As the Braves return to Atlanta for a two-game series with the Chicago White Sox that will wrap up Spring Training, there are still a couple of decisions to be made before the season starts on Monday.
Here's a look at the final roster spots that will be announced after the game on Saturday:
The Braves could still make a trade here, but instead of acquiring a reliever they may actually have enough depth to trade a reliever. There has been some interest from other teams in Oscar Villarreal and Tyler Yates.
We know that Bob Wickman, Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Macay McBride will have the top four spots. But then what? Villarreal, Yates, and Chad Paronto seem to be the favorites, but it's not a given those will be the final three.
Paronto surprisingly seems to be the one most secure of a spot in the Atlanta bullpen. He slimmed down over the winter and has had an excellent spring. Paronto has a 2.84 ERA in 10 games with only three walks and 13 strikeouts in 12.2 innings. Braves' Manager Bobby Cox has made several glowing comments about Paronto, so that probably means he's got one of the remaining jobs.
Villarreal has had a rough spring, posting a 5.73 ERA in 10 games. But he looked good on Tuesday night against the Tigers and the Braves have not forgotten how strong he was in the second half last season. Will the Braves be tempted by what the teams wanting 'The Big O' may offer?
Yates is a Bobby Cox favorite, but he's struggled at times this spring and not looked as sharp as he did late last season. With some teams interested, the Braves may want to take advantage of Yates' value and get something for him. He's out of options, so he's either got to stay on the roster or placed through waivers, where he would certainly be lost to another tam.
The pitcher Yates seems to be battling for that final spot is Peter Moylan, the Australian signed twelve months ago out of the World Baseball Classic. The Braves believe Moylan is considerably better than he was a year ago. He was just a hard-thrower when he first signed, but now he's a pitcher. Moylan has learned how to mix his hard fastball with a devastating sinker. There is little doubt that Moylan could be an effective big league reliever right now.
Since Yates is out of options, and since Moylan has only been in pro ball for a year, the Braves will probably send Moylan down to Triple-A to start the season if no trade is made. But another pitcher could also enter into this decision.
The Braves also believe Blaine Boyer will not need much time in Triple-A to get ready for his return to the big leagues. So with Moylan being ready to contribute now, and Boyer possibly ready in May, the Braves may feel comfortable trading Yates or Villarreal to get something in return.
This is unprecedented depth in the bullpen. The Braves are usually looking for more bullpen arms at this point in March, and instead this year they are trying to figure out what to do with the ones they have.
Prediction: Yates or Villarreal will be traded and Moylan will make the Opening Day roster.
The Braves wanted Brayan Pena to win the backup catcher's job, and he seems to have done just that. Pena came in as the favorite, but then in mid-March struggled a bit to give the team a thought of sending him to Triple-A and having veteran Corky Miller as the backup.
Pena is hitting .306 in his 36 at bats and has continued to show that he's an offensive player. While his defense has improved, he's still far below Brian McCann. But he's probably good enough to be the backup.
Miller puts on a show in batting practice every so often, but when the game starts he struggles at the plate. He's hit only .222 in 27 at bats this spring. If he had hit more this month he could have seriously challenged Pena, but instead he'll probably head to Richmond.
Prediction: Pena wins the job and Miller will head to Triple-A.
We know that Craig Wilson will join Scott Thorman as one of the Braves' first basemen. Wilson should provide serious power when he's in the lineup.
Chris Woodward missed half the spring with a calf problem, but he's proved he's healthy by playing well the last two weeks. He can play all four infield spots along with duty in the outfield if necessary.
But the last spot is still up for grabs. Willy Aybar was the favorite heading into camp. But he was late arriving due to visa troubles, and then had trouble with his wrist. This week he's battled a cold or some sickness that has prevented him from seeing action prior to the end of training camp.
The Braves are a little perturbed with Aybar, who they were counting on to be the main insurance for Chipper Jones at third base. Some have questioned Aybar's dedication, which was often a knock on him when he was a Dodgers' prospect as well.
Chances are Aybar will start the season on the disabled list. He's out of options, and the Braves do not want to lose him for nothing. So they'll let him get some at bats at Extended Spring Training and see where he is in a couple of weeks.
That should open up the door for Pete Orr, who has been the Braves' top reserve the past two seasons but was in jeopardy of losing his spot with the signing of Woodward. Orr, who still has an option remaining, came to camp determined to stay in the big leagues. He's hit .375 with 6 RBI in 40 at bats. Bobby Cox loves Orr, so the Braves will not be disappointed at all if he's on the Opening Day roster. In fact, if they could find a taker for Aybar, they'd probably keep Orr around for the entire season.
There could be some temptation to place Martin Prado or Yunel Escobar on the Opening Day roster as a reserve. Both have had excellent springs, with Prado hitting .356 and Escobar hitting .380. The Braves prefer the two go to Richmond to form the double-play combination for now, but if Jones, Edgar Renteria, or Kelly Johnson have to miss significant time Prado or Escobar could be called up.
Prado and Escobar give the Braves another reason to not be too bothered about Willy Aybar. They may now prefer to have those two see significant time in the big leagues this season after both had great training camps.
Prediction: Aybar is placed on the disabled list with the wrist injury and Orr gets the last spot as an infield reserve.
Ryan Langerhans has hit .362 with two home runs and six RBI, while Matt Diaz is at .298 with six RBI in 57 at bats. The platoon seems to still be in place for the 2007 season.
Prediction: Craig Wilson could see some time in left field, but his shoulder trouble is not going to get any better and will be a concern. Therefore, Diaz will again get the majority of at bats against southpaws, with Langerhans facing right-handers.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, 105.5 the Fan in Macon, and the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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