‘Tough calls’ loom for spots on Braves’ opening-day roster

Credit: AJC

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The Braves have won three straight National League East division titles, a number they hope to extend to four in 2021.

Credit: AJC

The Braves’ spring training schedule gave them a day off Thursday, exactly two weeks before the season opener.

Between now and April 1 at Philadelphia, the Braves face a series of decisions -- “some tough calls,” manager Brian Snitker said -- about the roster they’ll carry into the season.

A look at the pending choices:

Who will be the No. 5 starter?

The Braves have an opening in their starting rotation until Mike Soroka, working his way back from last year’s Achilles tendon surgery, is available to pitch. The spring competition for that spot hasn’t revealed an obvious answer.

“I could sit around and think about that stuff, but it’s not going to do me any good,” Bryse Wilson said. “It’s still competition, up in the air. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Wilson, whose stock soared with a stellar start in Game 4 of last season’s National League Championship Series, has allowed 10 hits and two runs in nine spring innings. Kyle Wright, who probably entered camp as the front-runner for the fifth starter assignment, has allowed 10 hits and five runs in 11 innings. Touki Toussaint has allowed three hits and two runs in eight innings, retiring 15 consecutive batters at one point.

The Braves will need a No. 5 starter by April 7 in Washington, the finale of the season-opening trip. “We’ve got a lot of good pitchers that are more than deserving of that spot,” Wright said. But one of them must seize it.

How will the bullpen be configured?

The Braves didn’t bring back three members of last season’s superb bullpen – closer Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day – and didn’t sign (or trade for) any major replacements because of financial restraints. So they must realign the bullpen from within.

“We lost some key veteran pieces for sure,” returning reliever Tyler Matzek said. “I learned a ton from those guys. I think their leadership is going to be missed as much as their pitching ability. But they were very open to sharing their minds, and hopefully the young guys, me included, picked up enough that we can keep doing what we did last year and keep moving forward as if they never left.”

Left-hander Will Smith, who had 34 saves for San Francisco in 2019, figures to get first crack at the Braves’ closer role. Right-hander Chris Martin, generally cast as a setup man, also could close on occasion. Lefties A.J. Minter and Matzek, both of whom had outstanding seasons last year, will be used in high-leverage situations, too.

The Braves will have at least four other relievers on the opening-day roster. Most, possibly all, of those spots figure to be filled from the group of Jacob Webb, Luke Jackson, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin and Huascar Ynoa. Also keep an eye on Sean Newcomb, who has a minor-league option remaining, and non-roster invitees Carl Edwards and Nate Jones.

There’s a recent school of thought around MLB that teams don’t require a designated closer and instead can juggle several relievers in that role depending on game situations. Snitker didn’t sound convinced of that approach when asked about it this week.

“I know that ninth inning is not for everybody,” he said. “That’s a different animal. It’s just not as easy as that. ... My instinct and all of how I was raised or grew up in the game (with traditional closers), it’s hard to get that out of the way.”

Will the rookie win the center field job?

It’s clear the Braves want Cristian Pache to be their starting center fielder because of his dazzling defense and immense potential. But it’s also a fact that rookies rarely win starting jobs with a spring-training batting average of .111, which is what Pache is hitting (2-for-18).

For now, the Braves seem undeterred by that.

“I like where his swing is in batting practice,” Snitker said. “I like the way he has driven the ball the other way. I like some of the takes, the walks he’s taken. ... I like the maturity I’ve seen out of him this spring.”

Pache doesn’t have to hit a lot this season, given his glove and arm, but he obviously has to hit well above .111.

Who’s on the bench?

Jason Kipnis, battling for a berth on the Braves’ bench, summed up the competition well: “Sometimes when you hear people are competing for spots, you have a good guess who (the winners) might be, regardless of stats in spring. Right now, it just doesn’t feel like anyone knows.”

The backup catcher will be a rookie, William Contreras or Alex Jackson, barring a late-camp move to bring in a veteran. Jackson is 1-for-16 (.063) and Contreras 2-for-9 (.222). The backup outfielder will be Ender Inciarte, if Pache indeed starts in center.

That leaves three jobs for backup infielders. The candidates: Johan Camargo and Ehire Adrianza, both of whom have played second base, shortstop, third base, first base and the outfield; Jake Lamb and Pablo Sandoval, both of whom are third basemen who also can play first base; and Kipnis, a second baseman who has played a bit of center field.

Of that group, Sandoval is having the best spring at the plate (9-for-25, .360) but is by far the most limited in the field. Adrianza is 5-for-17 (.294), Kipnis 5-for-19 (.263), Camargo 4-for-24 (.167) and Lamb 3-for-21 (.143).

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of competition here,” Adrianza said. “I’m just trying to get better every day. That’s the only thing I can control. … And see what happens.”

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