Rome, Ga. — Braves right-hander David Hale pitched a simulated game on Saturday while most of his big league teammates competed against the organization’s Future Stars in Rome, and he missed an important bit of news in his absence. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez set his Opening Day roster and Hale was named the team’s fourth starter, edging minor league arm Gus Schlosser, who is set to make his major league debut in the bullpen as a long reliever.
At the time Gonzalez announced his decision, Hale was still unaware of his upcoming role.
His manager didn’t appear too concerned, though.
"I don’t think he’s found out. I think you guys are about to (let him know)," Gonzalez said to reporters following a 13-4 loss to the Bobby Cox-led Future Stars. "But I think David — you know, he was gonna start or be a part of our team anyway. We’ll see how smart he is. He’s from Princeton, I think he’s gonna figure it out."
Hale has a slight edge in MLB experience over Schlosser, though Gonzalez was quick to point out that the difference is a combined 11 1/3 innings thanks to his 2013 regular season and postseason outings. The 26-year-old was a third-round pick of the Braves back in 2009 and has put up a solid minor league career, logging 471 innings with a 3.69 ERA and a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio — not spectacular numbers by any means, but the organization seems confident he can handle the role. Schlosser, a 17th-round pick in 2011, boasts a sidearm-type delivery that has earned him a 2.79 ERA and a 3.44 K/BB ratio in 335 1/3 innings at four minor league stops, the last being Double-A Mississippi.
But even though Schlosser posted better spring training numbers, Gonzalez and the franchise felt a little more comfortable entering the season with the guy who has been a frontrunner for this position ever since Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy underwent Tommy John, adding to the rotation’s issues that already included delayed starts for Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd.
"We feel like David’s got maybe some more weapons, his repertoire, at this point," Gonzalez said. "We also feel like Schlosser with his sidearm can help us get a ground ball in certain situations (out of the bullpen)."
Hale, along with recent signee Aaron Harang, who is holding down the No. 3 spot in the rotation at the moment, will at the very least serve as a placeholder while the team waits for Ervin Santana, Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd to be ready for the season. Santana is behind schedule after being a late (and expensive) addition to the roster, Minor is behind schedule after an offseason procedure and Floyd is returning from Tommy John surgery. The team expects Santana to be back in the rotation the second time through, while Minor and Floyd are hopefuls for the end of April.
As it stands, the team will trot out two "sophomores" — Julio Teheran on Opening Day against Milwaukee and Alex Wood in the second start — in its first two games.
Hale will start the first game of the second series: a road test against division rival Washington.
The rest of Gonzalez’s roster filled out without many surprises: left-handers Ryan Buchter and Ian Thomas will hold down bullpen spots at least until the aforementioned starters and reliever Jonny Venters (recovering from Tommy John) are ready to return. Catchers Ryan Doumit and Gerald Laird, utility players Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena and outfielder Jordan Schafer will fill out the Opening Day bench spots.
The Braves rotation simply can not catch a break — not even from the weather.
Mike Minor made his season debut in Future Stars game with expectations of pitching two innings, but the rain had different plans, delaying the game for 24 minutes in the second inning with a brief downpour — derailing Minor’s quest to get through two frames. He logged just four outs on the day, throwing 14 pitches.
At least he made the most of his limited time on the mound. The 26-year-old lefty, who was the team’s most productive starter last season (3.4 WAR, 3.37 FIP, 120 ERA+), threw almost every pitch for a strike and, most importantly, did not suffer a setback.
"Didn’t really throw that many pitches, but I feel good," Minor said. ""Not the first two pitches, but after that started throwing a good bit of strikes and getting some ground balls."
Added his former manager, Cox: "I wanted to see him another inning. I know he wanted to, but you couldn’t. The wait was too long for him. His first outing, but he looked good in the first inning."
Gonzalez said Minor is expected to return at the end of April.
They need him — throwing Harang in his place is not the most promising of solutions — but, most of all, they need him to be healthy, because when he’s at his best he’s one of the best left-handed starters in the National League, a top-of-the-rotation guy for a team that certainly needs one.
"First time out there and it was good," Gonzalez said of Minor’s brief outing. "He’ll go on and he’s got his schedule; he’s gonna pitch every fifth day someplace in our minor league system, along with Gavin (Floyd). I think him and Gavin are lined up about the same day (at different spots). So it’s good. See if everything goes well for both of those individuals and we’ll get them back at the end of April — 26th, 27th, somewhere around there."
Gonzalez said the vague baseline for Minor’s return to the majors is when he reaches the six-inning and/or 100-pitch threshold in the minor league game. The weather will need to cooperate a little more from here on out.
Bobby Cox has no problem with the organization’s stockpile of young arms, namely former first-round picks Jason Hursh and Lucas Sims. After all, it worked out pretty well for him during his heyday.
Hursh, the team’s first-round pick out of Oklahoma State last season, made the start against the big league roster in Rome on Saturday and escaped without allowing a run. It’s just an exhibition outing, but when combined with his praise-worthy spring and the ridiculous start to his minor league career (27 innings, 0.67 ERA at Singla-A Rome in 2013), it’s yet another positive for him to build on.
"He threw great, let me tell you. He threw really good," Cox said. "So did (Lucas) Sims."
Hursh did not get too many chances to face major league-caliber hitters during spring training — he said he faced plenty of Double-A and Triple-A bats — and he said there was some anxiety entering his start, brief as it may have been. Rated as a consensus top-10 prospect in the team’s farm system, it’s not difficult to envision the 21-year-old making a quick rise up through the minor league ranks, especially if he can harness a curveball he’s worked on this offseason, one that he occasionally threw on Saturday with some success.
"It was good to get out there and compete against those guys. I think that was my main focus was to get out there and make my pitches and have fun," Hursh said. "Definitely (nerve-wracking). Just facing that lineup, for sure. But I think once I got out there and threw my warmup pitches I kinda settled down.
"… If you can have success against those guys you can have success against anyone. It’s a good thing to keep in the back of your mind."
The organization’s focus on pitching talent in the early rounds of the draft has paid huge dividends this offseason by not leaving a gaping hole behind Medlen, Beachy and Minor — a hole, to be sure, but not one that Teheran, Wood and Hale can not fill in some capacity.
"It’s always gonna be your strength: your pitching," Cox said. "Once in a while you’re going to beta super position guy. They all came at one time with us with Freddie (Freeman) and Jason Heyward and (Andrelton) Simmons. But always try to keep pitching."
It’s paying off for Cox in other ways, too: his minor leaguers beat Gonzalez and the big league squad for the first time since this event began in 2012.