ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Two weeks from now, the Braves will have completed their first game of the regular season.
To this point, the Braves have had a relatively “boring” spring – which is good because it means everything is running smoothly. And even with most positions spoken for, these final two weeks of spring training will hold a lot of excitement because there will be multiple storylines to monitor.
Roster decisions loom.
Soon enough, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos will finish crafting the roster and the Braves will head to Washington with 26 men for opening day.
Fifth starter: Dylan Dodd or Jared Shuster?
Right when you walk into the Braves’ spring training clubhouse and turn left, Jared Shuster’s and Dylan Dodd’s lockers are next to each other. Coming into camp, they were viewed as exciting prospects who could learn a lot from spending time with the big leaguers.
The situation is different, and they’re aware of it: They are competing – against one another – for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Their final couple of starts of the spring will matter a lot.
Dodd said the two have joked with one another about the competition.
“We’ve been good friends,” said Dodd, who has gotten to know Shuster from playing together a bit in the minors.
On Tuesday, the Braves surprised everyone by optioning to Triple-A Gwinnett Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder – two guys who, along with Michael Soroka, entered camp as the main competitors for this job. The decision was more about Shuster and Dodd pitching well, though Anderson and Elder have been only decent this spring.
(One note: Pitchers who are optioned must remain in the minors for at least 15 days before teams can bring them back. This clock would begin on opening day. But teams can recall players before that minimum number of days to replace injured players. Thus, the Braves could theoretically recall Anderson or Elder by placing an injured player – Tyler Matzek, for example – on the opening-day roster before putting Matzek on the injured list, which would open a roster spot.)
To this point, Shuster has allowed one run over 8-2/3 innings this spring. He has nine strikeouts. Dodd hasn’t surrendered a run over 8-1/3 innings, with 11 strikeouts.
Heading into the final stretch of spring, both have a similar mindset.
“I can’t really control the decision they make, whether I’m on the roster or not on the roster, right?” Dodd said Thursday. “What I can control is how I go about my business today and tomorrow, and throughout the week, and leading up to my start to prepare myself each and every week.”
“Just trying to be as present as possible,” Shuster said. “Just stick to my routines and keep doing what I’ve been doing. Not try to think about the outcome and think about what you can do to help the outcome rather than the outcome itself.”
The Braves, like the rest of us, didn’t envision Dodd or Shuster becoming factors for the opening-day roster. The two prospects, who haven’t yet made an MLB debut, have been that good.
At this point in the spring, pitchers are stretched out to four or five innings, which would have limited the opportunities available for Dodd and Shuster. The Braves want to see them, and they don’t need to watch them versus the minor leaguers who often occupy the field late in spring games. Plus, the Braves must save innings for Kyle Wright and Soroka, who are on the verge of pitching in Grapefruit League games.
There’s this, too: If Dodd or Shuster – whoever makes the rotation – doesn’t pitch well, the Braves can send either down and start over. There are no permanent decisions.
Shortstop is a competition until it isn’t
Is Braden Shewmake making things interesting?
“That’s great,” manager Brian Snitker said of Shewmake’s impressive spring. “What a great thing when your young players show up and get you excited. I think it’s awesome.”
Entering camp, it seemed as if Vaughn Grissom would be the starting shortstop if he didn’t fall flat on his face. The Braves, while praising him then, stopped short of crowning him. They emphasized this: He had to earn the job.
At the time, no one expected Shewmake – whom Grissom jumped in the organizational depth chart last year – to play like this. He’s always been a great defender, but he’s hitting this spring.
The read from here is this: Grissom still might have the inside track for the job, but the competition seems to be ongoing because Shewmake has grabbed the team’s attention.
The Braves are giving Grissom and Shewmake alternating starts at shortstop. That isn’t by accident. On a recent day, Grissom started at shortstop while Shewmake was the designated hitter. This could mean nothing, but it was interesting for this reason: If you’re the Braves, you probably want to know more about Grissom’s defense and Shewmake’s offense – the parts of their respective games that come with the most questions.
After his first 11 spring games, Shewmake is 7-for-24 with two doubles, a triple and four RBIs. He has walked twice. This is the same player who had a sub-.700 OPS over his past two minor-league seasons. His 2022 season ended because of injury.
Does his small spring sample outweigh his minor-league track record? Maybe not. But his at-bats have been better. Plus, the Braves’ internal metrics rated Shewmake as one of the top shortstops in the minor leagues.
