As the full squad of players reports to spring training Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves will have several interesting position battles for the upcoming season.
The Braves must figure out who will play second base until phenom Jose Peraza is ready later in the year. They must decide on a lineup, which could be a work in progress for a while until Peraza shows up to take over at leadoff. And they must sift through a number of players for the outfield.
But perhaps the most important issue will be the fifth starter’s job in the starting rotation. If the pitching staff has to carry this team with a suspect offense, the rotation must be a strength.
Julio Teheran and Shelby Miller will be the two right-handers, while Mike Minor and Alex Wood will be the top lefties. Minor and Wood must prove they are healthy, since they ended last season less than 100 percent. The early signs are both are doing well and will go through March at full strength.
There are at least five candidates to round out the rotation: veterans Eric Stults, Wandy Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang and young pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos.
Stults might be the early favorite. He’s 35 years old, and the rotation could use a veteran with the other four starters all in their mid-20s. Stults made 65 starts the past two seasons in San Diego. He also finished last season strong, with a 2.74 ERA in the final two months.
Rodriguez just turned 36 last month, and after having nine fairly productive seasons for Houston, the wheels came off for Rodriguez last season. He had a forearm strain and right knee inflammation that didn’t help matters. The Braves just want to give him another chance to see if he can regain his old form.
Chien-Ming Wang was a very good pitcher for the New York Yankees once upon a time. He was 54-22 in his first four big league seasons, but he has won only eight games since 2009 and has lingered in the minor leagues the past few years. It’s worth a shot, but he is a long shot.
The Braves have been pretty lucky through the years at reclamation projects. Aaron Harang was all washed up last year, but the Braves signed him, and he was a dependable starter. Remember John Burkett in 2000? He had been released in camp by another team (like Harang), and the Braves turned his career around.
While it might help the other four to have a veteran on staff, the Braves won’t hesitate to give the job to a youngster if that’s the best candidate. Mike Foltynewicz was acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis deal. He’s only 23 and got his first taste of the big leagues last summer as a reliever for the Astros.
The front office believes Foltynewicz, or “Folty,” can be a premium starter at some point. He has a great fastball in the upper-90s. The Braves want him to improve his breaking ball, and the work Foltynewicz puts in with pitching coach Roger McDowell this spring could accelerate his timetable.
It won’t hurt Foltynewicz to spend more time in the minor leagues, but the Braves won’t cry if he forces their hand with a strong spring to put him in the rotation.
Four years ago, Banuelos was the talk of spring training as a hotshot pitching prospect for the Yankees. But elbow trouble and subsequent Tommy John surgery derailed his career. Banuelos will be 24 this season, so he’s still young. The Yankees were careful with Banuelos last season, but the Braves think Banuelos is ready for a full season now that he’s two years removed from his surgery.
If Atlanta’s offense struggles, as expected, the pitching is what could still keep the Braves competitive. Give the front office credit for assembling a good list of options to round out the rotation. The fifth starter’s competition will be one of the many interesting roster battles for the Braves this spring.
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