We'll start with the position players, where there weren't any real battles for starting spots, but where a bench that began Spring Training with substantial promise by the beginning of April morphed into the typical limp-swinging Braves' reserve corps of the past decade.
Some of that was unavoidable. The fact that the Braves entered spring with Jorge Valendia and Jesse Garcia as their primary competitors for the middle infield spots isn't something Bobby Cox could help. It was, on the other hand, something John Schuerholtz had a big hand in and could have prevented many months by bringing in somebody who could play SS and out-hit Mike Hampton. Betemit has the most ability of the three, but for that very reason he's probably best served playing everyday in Richmond, instead of getting a few at-bats every week pinch-hitting.
On the other hand, Garcia's a good addition to the bench only in that he's better than the quasi-laughable Jorge Valendia. He hit .300 in Richmond the last two years, which is swell, but that was with Sanchez-esque plate discipline and precious little power.
Garcia's "bat" contributes one more weak hitter to a bench that won't really frighten any opposing pitchers, and management certainly could have sculpted a more potent group of back-up outfielders.
Gary Matthews Jr. certainly isn't anything special, and the desire to save some money by cutting him when they did is understandable. But he is a fundamentally solid player, capable of playing all three outfield positions, drawing an occasional walk and even hitting with a bit of pop. DeWayne Wise, formerly the Blue Jays' Rule 5 pick, doesn't possess those latter two skills. He's speedy, but then again, so is Roger Cedeno, and that speed doesn't make Wise (or Cedeno for that matter) a useful bench player. He's a career .218/.262/.383 hitter…in AAA. His major league numbers are nausea-inducing.
The Braves were clearly not pleased with Branyan's propensity to strike out, which in and of itself isn't a particularly logical reason for keeping a player off your team, but at least has some defensible qualities. What's hard to understand is why Branyan's lack of contact took the Braves by surprise. This is a guy with 449 strikeouts in over 1100 major league at-bats, did the Braves expect to turn him into a contact hitter with a little over a month of exposure to Pendletonism?
What makes the exile of Branyan even more laughable is that the disabling of Marrero allowed the Braves to keep…Michael Hessman, who's basically a right-handed Russell Branyan, only with less power, fewer walks and yes, fewer strikeouts. That doesn't make Hessman a contact hitter; he struck out 87 times in 359 AAA at-bats. Just because the pot isn't as deep a shade of black as the kettle doesn't make the pot white, or for that matter a particularly light shade of gray.
Basically then, the best situational bench bat the Braves possess will be whichever one of Adam LaRoche or Franco isn't starting that day, and that's not impressive. Those are both solid hitters, but they don't provide much of a homerun threat. Franco will rope doubles off lefties and work some walks; LaRoche will do the same off right-handers. That's valuable, but you'd like somebody off the bench who can provide some thunder.
Hessman can do that, I guess, but not half as well as Branyan. Hessman looks too much like the next Wes Helms too prompt any excitement amongst fans when he steps to the plate.
If the Braves don't have a bench with power, they do have an impressive collection of power arms to frighten the opposition late in games. Smoltz we know about; Reitsma, for all the criticism his acquisition garnered, is a solid relief pitcher with legitimately great stuff; the same can be said about Juan Cruz, sans criticism. Cruz lacks the control Reistsma and Smoltz possess and a legitimate case can be made that Cruz should spent some time in AAA to work with Guy Hansen, but he can be an exciting force for the Braves out of the bullpen.
The rest of the bullpen has some intriguing arms, though no real solid contributor. I thoroughly lambasted the Braves for the Alfonseca signing, and the money he's getting is pretty ridiculous, evidently having been earned 4 years ago when he saved over 40 games for the Marlins. One would think that the Proven Closer ™ sheen would have worn off by now, but evidently once the Secret Society of Proven Closers bestows upon you the secret decoder ring and the password to the clubhouse with "No Girls Allowed" scrawled over the doorway, its forever.
That said, Alfonseca was a legitimately solid pitcher during those halcyon days of "Elite" Closerdom. He throws hard and his pitches have shown decent movement in the spring. It's not out of line to expect Alfonseca to be a league-average pitcher, and that's a valuable thing to have.
Cunnane was evidently on the edge, but he survived the cutting block, fortunately. His minor league numbers prophesy a solid major league reliever, and the Braves did well to keep him around.
Gryboski is what he is and doesn't warrant much comment, other than noting that his shoulder seems held together by duct tape and baling wire at this point. Just something to keep an eye on.
The 12th pitcher, perhaps the 25th man, is C.J. Nitkowski, for reasons surpassing understanding. He's left-handed, but so is Martin Sheen, and Nitkowski simply hasn't been a good pitcher for several years. This is a guy with a career 5.33 ERA, which is 13% below the league average. This is a guy with a career strikeout rate that's below 6.5/9 and a walk rate that's too high. This is a guy with over 440 innings and 8 years of major league service to verify his numbers.
And yet this is also a guy who put a low ERA in eight spring training games, and according to the Braves' philosophy, that last fact means more than the previous five. As with the DeWayne Wise/Gary Matthews situation, Atlanta has decided to risk vital roster spots on players with spotty performance records based on a miniscule sample size in varied conditions against minor league competition.
The Braves do not have an edge in talent over their division rivals. They're in a dog-fight. They cannot afford to punt roster spots, at-bats and innings on iffy propositions like DeWayne Wise and C.J. Nitkowski.