32. Who will be the reserves next season?

The Braves found out this past season just how important the bench can be to a team, and now they have to figure out who will hold those spots next season. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues his look at the top issues facing the Braves examining the candidates for the bench.

After a season where the Braves had a historic amount of injuries, the need for a solid bench has never been more important. We all saw how the reserves can make a difference, and the 2006 season certainly taught the Braves a valuable lesson in that area.

We've already discussed the possibility of Brayan Pena taking over for Todd Pratt as the backup catcher, so we'll deal with the infield and outfield. First base is no longer a platoon situation, with Adam LaRoche establishing himself as an everyday player. So instead of just having to have a right-handed hitter as part of a platoon, the Braves will probably simply have someone that can back up LaRoche.

The two top candidates are both left-handed hitters. Scott Thorman is versatile enough to also play the outfield, so that may give him an advantage. There has even been talk in the past about Thorman getting some time at third base, where he played in high school, so he could be even more versatile.

There is also the chance that the Braves could re-sign free agent Daryle Ward, who was acquired on August 31st from the Nationals. Ward loved his month as a Brave, and the Bobby Cox seemed to enjoy having him on the roster. Ward has awesome power, and that would be welcomed off the bench.

Ward probably wouldn't cost more than a million dollars, and it might be good to have someone to backup LaRoche that would also not be a threat to him. Ward can also be thrown into left field when needed, but his primary function would be as a big lefty bat off the bench.

It will be interesting to see if the Braves invite James Jurries back to big league camp. He was taken off the 40-man roster in the summer after getting injured and suffering through a rough season in Triple-A. Jurries had a great spring training last March and didn't make the team, but as a right-handed hitter he does offer the option of being an alternative to all the left-handed bats that could back up LaRoche.

Willy Aybar will take over the role held last season by Wilson Betemit, the player he was traded for. Aybar will spell Chipper Jones at third base, and hopefully that will only be in an occasional situation instead of long periods of time. But even if Aybar does have to be in the lineup for a while, the Braves are confident he can be a productive player. Aybar may have just as much potential as Betemit had in generating sufficient offense.

Aybar played only at third base after coming over from the Dodgers, but he does have experience at second base as well. It remains to be seen if Aybar will be given a shot at replacing Marcus Giles, if Giles is in fact traded. You would assume that Bobby Cox would have given Aybar some time at second base if he were considered an option to start for next season. But as a backup, Aybar should be able to handle that role and be exactly what the Braves had in Betemit.

Pete Orr has been the primary infield reserve the last two seasons. He's a hustling ballplayer that fills in where and when needed. Orr played 32 games at second base, 10 games at third, and he could even play shortstop or in the outfield if needed. He's never going to be anything more than a reserve, and since he filled that same role in the minor leagues, he's very accustomed to that responsibility.

Orr has no power, but he's got good speed. He was often used by Bobby Cox as a pinch- runner late in games this past season. Orr has his limitations, but he also fills a purpose. It's just a question of whether or not the Braves can find someone better than him to fill do that job.

Tony Pena, Jr. may just be that man. He played in 40 games for the Braves in 2006, mainly as a fill-in when Betemit and then Aybar had to play third for Chipper Jones. Pena did okay, playing in 22 games at shortstop (6 starts) and one game at third base. He was mainly used as a pinch hitter and pinch runner late in games.

Before his promotion to Atlanta, Pena showed that his second year in Richmond might need to be his last. After hitting .249 in Richmond in 2005, Pena returned there and hit .282 in 81 games. He also cut down on his strikeouts, which has been a problem for him in his development. Pena looked much more like a polished player this past season.

Pena is a natural shortstop. He played a bit at third in the last year, and the Braves had him play a bit at second base in batting practice to prepare him for that possibility. He says he can play second, even if he's rarely been over there. Pena is versatile enough to play all three of those positions, and that versatility might help him in a competition with Orr.

Martin Prado is the odds-on favorite to win the second base job if Marcus Giles is traded. But if someone else is brought in as the starter, Prado could also join in the competition for a bench spot. He's a natural second baseman, but when Bobby Cox saw Prado at third base last spring he immediately talked about Prado's potential as an infield reserve.

If Prado is the starter at second, chances are Orr and Pena will go to camp to battle for the other reserve role. Don't be surprised if the team brings in a veteran to compete with those two, but they already like Orr and believe Pena is ready to play as well. So the middle infield reserve role could be up for grabs in March.

Yunel Escobar could be a long shot for the role. He's in the Arizona Fall League now playing second base after playing all three positions in Mississippi this season. Escobar is a natural shortstop, but he handled second and third well in Double-A. Escobar is a much better hitter than Orr or Pena, so if he could prove he's ready for the big leagues he might give them a run. But the odds are more in favor of him returning to AA to play shortstop everyday, now that Luis Hernandez was claimed off waivers by Baltimore.

Hopefully the Braves will bring Wes Timmons to big league camp and give him a shot as well. Timmons deserves it after hitting .280 in Richmond with 6 home runs in 250 at bats. Timmons has played third for most of his pro career, but he can also play second and shortstop. Wes is 27 years old, so he's ready to get his shot at proving whether or not he can play in the big leagues.

A wildcard in all of this is Kelly Johnson, who had Tommy John surgery in the middle of the summer. Johnson could return to the outfield, where he played in the big leagues in 2005 when he made his debut. But chances are Johnson will also see time in the infield, which is where he played in the minor leagues.

Johnson started at shortstop, and then he made the move over to third base. He's also taken ground balls at second base in the past, and looks very comfortable there. Johnson could be the Braves' version of Ryan Freel – a versatile infielder/outfielder with good pop. But first he's got to prove his elbow is healthy, and he'll get that chance in spring training.

And there's one more outfielder we should mention – Gregor Blanco. With the likelihood of a shakeup in left field, and the chance that there could even be a change in center, who knows how the outfield will shake out. The Braves have to make a decision on Blanco, who hit .294 in 73 games in Richmond. He's eligible for the Rule V again, so the Braves have to place him on the 40-man to protect him from that. And with the players saved from being on the 40-man with the new changes, Blanco has a chance to get on there.

Blanco is good in the outfield, and he continues to make progress as a hitter. He doesn't have much power, but you can't ignore his speed. So consider him another outside candidate to be on the team next season as a reserve.

The Braves have talent on the roster, which will make the decisions even more difficult. But there's a good shot the Braves will also scour the free agent wire to see if there's a veteran that could be brought in to provide even more depth. Either way, the competition for the reserve roles could be even more intense next spring at Disney.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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