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An Early Look at Spring Battles

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From the recent comments made by GM John Schuerholz after the LaRoche/Gonzalez trade I get the feeling that there won't be as many positional battles this spring as I had originally thought. Apparently, the second base job is Kelly Johnson's to lose, and the first base job is Scott Thorman's to lose. That's right, no platoons, and no mention of several players having a shot at one position. It also seems that the left-field job may go primarily to the newly signed Craig Wilson. That would make our starting lineup shake out like this:

Player, Position (Bats)
Kelly Johnson, 2B (L)
Edgar Renteria, SS (R)
Chipper Jones, 3B (S)
Andruw Jones, CF (R)
Brian McCann, C (L)
Jeff Francoeur, RF (R)
Scott Thorman, 1B (L)
Craig Wilson, LF (R)

There may be some substituting when facing left-handed pitching, but I'm guessing this is the lineup Cox will stick with for most of the first month or so of the season - regardless of the pitcher the Braves are facing. This lineup has a very nice left/right balance throughout.

The starting rotation can pretty much get penciled in with the fifth spot Kyle Davies' job to lose. The contenders for his spot are Oscar Villarreal, Anthony Lerew, and Lance Cormier - but if Davies is decent this spring he gets the spot.

Player (Throws)
John Smoltz (R)
Mike Hampton (L)
Tim Hudson (R)
Chuck James (L)
Kyle Davies (R)

So that's 13 players secured on the roster. That leaves 6 for the pen and 6 for the bench. I'm wondering if we will only carry 6 relievers in the pen since it should be much more reliable this year than last when we often carried 7 relievers. Here are the pitchers whose bullpen spots are secured:

Player (Throws)
Bob Wickman (R)
Mike Gonzalez (L)
Rafael Soriano (R)
Macay McBride (L)
Oscar Villarreal (R)

If they do indeed only carry 6 relievers then that leaves a fierce battle for only one spot. Even if they carry 7 relievers then it will still be a fierce battle for only two spots. Here are the likely contenders (all right-handers):

Player (Minor League Option)
Blaine Boyer (Yes)
Lance Cormier (No)
Joey Devine (Yes)
Peter Moylan (Yes)
Chad Paronto (No)
Phil Stockman (Yes)
Tyler Yates (Yes)

Paronto and Cormier are certainly interesting cases, and while Paronto could probably make it through waivers after a potentially bad spring, he would probably instead opt to be a free agent. Cormier would likely not make it through waivers with his flexibility to be both a starter and a reliever. This battle is a tough one to call, with the early favorites being Cormier, Paronto, and Yates - but barring an injury they can't all make the team. One scenario that would put them all on the roster is if Davies was passed over for the fifth spot by Villarreal, opening up three spots if the Braves broke camp with 7 relievers - something that could very well happen.

Now to the bench reserves, here is who I think will make it if there are five spots available:

Player, Position (Bats)
Brayan Pena, C (S)
Willy Aybar, INF (S)
Chris Woodward, INF (R)
Matt Diaz, OF (R)
Ryan Langerhans, OF (L)

That's not a lot of power off the bench, but there are some high average hitters. Pete Orr would be the odd man out, but believe it or not he can actually be optioned to the minors. If there are only five reserves, Orr will almost certainly be left out since he can't play shortstop and Woodward can. If the Braves choose to carry six reserves they may still opt to leave Orr out over someone with more speed like Gregor Blanco or non-roster invitee Willy Harris. With a bench like this I can see us making one of those late-season trades for a Daryle Ward type power pinch-hitter.

So when the roster is broken down like this it reveals that there really won't be many battles going on this spring. We thought there would be a second base battle, but that looks to be Johnson's. We thought there might be a left field battle, but Craig Wilson's signing means he will be the primary left-fielder and that will leave first to Thorman. The only real unresolved spots on the roster lie in the bullpen where there is plenty of competition.

We also seem to be pretty well protected against any possible injuries.

  • Villarreal or Cormier if a starter goes down.

  • Tons of guys if a reliever or closer goes down.

  • Wilson if Thorman goes down.

  • Diaz, Langerhans, Blanco, and even Johnson if an outfielder or two go down.

  • Aybar if Chipper goes down.

  • Woodward if Renteria goes down.

  • Prado if Johnson goes down.

  • Pena if McCann goes down (would Wilson back up, or someone salty from the minors?).

Later in the season we could also have several prospects emerge as possible injury replacements: Salty at catcher, Kala at first, Campbell at second, Lillibridge and Escobar at short, Pope at third, and Lerew, Harrison or Reyes in the rotation. Most of this next wave of stud prospects for the Braves still need a full year of triple-A or a year of both double-A and triple-A, so many of these guys would probably be rushed to fill in next year. In short, our roster looks strong and well constructed with a good mix of young guys and veterans in just about every category. Pitchers and catchers are less than a month away!