With less than two weeks before Opening Day, the Atlanta roster has three of the 25 spots still unsettled: the last infield utility man and two bullpen jobs.
The only position player opening is the last infield reserve spot behind Eric Hinske and Omar Infante. Brooks Conrad may be the favorite due to his showing last season for Atlanta. He's played well defensively this spring, and with 6 RBI he's also done well at the plate.
Conrad is competing with Joe Thurston, in camp as a non-roster player. Thurston had this same job for St. Louis last season. He's hitting .323 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI this month.
Both Conrad and Thurston play second, short, third, and can play in the outfield. Both are right-handed hitters. So what will be the deciding factor? Well, it might simply come down to who is the hottest player the last week of spring training.
Now to the bullpen, where Jesse Chavez is probably the favorite for one of the two openings. He was acquired from the Rays for Rafael Soriano over the winter, and the Braves probably want him in the bullpen despite his lackluster spring.
Scott Proctor looked good in his debut Friday night against the Tigers. He'll get three or four more appearances in Florida the next two weeks, but don't be surprised if the Braves put him on the DL for the first two weeks of the season.
That opens up one job, with several in contention. Jo Jo Reyes is probably the clubhouse leader. He's pitched well this spring, and the Braves are curious to see what he can do as a reliever. Reyes would really have to struggle the next two weeks to lose his lead in this derby.
Manny Acosta has significant big league time, but he hasn't looked great this spring. The Braves prefer Acosta to simply be a backup option in Triple-A. So it would be a surprise if he won the job.
Then you have two young pitchers who have really lit up camp with outstanding work. Craig Kimbrel has not allowed an earned run in five games. He's got four walks and seven strikeouts in five innings, and there is no doubt he's very close to being an integral part of the bullpen.
And then there's Jonny Venters, whose sinker has gotten tremendous attention from Bobby Cox and Roger McDowell. Venters has a 1.42 ERA in six games. He's made enough of an impression that if he does not make the big league team out of spring training, Venters could be one of the first call-ups when a new pitcher is needed during the season.
Let's look at how the bullpen competition could impact the Gwinnett pitching staff. If Chavez and Reyes make the Atlanta roster, the Braves would have a decision to make with Venters. Would they put him in the Gwinnett rotation, so he could continue to work on his sinker? Or since Venters' future role might be as a reliever, would they go ahead and place him in the Triple-A bullpen?
With Mike Dunn already penciled in the top lefty role in the Gwinnett bullpen, it might be tough for Venters to get as much situational work. So the Braves would probably prefer to have him work on those pitches as a starter. If that is the plan, they'll have to stretch Venters out in time for him to be ready for the Gwinnett season.
Todd Redmond will be back in the Gwinnett rotation after making 24 starts there last year. If Reyes doesn't make the Atlanta bullpen, he'll also be stretched out to be a starter in Triple-A.
Two guys who were stalwarts in the Mississippi rotation last season could move up to Gwinnett this year. Right-hander Ryne Reynoso (3.47 ERA in 24 starts) and lefty Scott Diamond (3.50 ERA in 23 starts) could also fit into the Triple-A rotation. And with James Parr now healthy, he'll probably be one of the top five starters in Gwinnett as well.
There's a chance Kyle Cofield could move up to Gwinnett. He made 24 starts in Double-A last season. It'll be interesting to see if the Braves want him to repeat in Mississippi .
If the Braves send Kimbrel down, he'll probably go to Gwinnett. They may have believed Kimbrel was going to start at Mississippi, but after his strong showing in spring training it might be silly not to go ahead and place him in Triple-A. Plus, last year's Gwinnett closer, Luis Valdez, is still not even in camp yet due to visa problems.
The Gwinnett bullpen will also include Dunn, Jeff Lyman, Stephen Marek, and probably Acosta. Mariano Gomez was also impressive in big league camp, and after his 1.99 ERA last year in Gwinnett he'll be back.
The Braves love Vladimir Nunez's leadership, and he's back in minor league camp. Nunez was outstanding for Gwinnett last season (2.16 ERA in 45 games) . Francisley Bueno could be back again. The lefty has been good for several years now, and he'll be a lefty option out of the pen.
Jon Huber is also battling for a job in the Gwinnett bullpen. He was there toward the end of last season and was effective. And don't forget about Chris Resop, who is back from Japan. He's battling for a job, too.
The Braves will make another round of cuts on Monday. And the numbers don't add up for the Gwinnett bullpen. Someone will have to go.
Let's now turn to Mississippi, and again the Cofield decision will be first on the agenda. The one thing that now looks certain is Mike Minor being part of the rotation. Minor is very advanced, and the Braves want to see what he does in the Southern League.
Erik Cordier will move up from Myrtle Beach and be in the Mississippi rotation. Don't be shocked if Jose Ortegano joins Cordier there as a starter.
Several pitchers who were in the Myrtle Beach rotation last year are battling for that final spot or two in the Mississippi rotation. Cole Rohrbough (22 starts in MB last season), Richard Sullivan (19 starts), and Jacob Thompson (14 starts) all have a chance to move up to the next level.
Two of those three could return to Myrtle Beach, where Randall Delgado will lead the rotation. He'll definitely be joined by Zeke Spruill and J.J. Hoover, who both did well last year in the Rome rotation.
This year's Rome rotation will be highlighted by Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino, two of the top pitching prospects in the game. Then there's a good chance three lefties could round out the rotation: Matt Crim, Brett Oberholtzer, and Brett DeVall. Right-hander David Hale is also getting consideration.
Two weeks are left, so nothing is set in stone. But we are at least seeing the pitching staffs slowly round into shape in Atlanta and at the top four levels.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly column for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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