LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – So we’re down to the last week, and most of the position battles we anticipated entering spring training are still up for grabs. At least to some degree.
Fifth starter; last bullpen spot, and the last couple of bench jobs. All still undecided (I say last couple of bench jobs, because Joe Mather has been pretty much a lock to make the team since the Braves signed him, long as he showed he was healthy this spring.)
Before we get to that, we just got news this morning: Luis Salazar will be in camp today, the first time the Braves minor league manager been back to Champion Stadium since suffering a catrastrophic eye injury after being hit by a foul ball in a March 9 game.
Salazar had to have his left eye removed after surgeons were unable to save it. He and the Braves still expect that he’ll manage the high-Class A Lynchburg team this season, although he will likely miss the early part of the season.
We’ll let you know what Luis says after we talk with him later this morning.
For now, let’s discuss the jobs competition:
• First up, the rotation opening. After a rumor spread rapidly on Tuesday’s off day that Brandon Beachy had won the fifth-starter job over lefty Mike Minor, I asked around and was told Tuesday night that report was premature, that it’s not been decided yet.
Beachy has posted better statistics than Minor this spring, but not markedly better. All things being equal, the Braves would prefer to have a lefty in an otherwise all-righty rotation. But that’s not essential (they went all-righty most of last season).
What it will come down to is, which pitcher do the Braves believe gives them the best opportunity to win now? That’s it. Don’t make it any more complicated than it is, folks. Whom do the Braves believe gives them a better chance to win right now?
If they think the lefty Minor gives them an advantage in a division with a lot of lefty hitters, they’ll go with Minor.
But if they believe Beachy is just more ready right now, that his sharp command and confident, aggressive attitude makes him the better option out of the gate, then they’ll send Minor to the minors (Triple-A Gwinnett, specifically) and have him continue to hone his breaking stuff.
Either way, both of the roommates — Minor and Beachy will share an apartment this season — figure to pitch in the Braves’ starting rotation this season, possibly together. Injuries happen, as we have seen year after year.
Say this for Beachy: at 24, the former undrafted free agent signee has perspective beyond his years. I was looking over some notes from earlier in camp, and came across this interview I did with him on Feb. 21.
“There’s always guys ahead of you and guys coming behind you in this game,” he said. “So if you start looking ahead or behind … you just can’t allow yourself to do that. I try to concentrate on getting better myself.
“I mean, there are so many outside factors, and things are never going to work out the way you expect them to. Something always changes, whether it’s injuries, or trades, or something. Something’s going to happen to throw off whatever plan you have. It’s just not going to work out that way, so you just kind of have to show up every day and do your best, and everything else will take care of itself, I guess.”
What Beachy did in his three big-league starts on (very) short notice late last season was impressive. He posted a 3.00 ERA in those games, striking out 15 in 15 innings while allowing 16 hits and no homers.
But in the first couple of starts we didn’t see the pinpoint command that helped get Beachy to the majors. He walked six in 9-1/3 innings of his first two starts, matching the number of walks he issued in 45-2/3 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett before his promotion (Beachy had a 2.17 ERA in eight games at Gwinnett).
This spring, we’ve seen his sharp command. After Beachy pitched in a March 4 road split-squad game that bench coach Carlos Tosca managed, Fredi Gonzalez gave us this report: “[Tosca] said his command was off the charts. He said he could hit a gnat in the ass with his command. [Brian] McCann said the same thing. Put the glove wherever you want and he could hit it.”
• Filling out the bullpen, bench: It seems fairly obvious that the last bullpen spot will go to Scott Proctor or Cristhian Martinez, and the last bench spots to … well, that’s not quite as obvious.
Proctor has been inconsistent this spring, but his stuff has improved, according to GM Frank Wren. (That could be either a strong point in his favor when decisions are made, or a message being sent to drum up trade interest. Or maybe both. We’re not sure.)
Martinez is valuable because of his versatility – he can pitch an inning of middle relief, set up on occasion, or fill in with multiple innings if a starter is knocked out early or there’s a long rain delay. Gonzalez knows this from their time together with the Florida Marlins, and has listed Martinez’s strengths more than once this spring.
As we sit here Wednesday morning, I don’t know how that decision is going to go. So won’t bother guessing or acting like I do. Ask me in another few days, maybe it’ll be clearer.
Which brings us to the bench. Interesting choices to make here for the final jobs.
Wilkin Ramirez’s speed and power were briefly a big topic of discussion a couple of weeks ago, after a game when the former Tigers outfield prospect homered to straightaway center and had even Chipper Jones talking about what he might mean for the roster.
However, fact is that Ramirez, 25, needs to become a more consistent hitter, and getting sporadic playing time off the major league bench is not an ideal place to do that.
As much as some fans seemed surprised when Brooks Conrad was brought back to camp, and assumed the Braves must’ve just been doing him a favor, the fact is that they’ve not forgotten how many games he helped them when with late-innings clutch hits last season. His eight errors in seven games at season’s end and in the division series were all that some remembered, but didn’t negate, in the Braves’ view, what made him such a big piece of their team last season.
That’s my long-winded way of getting to this: I think he’s going to make the team.
If I had to guess right now, I’d say the last three bench spots go to outfielder/corner infielder Joe Mather (that’s been pretty much a lock since they signed him), Conrad and … Ed Lucas.
