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons were battling for the starting shortstop job last year.
The Braves could begin the regular season with Francisco and Johnson platooning at third base. But Gonzalez said there was a chance that one of them could exit the Grapefruit League season with an everyday role at the position.
"The best case, maybe one of those guys wins the job, which is OK," Gonzalez said. "It's open for that also. I think Spring Training will take care of that."
Johnson combined to hit .281 with 15 home runs and a .777 OPS in 136 games with the Astros and D-backs last year. The concerns about him center around his defense. He had a -10.7 UZR/150 defensive rating last year. The only player with a lower mark was Detroit's Miguel Cabrera with a -11.2.
Francisco batted .234 with nine homers and a .710 OPS in the 93 games he played for Atlanta last year. One of the knocks against him as an everyday player comes from the fact that he has hit .190 while totaling just 67 of his 386 career plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. There are also some concerns about his durability. The Braves were hoping that he would have arrived at Spring Training having lost a few more pounds than he did during the winter.
"You want competition in Spring Training, and you want somebody to win the job," Gonzalez said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.