Mat Gamel was never guaranteed to earn a spot on the bench, but he was certainly a qualified candidate and one that a lot of people – me included – wanted to see win the final bench spot. Unfortunately, his knee continues to bother him and he was released earlier this week. So, what does his release mean for the battle for that final bench spot?
Let’s take a look first at what the bench currently looks like. Ryan Doumit, Gerald Laird, and Jordan Schafer are more-or-less guaranteed spots on the bench. Ramiro Pena probably is as close to guaranteed as you can get as the backup shortstop. That leaves one spot between Tyler Pastornicky, Joey Terdoslavich, and the rest of position players on the 40 man roster plus the non-roster invites.
First things first, injuries happen and they can certainly happen during spring training. One injury to a regular or bench guy opens up another spot and makes the competition a bit bigger. It is not outlandish to expect at least one semi-significant injury during spring, so the battle could change form in a hurry.
The front runner to me, at least at the start of camp, is going to be Pastornicky. While Pastornicky does not have the type of versatility as a pinch hitter that Terdoslavich has, he does provide more flexibility than Terdoslavich in the field. Essentially, Terdoslavich’s role was filled entirely by Ryan Doumit – another switch hitting first baseman/corner outfielder, plus Doumit has the "ability" to catch.
Pastornicky is a fine bench option, specifically if he is being looked at as a utility man rather than a "second baseman." If Pastornicky continues to take reps in the outfield, he will be that much more valuable to the roster. We have mentioned this a few times, but Pastornicky’s best comparison on ZiPS was Martin Prado, which is certainly a good sign. He is younger than second base hopeful Tommy La Stella, so while we have been seeing him up and down at the major league level the past few years there still is room to grow. We have seen a good amount of Pastornicky, but we should not peg him to be "x" just because he struggled in his first major league stint. It happens to a lot of players.
Terdoslavich reportedly had a great spring. He would be the more valued member of the bench were he to be the player we expect him to be. Even more, he could be a useful trade piece if he is actually the hitter we want to be. Unfortunately, I think he is the hitter we think he is more than what we hope he is. The issue comes with his lack of positional flexibility. If he gets the last spot, the Braves essentially have three backup outfielders and only one backup capable of playing second, third, and shortstop.
Which leads us to our next candidate, who is certainly a dark horse, Tyler Greene. Greene is a 30-year-old utility man who has, for lack of a better word, struggled in his major league stints to date. He has played in 288 major league games and racked up 746 plate appearances – so more than a year’s worth of regular PA’s – and yet has just a .224/.289/.356 line. Despite the poor line, he has helped in the power department with 17 homers and also in the speed department with 28 stolen bases while being caught just four times. He has the tools to succeed, and the Braves have turned backup players with poor performance histories into contributors before (Jordan Schafer, Ramiro Pena of late, and plenty of others during the Bobby Cox era). Greene is a former first rounder and a Georgia Tech alum, so the Braves are hoping coming back down south helps him utilize the tools that led him to be the 30th pick of the 2005 draft. The Braves also drafted him in the second round out of high school in 2002 but he opted to attend Georgia Tech instead, so the Braves have had an eye on him for quite a while.
The last situation I could reasonable foresee, with everyone remaining healthy, is Tommy La Stella beating out Dan Uggla for the second base role and Uggla being used to fill in the final bench spot. This is not the most likely of scenarios, but it is certainly possible if Uggla does not perform and La Stella wows throughout March. The important thing is to not expect this to happen, because again it is not exactly likely, but it is possible. This would give the Braves another lefty in the lineup and a solid right-handed power option late in games were Uggla to be utilized as a bench guy. Personally, I think it could be useful to get La Stella some playing time at third base this spring. I know he is competing for a spot so learning a new position is not exactly something that sounds enticing, but the Braves are banking on a guy who started out last season in a platoon with Juan Francisco and have essentially no fall back option were he to turn into a pumpkin this season. Do I expect that to happen? No, but it is possible that Uggla comes back to form and Johnson struggles, in which case having La Stella be able to slot in at third could be valuable. Plus as I mentioned earlier, injuries happen. If Johnson gets hurt, the Braves are putting out Pena at third base every day. Pena may be the guy we saw last year, but he also may be the guy he’s been for the rest of his career. The other option at third would be Pastornicky, who is not confidence inducing at that position either. Having La Stella be an option at third just creates more flexibility.
All in all, I expect Pastornicky to come in and win the job, despite being a bit behind the eight ball as he recovers from his injury. Terdoslavich could win it with his bat, and Greene could come from behind and steal the spot from both of them. The Braves have liked Greene for a while and he has better tools than the both of them, but he is also much older and has a longer history of not being good at the major league level. Gamel getting released is certainly bad news, but it will be interesting to see how these players compete with what was possibly the favorite to win the job now out of the picture.