As the middle of March approaches, with it comes multiple rounds of roster cuts and Opening Day rosters begin to take shape. For the first time in a number of years the Braves actually have some serious contention for several key positions. Well, pretty much all of them, actually.
The only positions that are currently locks are C, 1B, SS, 3B, three spots in the rotation, and a few spots in the bullpen. There are also a couple locks based on contract status and Minor League options, but it’s not currently known where those pieces fit in the grand scheme of things.
Current positional locks:
C – Christian Bethancourt and AJ Pierzynski
1B – Freddie Freeman
SS – Andrelton Simmons
3B – Chris Johnson
IF – Alberto Callaspo
LF – Johnny Gomes
OF – Zoilo Almonte
If Fredi holds true to his word and opens the season with twelve pitchers, the team will be left with thirteen spots for position players. With eight spots as virtually locked down, there are five spots on the roster to sort out between now and April 6.
There are currently seven guys in the battle royale to round out the positional side: Todd Cunningham, Phil Gosselin, Kelly Johnson, Eury Perez, Jace Peterson, Joey Terdoslavich, and Eric Young Jr. They’re joined by dark horses Jose Peraza–if the organization decides he’s ready–and Nick Markakis, who has only recently resumed baseball activities after neck surgery in December.
The most significant battle of the spring is likely to be for the starting 2B spot. Not necessarily because of the pieces, but because it’s been a black hole for two seasons now, and the other two questionable starting positions (CF and RF) will likely have long-term starters once injuries sort themselves out. Five players currently have a shot at the position: Callaspo, Gosselin, Johnson, Peterson, and Peraza. As camp broke, Eric Young Jr. was also in the mix, but we’ll get to him in a second.
Of those fighting for 2B, the only lock for the roster is Callaspo, who the team signed to a Major League deal this off-season. Gosselin ended 2014 as the team’s starting 2B, but has barely been mentioned this spring, which could mean he’s headed back to Gwinnett in a utility role. He’s got an option year remaining, and for all intents and purposes seems like the type who is going to be an organiztional guy left hanging in the balance until something catastrophic happens. Johnson is the greatest thing to ever happen to the game of baseball. Rather, that’s what his fan-boys will have you believe (Ed. Note: He’s not wrong). He has played sparingly at 2B over the past few seasons, so the likelihood he ends up as the team’s starting 2B are minimal, at best. Everyone in the organization has been very surprised with Peterson thus far, which means he has a strong chance of at least making the roster based on all the keywords being used. Peraza is the wildcard. We’ve heard that many feel he’s ready, but I just don’t see the team starting his service clock in a meaningless year in which the team could ultimately be a dumpster fire. If anything, he’s a mid-late season call-up to save him from falling into Super Two territory. He should be up at some point, as the Braves likely won’t burn an option year if he’s not completely polished without getting him at least a little ML service time after the Super Two cutoff.
Ultimately, the 2B job comes down to Callaspo and Peterson. If anything, the two may end up in a platoon of some sort. Both can play 2B and 3B, so with Callaspo being a switch-hitter and Peterson being a lefty, they could also work into a platoon with Chris Johnson if things end up going really south for him in 2015. Based on versatility, I think Peterson–who can play all three infield skill positions–ends up on the roster, alongside Callaspo.
So, if we slot in Peterson that leaves four spots up in the air, with two outfield spots and the bench open for contention. Since he’s yet to take the field and there are only 20-something days left till camp wraps up, let’s take Markakis out of the equation for now. That leaves Almonte, Young, Eury Perez, Terdoslavich, and Cunningham competing for the two starting spots in CF and RF, along with a possible platoon in LF with Gomes.
Young appears to be the fan favorite and front office favorite for CF. He hasn’t seen much playing time in CF over the course of his career, but he’s surprised many with how he has performed so far. How well that will play out long-term remains to be seen, but for now, he seems like the placeholder for the incumbent Melvin Upton while he recovers from a foot injury. If he impresses enough, he may even cut into that playing time and become a permanent addition to the lineup. He’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster, as he’s currently a non-roster invitee, but the team is sitting at 39 players currently and have Danny Winkler to eventually add to the 60-day disabled list.
So that leaves Almonte, Cunningham, Perez, and Terdoslavich competing for the starting spot in RF until Markakis is ready. Almonte is the only one of the four who is likely guaranteed a roster spot, and from how things have looked so far, will likely battle it out with Perez. That isn’t to say the other two aren’t going to have a roster spot, but both have an option year left, which gives the Braves a little more flexibility.
If Young is a lock, and Peterson/Perez are in that gray area between lock and highly probable, what is left is two roster spots on the bench between the other scraps: Cunningham, Gosselin, Johnson, and Terdoslavich. Pierzynski will be the backup catcher. Callaspo and Peterson will be at least one of the bench spots. The same is likely true for Almonte and Perez. Cunningham is strictly an OF, Johnson and Gosselin are strictly IF at this point, and Terdoslavich is a guy without a sufficient defensive home.
