Spring Training starts in Florida!

A.J. Pierzynski is one of the new faces at Braves spring training.

It’s here! Pitchers and catchers are reporting to Braves training camp in central Florida for the start of spring training. We no longer have to count down to the day pitchers and catchers arrive. It’s here!

So what will be the things to watch for the pitchers and catchers over the next seven weeks? Well, we have a list.

1. Who will win the 5th starter’s job?
It will be a true competition, with veterans Eric Stults and Wandy Rodriguez having a slight advantage over young pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos. Stults started 55 games in the last two seasons with the Padres and he finished strong in the last two months of the season. Rodriguez must prove he is healthy. The preference may be for “Folty” and Banuelos to start out in Triple-A, but either could do well in March and surprise, particularly Foltynewicz. The Braves won’t cry if the hard-thrower they got from the Astros makes the decision to send him down difficult. If Roger McDowell can help his secondary pitches, Foltynewicz will have a chance. Chien-Ming Wang will get a shot, as well.

2. Are Mike Minor and Alex Wood healthy?
The two lefties ended last season less than completely healthy, so they must both prove they are ready for a full season. The early reports are positive, and that does matter. Minor is getting close to free agency, so he has a lot on the line to prove he can be a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. The Braves really need both to combine for between 350-375 innings for the rotation to be one of the best in the game. If there are issues, the candidates for the fifth starter’s job may be in the mix as replacements. But the Braves believe both Minor and Wood are ready to go. They will have to prove that in March.

3. Who will fill out the bullpen?
Craig Kimbrel, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson and Josh Outman are locks, and James Russell right there, too. So that would leave two spots open with Arodys Vizcaino, Luis Avilan, Juan Jaime, Jose Veras, Matt Capps, Todd Coffey, Michael Kohn, Brandon Cunniff, Ian Thomas and Donnie Veal the main candidates. Veras could be a leading possibility with his experience as a closer just two years ago. Avilan must prove he is healthy, as there are lingering questions about his stuff after his lackluster 2014 season. Last year we could not have imagined that Thomas and Ryan Buchter would make the opening day roster, and we might also have a surprise this spring.

4. Which pitcher could surprise this spring?
Michael Kohn could be the man to make a strong impression. He’s got a great fastball and has done well in the big leagues with the Angels. Don’t be surprised if the Braves let Wandy Rodriguez be the long reliever now that David Hale is in Colorado. Jason Hursh made an impression last spring, and the Braves would love for him to show he is getting closer to the big leagues this March. Maybe Cody Martin will show that he can be an option this week if needed during the season.

5. Is Christian Bethancourt ready for the full-time role as catcher?
The Braves hope so. Bethancourt has improved with the bat the last two seasons. There should be realistic expectations of what he can do at the plate, since he is not Evan Gattis or Brian McCann. However, his arm behind the plate is a weapon, and he should help cut down base runners once he proves how strong his arm is. It’s a gun. Bethancourt could still struggle at blocking the plate at times, but the Braves believe he is ready to lead a pitching staff. The thought is he is ready, but with a rookie catcher you always have to have a contingency plan.

6. Who wins the backup catcher job?
A.J. Pierzynski is the leading candidate and it’s very doubtful his spot is in jeopardy. He can only make Bethancourt’s spot as starter a bigger question if he has a great spring training. But could John Buck make the roster as the third catcher? Yes. It is very possible. The Braves want the catcher’s spot to be a strength, so if Buck shows he can hit a little bit he’ll have a legit chance at a roster position.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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