NORTH PORT, Fla. — Soon enough, the Braves will have 26 players headed north after spring training. Those 26 men will occupy the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park for opening day March 30.
But who will they be?
Well, that’s why roster projections exist – so we can make educated and informed guesses.
Something to note: The Braves could construct their opening-day roster in a number of ways, depending on how they match up with their first few opponents and how they want to use their off-day after the first game of the season.
But for the sake of clarity, we’ll do a normal 26-man roster, including five starters, eight relievers and so on. Here goes.
Starting pitchers (5)
LH Max Fried
RH Spencer Strider
RH Kyle Wright
RH Charlie Morton
LH Jared Shuster
The first four are easy, assuming Wright is fully healthy. (At this point, nothing indicates he wouldn’t be ready to go.) Then you have the competition between lefties Shuster and Dylan Dodd, the most surprising storyline in camp.
I went with Shuster here. If all goes well, Shuster and Dodd will pitch in the same rotation in the future, perhaps even this season, if necessary. But Shuster has played one more season of pro ball than Dodd, though Dodd also reached Triple-A last season. This one could go either way, but I’ll put Shuster here for now.
No doubt, Dodd has a legitimate shot. The Braves have shown they’re willing to take the guy they feel will help them most. Shuster and Dodd have had outstanding spring campaigns to this point.
The Braves optioned Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder to Triple-A. If they needed either for the opening-day roster, they simply could select an injured player for their roster, then place that guy on the injured list and recall Anderson or Elder. This way, either player wouldn’t need to spend the minimum of 15 days in the minors required for pitchers who are optioned. And the Braves have three moves with which to play: Tyler Matzek (Tommy John surgery rehab), Huascar Ynoa (Tommy John surgery rehab) and Kolby Allard (grade 2 oblique strain) will start the season on the injured list.
RH Raisel Iglesias (closer)
RH Joe Jiménez
LH A.J. Minter
RH Collin McHugh
RH Kirby Yates
LH Lucas Luetge
LH Dylan Lee
RH Nick Anderson
It seems like seven of the eight – with the exception of Anderson – should make the team. Anderson is in a competition for the bullpen’s final spot, along with Jesse Chavez and Jackson Stephens. After throwing two scoreless innings Friday, Anderson has allowed two runs over seven innings. He has 11 strikeouts and one walk, and didn’t issue that free pass until his sixth outing of the spring. His velocity has been good.
The Braves know what Chavez can do, but he’s on a minor-league deal and they won’t lose him if he doesn’t make the opening-day roster. I once thought Chavez likely would be on the roster because of his veteran presence and the versatility he offers – he performs his role well – but Anderson has pitched too well to ignore. It seems like he’s returning to pre-injury form, which is an encouraging development for him and the Braves.
And you might be curious why Lee could be a lock. Not only is he a third lefty for the bullpen, but he posted a 2.13 ERA over 50-2/3 innings last season. It’s difficult not to put him on the team after that.
To end this section, we should mention that the Braves’ bullpen is loaded. Relievers are volatile, but the Braves have at least three relievers – Anderson, Chavez, Stephens – who would be able to make many other rosters in baseball, but instead, one may be the odd man out to begin the season.
Infielders (7, including catchers)
Olson at first base, Albies at second, Riley at third and Murphy behind the plate. You know the drill. No questions there.
I’ve thought a lot about the shortstop competition in camp, and I landed on Grissom – at least for this projection, published online March 18. Braden Shewmake, an outstanding defender whose bat has looked good in camp, has turned heads. For now, it seems Grissom hasn’t done anything to weaken his case.
With Shewmake, the Braves could see if his offensive adjustments are real by evaluating him over the first stretch of the season at Triple-A Gwinnett. Spring training is a small sample size, and Shewmake’s track record at the plate in the minors isn’t great. Or maybe the Braves end up believing he’s the best shortstop to take north.
The two players are interesting opposites. Grissom, a high school signee a few years ago, is 22. He didn’t have much time in the minors before the Braves called him up. Shewmake, on the other hand, is a 25-year-old drafted in the first round out of college in that same draft.
The Braves have a week and change to make a decision. Unlike with pitchers, you can go down to the wire with position players because they can play every day, giving the club more opportunities to evaluate and more answers. But right now, despite a great spring from Shewmake, I don’t think he’s done enough to jump Grissom just yet.
Remember this: Opening day is an arbitrary date. Everyone knows and accepts this. You can win a job, but you must keep it. I think Shewmake has pleasantly surprised the Braves – who are giving him a legitimate opportunity to showcase his improvement – but at this point, I predict Grissom makes the opening-day roster, with Arcia as a backup infielder.
Ronald Acuña Jr.
Marcell Ozuna (primary designated hitter)
The first four were simple. The first three are starters. The other, Ozuna, is someone who manager Brian Snitker said would be on the team. The Braves would not be surprised if Ozuna bounces back.
Then things become challenging. Which two outfielders do you take between Pillar, Hilliard, Jordan Luplow and Eli White? For one, I went with Hilliard. He’s playing well and is out of minor-league options, which means the Braves would lose him if he didn’t make the team. His tools, especially with his defense and with his legs, can help this club.
I chose Pillar for the other spot because he seems like the type of player – the versatile veteran – the Braves have carried in recent seasons. The Braves told Pillar his opportunity here was legitimate. (In other words, he wouldn’t simply be a body in camp).
Would all of that be enough to push Pillar past Luplow, whom the Braves gave a $1.4 million guaranteed deal? I don’t know. But one thing I kept in mind is that Luplow entered camp with oblique soreness. Obliques can be tricky. By the end of Friday, Luplow had played in four spring games to continue his progression, but we’ll have to see whether he’s ready for opening day. The Braves won’t rush him back, especially considering Luplow’s oblique troubles go back to last year, when he played for Arizona.
The Braves gave Luplow guaranteed money, but he does have a minor-league option remaining. I truly believe the Braves were excited about signing him and believed he could be an integral part of their team. That probably hasn’t changed over the past month and change, but they do have a ton of outfield options, and the Braves brought in Pillar and White after they signed Luplow.
Keep in mind that a baseball season is long. Injuries are unfortunate, but they do occur. Eventually, whoever seizes his opportunity will earn the most playing time. These things usually work themselves out as the season progresses.
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