Three Cuts: Braves' bench and bullpen decisions coming down to the wire
Atlanta continues to weigh options at both spots entering last week of spring training
The wait is almost over.
Spring training was already elongated because of the World Baseball Classic, but we now stand a week and a day -- give or take, depending upon when you're reading -- from the Braves starting the season against the Mets.
That opener that, we learned last week, will be started by Julio Teheran for the fourth straight year. While there's no mystery surrounding the rotation or the starting lineup, there's still the same intrigue that's been there since Atlanta reported on Feb. 14.
Bench and bullpen. Bullpen and bench.
A month and a half later, those two pieces remain unresolved as we enter the last week of Grapefruit League play, making them the primary focus of the final spring Three Cuts.
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1. So where does the bullpen stand?
David Hernandez is the latest reliever to join the fray, the right-hander signing with the Braves on Sunday and is expected to report to camp on Monday.
With Chaz Roe having his issues this spring -- he's posted a 12.15 ERA in 6 2/3 innings pitched with nine strikeouts to five walks -- Atlanta could instead turn to a 31-year-old who had a 3.84 ERA in 72 2/3 innings with the Phillies last season.
While he's contending despite being late to the party, so is Kevin Chapman. Claimed off waivers from the Astros, he has allowed one run in four innings in a Braves uniform and is now battling with Paco Rodriguez (2.25 ERA, two Ks and a walk in four innings) to be along with fellow left-handers Ian Krol and Eric O'Flaherty.
O'Flaherty is a surprise, with his 1.69 ERA and 14 strikeouts to three walks, but his case has only been strengthened by the possibility that Mauricio Cabrera and his 100-mph fastball could open the season on the disabled list.
Cabrera, expected to be key setup man behind Jim Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino, has been dealing with a sore elbow. He hasn't been ruled out for Opening Day yet, but the word in Kissimmee is that it's almost inevitable.
That makes the Braves most likely to break camp with a bullpen that includes Johnson, Vizcaino, Krol, O'Flaherty, Jose Ramirez, Josh Collmenter, Chapman or Rodriguez and Hernandez or Roe.
Roe and Chapman are both out of options, adding more intrigue, and considering Rodriguez has thrown just four innings, it's possible he could open the season in the minors.
The best guess here is that Chapman and Hernandez, neither of whom were on anyone's radar a little over a week ago, seize those spots.
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2. And about the makeup of that four-man bench
Utilizing a four-man bench has a drawback that Chip Caray and Joe Simpson got into with manager Brian Snitker during last week's Tigers-Braves game.
It means that, at times, Snitker may have to turn to one of his starting pitchers as a bat off the bench as he'd be limited to Emilio Bonifacio, Chase d'Arnaud, Jace Peterson, and whoever isn't that day's starting catcher between Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki.
To summarize, that's Bartolo Colon -- who, yes, hit his first home run last season -- a .091 hitter; R.A. Dickey (.175); Mike Foltynewicz (.109); and Julio Teheran (.152). Teheran is coming off a 10-hit season and Dickey has a pair of double-digit hit seasons, but there isn't exactly a Madison Bumgarner among them.
Of course, that bench's makeup is subject to change given who could be waived, traded or opt out of their contracts this week, and the Braves could trim a spot off that bullpen list and add a fifth bench piece.
Rio Ruiz and his .259/.322/.353 slash line, two doubles and a home run in 54 at-bats are making a case to change that expected Bonifacio/d'Arnaud/Peterson/Suzuki quartet, and Matt Tuiasosopo (three home runs) and veteran Mel Rojas Jr. are also getting late looks.
It seems unlikely the Braves would buck the eight-man bullpen/four-man bench for any of that trio of Ruiz, Tuiasosopo Rojas. It's been said many times this spring, but Atlanta simply has more bullpen options than it does MLB-ready bench pieces.
Of course, last season they added Drew Stubbs with just three days remaining in the spring and he was on the Opening Day roster.
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3. How concerning are those spring wins and losses?
No team has fewer wins than the Braves' seven in either the Grapefruit or Cactus Leagues. It's a nugget that is bound to raise some eyebrows considering Atlanta is coming off its second straight 90-loss season, and last spring it won just six games. That, again was the lowest win total of any team.
You can make the case that spring results mean something. Six times since 2003 Atlanta had a winning percentage of .586 or higher in the spring and just once did it finish lower than second in the NL East (2009).
Strengthening the nail-biter crowd's argument, being below .500 has been the precursor to seasons in which the Braves were fourth (2008 and '15) and fifth ('16).
But to show how little you can read into these exhibitions, the Braves also had .433 and .464 win rates in '04 and '05, the years of their 13th and 14th straight division titles.
So basically, it's a lot to do about nothing. However, when a team has lost at least 93 games the past two seasons, you can't fault observers for putting a different kind of spotlight on spring games.