LAKELAND, Fla. – Jason Grilli is set to make his Grapefruit League debut Thursday, and the Braves believe the veteran reliever probably has enough time to be ready when the regular season begins April 4.
Grilli, 39, ruptured his Achilles tendon in the next-to-last game before the 2015 All-Star break and had season-ending surgery. He’s said several times since then that he would be ready for spring training and the 2016 season, and it looks as if he might prove skeptics wrong and be ready by opening day.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said if and when Grilli is ready he could use him, at least initially, in a combination of closers with Jim Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino. If Grilli isn’t ready for opening day, Johnson and Vizcaino would likely split the duties.
“It will be probably the same situation (as last year),” said Gonzalez, who never used Grilli in three consecutive games and sometimes rested him after one game if it was a high-pitch-count inning. “I can use all three. Mix-and-match. Absolutely.”
Before his injury, Grilli converted 24 of 26 save opportunities and had a 2.94 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings.
Grilli could still have time to make at least five or six Grapefruit League appearances, and from that the Braves could decide if he looks ready or might benefit from a little more time on a rehab assignment.
Braves general manager John Coppolella said Grilli looked good facing hitters Monday, which was his second simulate-game session in a week. Coppolella indicated that Grilli still had enough time to get ready by opening day.
“The reports were that he pitched good, felt good,” said Gonzalez, who talked briefly with Grilli on Tuesday morning at Braves camp in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., before the team’s bus ride to Lakeland. “I saw him this morning, he said he felt great.”
Regardless of Grilli’s situation, Gonzalez seems committed to a more contemporary view of the closer role, which is to say he doesn’t believe the closer should be confined to pitching almost exclusively in the ninth inning with a lead or the ninth inning with a lead or tie at home.
“I feel that way now,” Gonzalez said, “that if the matchup comes up, say in the seventh innings there’s two or three guys the scouting reports say can’t hit high velocity, maybe we run Vizcaino against those guys. That might be the biggest inning.
“Now that Kimbrel’s gone, that ninth inning is not automatic anymore. It’s, let’s figure out who’s the best in the seventh because that might be the game.”