Lucas has far more defensive versatility than Diory Hernandez, and is good enough to back up Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, at least for a short stretch. If there was a more serious injury and they weren’t comfortable with Lucas at short for 15 games or whatever, they could bring up Diory or someone else.
Between the defensive-versatlity edge that Lucas has, and his overall offensive numbers in the minors, including a career-best season last year in Triple-A, he just seems to me like he’s put himself in position to win that last job.
Also, don’t forget he’s another player whom Braves officials, particularly Wren, have mentioned signed him this winter. That can be a good indicator, in these cases, provided a player doesn’t raise any red flags in the spring, either for some sort of previously underestimated flaws or potential attitude issue.
♣ Whither Lopez? Beachy and Minor have shown that either is ready to handle the fifth-starter role, thus making Rodrigo Lopez expendable. The Braves signed the veteran Lopez for depth, in case Minor and/or Beachy had any setbacks or didn’t look ready.
Without Lopez they have six quality starters, plus Kenshin Kawakami. And since Kawakami’s late arrival to camp has surely lessened the likelihood of the Braves finding a suitor to trade for him and pick up even one-third of the $6.7 million Kawakami is owed, they might have to do what at one time seemed extremely unlikely – have Kawakami start out the season in the minors.
That might be the only way the Braves can spark trade interest, because he probably hasn’t pitched enough this spring – and won’t have time to — for teams to feel confident that Kawakami is ready to fill a rotation spot.
That’s why Lopez’s name is now making the trade-rumor rounds. There are teams that need starters, and the Braves have a surplus of healthy starters.
Though the Braves signed Lopez for depth, and considered Minor and Beachy the primary candidates for the fifth-starter job, Lopez didn’t come to camp thinking a minor-league assignment was in the offing. He told me as much the first week of camp. He came to win the 5th-starter job.
That’s not happening, and he presumably wouldn’t be the first guy called if they had an injury to the opening-day rotation. He might not even be the second guy called if they had two injuries; that could be Kawakami, if he’s still around.
So look for Lopez to be shopped, or at least for the Braves to listen when desperate teams call this week.
♣ OK, let’s post this and get down to the clubhouse. The Braves had a meeting at 8:30 a.m. today, so early clubhouse time was interrupted.
We’ll close with one of the many terrific tunes that James McMurtry did at his show Friday night at Eddie’s Attic (between the NCAA tourney on four hi-def channels and McMurtry, it was a good weekend tohave off and be home in Atlanta).
“HOLIDAY” by James McMurtry
The in-laws are waiting the games have begun
The cell phone keeps ringing “don’t answer it hon”
The whole thing’s arranged just to aggravate Dad
And it’s amateur day on the old super slab
The kids are strapped down like a half load of pipe
All safe in their car seats they fuss and they gripe
Well you can’t hardly blame ‘em it must be a bitch/Counting the crosses off down in the ditch
This one’s got flowers, this one’s got a wreath
This one’s got a name painted down underneath
Was the road all iced up, were they going too fast
Here’s five in a circle left from the last holiday
There’s a three-trailer rig just a throwin’ up spray
Not legal to run on this kind of a day
But g– damn the smokies and the four wheelers too
Stay offa my bumpers or the same goes for you
There’ll be none for him
He that wants it the most
As he hauls it on out to the Oregon coast
No turkey no gravy no Zinfandel wine
You just stay over right and we’ll get along fine
He’s missing the football, missing the fun
He’d play with the grandkids but he’s off on a run
And some hat’s on the radio singing his song
But it don’t make a damn
He’s in for a long holiday
Now granny she’s yelling
She’s ready to eat
She’s havin’ conniptions
‘Cause they won’t take their seats
But she’s got ‘em all gathered now under one roof
With her camcorder loaded
She’s gonna get proof
But do you have to wear that
Well I just don’t see why
Please pass the potatoes/Aw eat s— and die
Did you hear about Ellen, she’s leaving, you know
How ‘bout those Packers, think it’ll snow?
And the minute it’s over they’ll scatter like quail
Off down the freeway in the teeth of a gale
Silent and shattered And numb to the core
They count themselves lucky
They got through one more holiday
The highway patrolman
He stands in the rain
He just lets it run down to soften the stain
Of the blood on his pant leg
From working that wreck
And he won’t forget it
In time for the next holiday
Departing Chicago at 9:52
In clean desert camo all baggy and loose
Sits an Iowa Guardsman alone by the gate
The place sure looked different, in 1968
When he traveled with mom, first time on a plane
To visit some kin, he’s forgotten their names
But he remembers the soldiers, still in their teens/In their spit polished boots and their pressed army greens
With the creases so sharp, and their faces so smooth
But their eyes looked so heavy, he wondered how they could move
Now he’s got that same look, like his insides are black
He’s in his mid forties and he has to go back/And he can’t even smoke while he waits for his plane
The uniform’s different, but the mission remains
To do like they tell you, don’t make a fuss
Why’s not an issue, so don’t think too much
You just do what you have to, shut up and drive
If you come apart later, well at least you’re alive
You can get you some help, you can deal with it then
And life will be better, ‘til it happens again
‘Cause there’s something inside us that won’t let us be/In stalks through our days ‘til it’s too dark to see
And it’s damn near as deadly as Texans on ice
Lord don’t they beat all
Y’all have a nice holiday