As of right now, Johnson is almost limited to 1B and 3B, but he would offer an additional LH bat if Callaspo, Peterson, and Almonte are in the lineup. As would Terdoslavich. Essentially, Terdoslavich would fill the Doumit role from last season where he’s limited to a PH role. Gosselin offers almost nothing of value offensively, especially with Callaspo and Peterson both being off-hand hitters who play two positions, 2B and 3B. Cunningham fits the fifth OF type player perfectly: not a lot of offensive value, average defensively. Tossing out Gosselin, you end up with one of Johnson, Cunningham, and Terdoslavich. Of the three, I’d side with the former two. Terdoslavich gives the team an actual offensive threat from the bench on a team where such a thing is in limited supply, and Johnson gives the team another LH bat and a backup on the corners.
Here’s my guess:
Which leads us to the pitching staff.
The staff didn’t enter camp as up in the air as the position side, but the injury to Mike Minor and reliever Shae Simmons undergoing Tommy John surgery have complicated things a bit.
When March started, the rotation seemed to be set aside from the fifth spot, with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller, and Minor. Unfortunately, the baseball gods decided to limit our number of Minor Days again in 2015, as he’ll likely start the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.
The bullpen seems to have sorted itself out nicely, even if it is almost entirely full of new names. Craig Kimbrel will return to close things out, and James Russell will return after being acquired from the Cubs at the trade deadline in 2014. The new names will be righties Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, two former closers who will likely serve as the 7th and 8th inning guys, and LOOGY Josh Outman. That will leave two spots in the bullpen open, likely one from each side of the rubber. (Reminder: Russell is a lefty, but has reverse splits, so it’s likely he will be carried as the team’s long man.)
For the last two spots, there’s a bunch of non-roster guys and young arms. The only pitcher out of the group who doesn’t fit into either category vying for the spots is lefty Luis Avilan, who showed his true colors in 2014, unable to replicate his 2013 success and eventually being demoted.
Of the non-roster invitees competing for the two rotation spots, one is a lefty who was once a solid back-end starter (Wandy Rodriguez), an injury-prone former phenom (Chien-Ming Wang), a veteran lefty who has bounced around (Eric Stults), and a hard-throwing non-prospect who has gradually impressed over the past couple seasons (Cody Martin).
Their competition are two off-season acquisitions who were once top prospects in their respective organizations. Hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz, who was acquired in the Evan Gattis trade, was a top five prospect in the Astros system the past three seasons, and could slot into either a starting spot or develop into one of the back-end relievers out of the bullpen. Lefty Manny Banuelos, who was one of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball three years ago before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013, could also compete for a starting or relieving spot. With Banuelos still building up arm strength, there is talks he could see a lot of time out of the bullpen this season just to keep his innings in check and make sure he isn’t being overworked.
Right now, it looks like it may be a four-way race between the three veterans – most likely lefties Wandy or Stults – and Martin.
While Martin has only thrown two innings so far, he seems to be getting a lot of attention, and it may even be his spot to lose based on early indications. I honestly don’t see Wang as a contender, as his career has been in the toilet, so Martin’s only likely adversary would be Foltynewicz, assuming the team goes with a righty and a lefty. It’s still up in the air whether Folty ends up as a starter or a reliever. The biggest concern is his secondary pitches and his command of them. He’s got a very electric arm, sitting regularly at 96+, but the lack of quality secondary offerings may lead to him spending some time at AAA this year, or in the bullpen at least. With no other strong right-handed candidate, Cody Martin seems like he may work is way onto the ML roster.
And that would leave the other spot up to either Wandy or Stults. Not putting any weight into their spring numbers, but so far they have matched up almost perfectly in their two appearances each. Stults has got the most work out of the two in the past couple seasons, as Wandy has bounced around a few different organizations. But Wandy has also had more success over the course of his career. Of the two, I’d likely side with Stults, as projections seemed to slightly favor him over the course of a full season.
Out of the bullpen spots, a lot will depend on what the team decides to do with Martin, Banuelos, and Foltynewicz. I don’t see any of the veteran starters sticking around if they don’t crack the rotation, but there are a couple other options to consider. The aforementioned Avilan, hard-throwing righty Juan Jaime, and reclamation project Arodys Vizcaino all stand to make a move for the final bullpen spots. Banuelos is the biggest wildcard, and a bit of a dark horse on the surface. With the lack of another true lefty reliever, and with Avilan’s struggles last year, he could be the guy. As the Braves are looking to limit his innings, they could choose to work him out of the bullpen to not burn those innings early, and slot him into the rotation later in the season. It would be hard to slot Folty in as the likely 12th man out of the bullpen with Johnson and Grilli as the likely setup men. That likely leaves Vizcaino and Jaime as the guys at the end of the bullpen bench keeping Eddie Perez company every night. Jaime is out of options and, I believe, Vizcaino should have two left after spending two full seasons on the disabled list in 2012 and 2013. Vizcaino did make it back to the Majors with the Cubs last season, but he struggled there and in AAA. As much as everyone wants to see what Vizcaino has to offer, he is still only 24 years old and has time on his side. If I had to bet, I’d go with Jaime getting the mop-up role, at least to start the season.
So for the final two bullpen spots, I’m gonna have to go with Banuelos, as I have very little faith in Avilan, and it allows the team to be careful with him, and Jaime, simply because he is out of options and there is no reason to rush Vizcaino back into a full season of work at the ML level.
There is still plenty of time for the Opening Day roster to sort itself out. There is always some fluke injury in the last week or two that throws things into a tailspin and there is always someone that no one expects to burst on the scene and impress the right people.