Bryce Elder faces Phillies; Kevin Pillar making good impression

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Elder is among those in the mix for the Braves’ final rotation spot, but with only a couple of appearances remaining, the 23-year-old hasn’t separated himself.

Elder completed his fourth exhibition outing Tuesday, allowing two runs over four innings against the Phillies. Both runs came via Nick Castellanos’ first-inning homer, but Elder labored throughout, allowing four hits and walking three (61 pitches, 31 strikes). He pitched around base runners in each inning.

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In four appearances, Elder has a 6.17 ERA. He’s struck out nine, walked five and surrendered three home runs across 11 ⅔ innings.

“I think spring training is kind of weird,” Elder said. “Especially trying to earn that fifth spot. It’s a weird situation where you want to work on things, but at the same time, you have to try to get people out. So just really focusing on pitch execution, and really that’s all I can do.”

Elder, who made 10 appearances (nine starts) last season, is competing with Ian Anderson, Jared Shuster and perhaps Dylan Dodd to start the season in the Braves’ rotation. It doesn’t necessarily matter who wins that competition – each of these pitchers will get innings during the 162-game regular season – but it will be an early opportunity for whomever earns it.

Elder’s experience last season has him feeling more comfortable this spring. His strong three-start stretch in September showed Elder’s promise: He had a 0.44 ERA with an 18:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 ⅔ innings. Opponents hit .169 against him during that run. And, yes, those starts came against the dreadful Marlins and Nationals (twice), but they were nonetheless valuable to Elder.

His best outing came Sept. 26 when Elder pitched a shutout at Nationals Park. He was the first Braves rookie since Paul Marak in 1990 to pitch a shutout.

“I think (that experience) helped me a lot,” Elder said. “I think there’s an unknown as far as where I’m going to start, but at the same time, I know what to expect up there now. Last year, I got my feet wet a little bit. Settled in toward the end of the year, had a couple good starts. So I know what it takes to throw well up there. Understanding that allows me something to chase, and that’s executing as many pitches as I can.”

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Brian Snitker is a Kevin Pillar fan

As the Braves consider their options in the outfield – and they have several veterans vying for a couple of bench spots – manager Brian Snitker spoke highly of Kevin Pillar, whom the Braves signed to bolster their depth.

The Braves would be Pillar’s seventh team in 11 seasons, but there’s a reason teams keep investing in him.

“Everything I thought I would see, I’ve seen,” Snitker said of Pillar, who had two hits Tuesday. “Just the ballplayer. I’ve admired this guy since I managed against him in the minor leagues, in the big leagues. The fearlessness, the professionalism. I get the sense, in talking to him, that he never takes a day for granted. He plays the game like that, and I love it. I love what I see out there. And he’s a versatile outfielder. … He knows his role. I like him a lot.”

Pillar appeared in only four games last season with the Dodgers. In 2021, he hit .231 with a .692 OPS in 124 games with the Mets.

Other outfield considerations

There are two vacant outfield spots for the Braves. Their in-camp candidates include Sam Hilliard, Eli White and Jordan Luplow – who are on the 40-man roster – and Pillar, a non-roster invitee. Speedster Forrest Wall and Magneuris Sierra are additional organization depth.

Notably, only Hilliard is out of options. The Braves could option any of the other players to Triple-A Gwinnett as reinforcements throughout the season. That probably gives Hilliard an edge, though there are no guarantees.

“I always tell players, ‘Until you’re out of options, you have no power in this game,’” Snitker said. “That’s just the way it is. When you’re an optionable piece, especially in today’s game, it’s just something you have to keep hammering through it until you’re out of options. Then you force hands.”

White has had a phenomenal spring, most recently collecting three hits Monday, including homering twice. He’s 10-for-23 (.435) with a 1.500 OPS. “Eli White, he’s like a freaky physical specimen,” Snitker said. “Like a tight end. He’s a good athlete.”

Luplow, who had been delayed by an oblique injury, had two hits Monday. The competition is developing well for the Braves, who would welcome making tough choices with their bench (the team also could add another player before opening day, as it’s done in recent years with individuals such as outfielder Matt Joyce and starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who contributed to division winners).

“We’ve been known to give a guy a chance to do something really good over the years,” Snitker said. “It’s good to have them all.”

Vaughn Grissom enjoying his spring

The shortstop competition might be the leading storyline in Braves camp, and at this point, it appears likelier than not that the team will roll with 22-year-old Vaughn Grissom.

In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Grissom’s high school coach, Matt Cleveland, praised his baseball IQ and work ethic. The AJC asked Grissom how he formed that foundation.

“It came from the years and years and years of loving the game and trying to think about what I would do on the other side when I’m playing defense,” Grissom told the AJC. “So trying to be one step ahead of the game, know what I’m going to do with the ball or things like that. As you play the game, you learn the ins and outs. What you’d do on the other side of the ball. Just trying to stay aggressive on both sides of the ball.”

Like fans, players get excited counting the days to opening day. Grissom hasn’t officially earned his spot yet, but assuming he does, he’s eager to get going.

“I feel ready to go,” Grissom said. “We still have a couple more weeks here, but I feel great, and I’m ready to go. If everything happens right, that’ll be cool to have my first opening day this year. That’ll be sweet.”

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