LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A pair of long-time Braves minor leaguers came on strong to win bench jobs on the opening-day roster, while Joe Mather faltered and was placed on waivers and reliever Scott Proctor was released.
Those were among the flurry of personnel moves announced by the Braves on Sunday, when they presented an opening-day roster that included rookies Matt Young and Brandon Hicks on the bench and Cristhian Martinez in the last bullpen spot over Proctor.
Infielder Brooks Conrad will fill the other of three bench jobs that seemed undecided when spring training began, although manager Fredi Gonzalez said that, in his mind, Conrad was never competing for a job; he already had one.
“Brooks is a good bat off the bench,” Gonzalez said. “He hits from both sides. For me, he wasn’t in a position to be competing [for a job].”
The Braves announced their roster four days before their season opener at Washington and at least two days earlier than it was usually announced when Bobby Cox was manager.
Starting pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Rodrigo Lopez were reassigned to minor-league camp along with catcher J.C. Boscan, infielder Ed Lucas and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez.
Proctor was released, and because the Braves did it before a Monday deadline, they owe the injury-plagued veteran only 45 days’ termination pay – about one-fourth of the $750,000 salary that he would’ve made if he spent all season on the major league roster.
Although the roster was announced, one spot won’t be finalized until team officials are more certain about starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens’ status.
Jurrjens left his last Grapefruit League start Thursday with a sore right side. He had no problems when he tested it with light throwing Sunday, and will throw off the mound Monday.
The Braves hope to have Jurrjens on the opening-day roster. They would likely recall rookiel left-hander Mike Minor from Triple-A to make one or two starts if Jurrjens goes on the disabled list.
Conrad and the rookies — infielder Hicks and outfielder/second baseman Young — are joined on the bench by incumbent veterans Eric Hinske and catcher David Ross, whose jobs were assured.
Martinez is the “legit long reliever” that Gonzalez wanted in the bullpen, and joins six who already had jobs: lefties Eric O’Flaherty and George Sherrill, righties Peter Moylan and Scott Linebrink, and co-closers Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters.
No one was happier to make the team than Young.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” he said late Sunday morning, two hours after Gonzalez told the 5-foot-7 Texan that he made it. “Fredi told me and I kind of blacked out, like in [the movie] Old School.”
Young hit .293 (12-for-41) with five RBIs, nine walks and two strikeouts in 24 games before Sunday. He can play center field, making him the likely backup to Nate McLouth.
“He did a nice job for himself making this club, and you’re going to win with guys like that,” Gonzalez said. “Because he’s not going to miss a sign, he’s going to put the ball in play. He’s going to do the little things – no put intended – to help you win a ballgame.”
Many thought Young wouldn’t make the team out of camp because he bats left-handed and the Braves needed a right-handed bat (Mather bats right-handed).
“I think it helped that the last week or so, I faced a lot of lefties and was hitting them,” said Young, who hit .300 with 33 doubles, 30 stolen bases and a .380 OBP at Triple-A Gwinnett.
The Braves took into account his minor-league numbers and strong performances in the Mexican Winter League the past two years.
“If you go back and look at his record in the Mexican League, he hit .360-something against lefties and .360-something against righties,” Wren said. “And scouts will tell you that from the sixth inning on, all he faced were lefties [in Mexico], because down there that’s how they use their bullpen. So [his left-handedness] really wasn’t a factor for us.”
One big factor was Mather. Claimed off waivers from St. Louis over the winter, he came to camp with a corner infield/outfield job to lose. He lost it, hitting .137 (7-for-51) with two extra-base hits and a .214 OBP.
“If he clears [waivers], we’ll have him at Triple-A,” Wren said. “He showed us in this camp that he was what we hoped he would be defensivly. He’s just got some things that he has to work on offensively, and he knows that. But defensively, he more than fills the bill. ”
The Braves have played Conrad some at first base this spring, giving them another option along with Hinske when rookie Freddie Freeman is out of the lineup.
Hicks hit .333 (11-for-33) with three doubles and a homer in 24 spring games before Sunday, with a .389 OBP and .515 slugging percentage. His strong spring moved him past Ed Lucas, who came in as a favorite to win a job before hitting .244 with one extra-base hit, a .326 OBP and a .293 slugging percentage.
Lucas can play five or six positions, including all the infield spots. Hicks only plays shortstop and third base, but he’s superb defensively. In past years, Hicks’ offensive shortcomings were the only thing that kept him off the team. He’s made adjustments since last season.
“I feel 100 times beter than last year, just confidence-wise and just feeling athletic at the plate,” he said. “I’m working on staying through the ball and just getting ready a little bit earlier than I was last year.”
Said Wren: “His winter work on his offense really paid off for him. It’s a credit to those guys that they came in and competed and won jobs.”
Conrad didn’t have a good spring – five errors, .216 batting average with one homer and 18 strikeouts in 51 at-bats – but his many late-innings hits in 2010 outweighed his spring and infamous defensive struggles in the last week of the 2010 season and division series.