Braves still have these roster decisions ahead

 LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After 5 1/2 weeks, three pounds of coffee, a couple cases of Red Bull and Monster and 1,200 miles of driving throughout Central Florida, we’re in the homestretch of spring training. And with 10 days left until the Braves head north, there are several spots on the opening-day roster still being contested, including potential surprises in both the outfield and starting rotation.

Before we discuss how the 25-man roster could shake out, let me add this caveat: There are always players who become available near the end of spring training as teams formulate their rosters and try to get out-of-options players through waivers or release a player they couldn’t trade. The Braves could claim a player from that pool, and also might add one or two to it.

Without further adieu, here’s how things looked after the team’s day Wednesday and before the final 10-game stretch of spring training. First of all, the players who are either locks to make the roster, or at least seem likely to make it.

Mike Foltynewicz, coming back from a September blood-clot scare and related surgery to remove part of a rib, has given the Braves reason to believe he'll be ready April 12 when they need a fifth starter for the first time. (Curtis Compton/ AJC file photo)

Infielders: Freddie Freeman, Jace Peterson, Erick Aybar, Adonis Garcia, Kelly Johnson, Gordon Beckham

Outfielders: Hector Olivera, Ender Inciarte, Nick Markakis, Michael Bourn

Catchers: A.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers

Starting pitchers: Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Jhourys Chacin, Bud Norris

Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Arodys Vizcaino, Jim Johnson, Alexi Ogando, lefty Alex Torres

If you count them, that’s 21 spots filled on the 25-man roster, as I see it.

Now here’s where things get interesting. The last four. Here are the current possibilities:

Outfielders: Jeff Francouer, Emilio Bonifacio, Nick Swisher.

Starting pitchers: Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos.

Relievers: Jose Ramirez, who’s out of minor league options; Dan Winkler, a former Rule 5 pick who must be kept on the 25-man roster for the first two months or be offered back to Colorado; prospect John Gant, a starter who’s impressed in relief this spring; veteran Carlos Torres, lefty Ian Krol.

Let’s start by addressing the obvious surprise: Francoeur has far more than just a small chance at a roster spot. When the Braves signed him to minor league deal just two days before full-squad workouts began, those of us who cover the team didn’t see much, if any, chance for him to make the team given the glut of veteran outfielders the Braves had already.

But it’s since become apparent how much certain team decision-makers would like to have Francoeur’s right-handed bat on the bench instead of Bonifacio, an outfielder/infielder who’s barely serviceable in the infield at this point in his career and a switch-hitter who isn’t going to provide a power threat that Francoeur still has.

Nick Swisher could be the odd man out if the Braves decide to keep Jeff Francoeur on the opening-day roster. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

Swisher’s surgically repaired knees are better than they were last year, but the Braves don’t think the veteran runs (or hits) well enough to be in the daily lineup for any significant stretch, and neither Swisher nor Bonificio haven’t proven themselves as pinch-hitters like Francoeur did last season with the Phillies.

To be blunt, the only reason Swisher was brought back to camp is that he’s owed $15 million, and the Braves hoped another team would have a need and be impressed enough by Swisher to make a trade offer and pick up at least a small portion of his salary. So far it hasn’t happened, but the Braves might bite the bullet and eat the entire amount that Swisher is owed along with the relatively paltry $1.25 million that Bonifacio is owed (though they could possibly find a suitor in the next week for Bonifacio, who’s had four extra-base hits including a homer this spring.

At this point we should note the Braves will probably go with an extra (eighth) reliever for the first six games of the season, since they don’t need a fifth starter until April 12 in the seventh game. That surely increases the odds of keeping both Ramirez and Winkler, two relievers the Braves could and probably would lose if they tried to get through waivers (in Ramirez’s case) or offered back to the Rockies (in Winkler’s Rule 5 situation) for $25,000.

Even if the Braves were to start the season with a seven-man bullpen instead of eight, those two might still be in it, and the eighth guy, the one given an extra week’s tryout as it were, might be Krol. Because so far in spring training, Krol has done nothing to warrant a roster spot. But he has plenty of major league experience and he’s all the Braves have left to show for the trade of Cameron Maybin to the Tigers, so I won’t be surprised if they go with him as the second lefty in an eight-man ‘pen.

The problem with that is, they also need a long reliever, particularly important given the situation of several starters who either looked shaky in spring training or can’t be pushed in the early going because of healthy issues, such as Foltynewicz coming back from surgery to remove part of a rib after the frightening September incident of blood clots in his pitching arm.

Until a week ago, I figured Williams Perez might be on the opening-day roster as a long reliever and then move into the rotation as the fifth starter. But that was before Foltynewicz came on strong in his first two Grapefruit League appearances this spring, particularly his five strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings Tueday against a loaded Astros lineup. It's hard to overstate how important Folty's recovery could be to the rotation.

Barring any setbacks, I’d expect him to be the guy the Braves turn to as fifth starter April 12. He’s come along at just the right time as a salve for a rotation that looked quite worrisome until a week ago. It still does, but at least the fifth spot doesn’t look like an emergency situation the way it did until a week ago.

With Foltynewicz now appearing to be on track for that fifth spot, it gives the Braves at least a little bit of depth, assuming non-roster spring training invitee Chacin and Norris are in the opening-day rotation. The little bit of depth being Perez, who could fill either a starter spot or that long-relief role, where veteran non-roster invitee Carlos Torres is the other strong option.

Either way, the Braves will have another decision to make a week into the season when Foltynewicz – assuming he’s the fifth starter -- is added to the rotation and one of the relievers must be subtracted.

• Here’s bluegrass and country legend Jimmy Martin singing the opening track from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic album “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

“GRAND OLE OPRY SONG” by Jimmy Martin and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Jimmy Martin

Come and listen to my story if you will I'm gonna tell

About a gang of fellers from down at Nashville

First I'll start with old Red Foley doin' the 'Chattanooga shoe'

We can't forget Hank Williams with them good old 'Lovesick blues'

It's time for Roy Acuff to go to Memphis on his train

With Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasfield and lazy Jim Day

Turn on all your radios I know that you will wait

Hear Little Jimmy Dickens sing 'Take an old cold tater and wait'

There'll be guitars and fiddles, Earl Scruggs and his banjo too

Bill Monroe singing out them ole 'Kentucky blues'

Ernest Tubb's number, 'Two wrongs won't make a right'

At the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night

There was Uncle Dave Macon his gold tooth and plug hat

Cowboy Copas singing 'Tragic romance'

Signed sealed and delivered with Sam and Kirk McGee

And the master of ceremony was Mr. George D Hays

There was Lonzo and Oscar a-poppin' bubble gum

George Morgan singin' 'Candy kisses' yum, yum

'Got a hole in my bucket' 'Bringin' in that Georgia mill'

We'll sing 'The sunny side of the mountain'

And dance to the 'Chicken reel'

There'll be guitars and fiddles and banjo pickin' too

Bill Monroe singin' out them ole 'Kentucky blues'

Ernest Tubb's number, 'Two wrongs won't make a right'

At the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night

You can talk about your singers in all kinds of way

But none could sing the old songs like Bradley Kincaid

With his old hound dog 'Guitar' and the famous 'Blue tail fly'

Stringbean with Hank Snow and old fiddlin' Chubby Wise

There'll be guitars and fiddles, Earl Scruggs and his banjo too

Bill Monroe singin' out them ole 'Kentucky blues'

Ernest Tubb's number 'Two wrongs don't make a right'

At the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.