At the beginning of spring, Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer noticed that Shewmake’s swing and approach seemed different. Shewmake used to look to pull the ball, so much so that his arms would almost hook around to do so.
So Seitzer asked Shewmake about the adjustments, and the infielder told him he talked to his dad (a college coach) this winter about going back to how he hit in college, when he sprayed the ball everywhere.
“Started focusing more on staying in the middle of the field, hitting the ball the other way,” Seitzer said.
Immediately, this helped Shewmake’s swing path, Seitzer said. His hand positioning also is better. But the big part is his approach and how he’s locking in on using the middle of the field.
Can Shewmake’s progress at the plate continue as he moves forward?
“For sure,” Seitzer said. “I don’t know if he’s going to hit like he’s hit this spring because he’s had a great spring, but he’s gonna give himself a chance now.”
Shewmake can hit a fastball. Now he’s seeing off-speed pitches much better.
The more a hitter thinks about using the middle of the field or going the other way, Seitzer said, the better he will see off-speed pitches. When a hitter tries to pull the ball too much, as Shewmake used to do, he has to go early on fastballs, which leaves him vulnerable to chasing pitches off the plate and getting fooled by secondary offerings.
“The more you think the other way, in a hitter’s mind it feels like you can see the ball for 10 minutes longer, even though that’s not the case,” Seitzer said. “But it’s amazing how much longer you can see the ball.”
To see if Shewmake’s offensive adjustments are, in fact, real, the Braves could continue evaluating him at Triple-A. Opening day, after all, is simply an arbitrary date because teams must submit 26-man rosters ahead of the first game. The evaluation, however, continues.
Shortstop theoretically could play out in multiple ways. The Braves could go with Grissom and Orlando Arcia. They could opt for a platoon with Shewmake (left-handed hitter) and Arcia (right-handed hitter) if they eventually believe Shewmake is a better option than Grissom. Or what if something crazy and unexpected happened – though this seems unlikely – and neither Grissom nor Shewmake begins the season on the roster?
Nothing is certain at this point, though it seems likely the Braves wouldn’t want Grissom or Shewmake in a bench role – the players would be better off getting regular reps in the minors.
Something to remember: Just because you win a job doesn’t mean you keep it.
Tons of outfield options (and minor-league options)
Jordan Luplow. Sam Hilliard. Eli White. Kevin Pillar.
The Braves have options for backup outfielders. And a few of those options have (minor-league) options, which could be important.
Luplow has a minor-league option. Eli White has two. Hilliard is out of options, and the Braves would lose him if they tried to take him off the roster. Pillar is on a minor-league deal, so the Braves can send him to the minors if he doesn’t make the team.
How much of a factor could these options play in the decision-making process?
“Depth is always an issue, I think more so now than ever before,” Snitker said. “And so all that is taken (into consideration). I tell players, ‘Until you’re out of options, you don’t have any power in this game.’ Eventually it’ll come, unless you just make a statement on the field with your play. But, yeah, you always love to have those optionable guys for your depth because if you don’t, then something happens, then you got a chance of losing them. So it’s a big, big thing to have optionable pieces.”
If the Braves were to take White over Hilliard, for example, they would need to be sure that White (who has the option) would serve them clearly better than Hilliard. Otherwise, they would opt to keep depth in the organization, which they would lose if Hillard didn’t make the roster and had to be placed on waivers.
Put simpler than that: If White wouldn’t be an every-day player, why would the Braves throw away the depth?
None of this means White won’t make the roster. But from the standpoint of how baseball works, Hilliard has an edge, with both playing well.
This spring, White is 12-for-28 with three home runs and seven RBIs. He couldn’t be playing much better, considering his offense always has been the weaker part of his game. Hilliard is 11-for-30 with a home run and seven RBIs.
The Braves feel fortunate to have this depth.
“This is probably the most speed – (bench coach) Walt (Weiss) and I were talking about this the other day – that we’ve ever had in camp, and athleticism,” Snitker said. “All the guys that Alex brought in, they’re athletic guys that can play all over the outfield, and they throw, they run, and they’re good defenders.
“Probably for most of them, they just haven’t put that offensive side together because the talent level and skill set in all these guys is really, really good. Kudos to (Anthopoulos) for identifying that, and we got a nice cache of outfielders right now.”
Final spot in the bullpen
The Braves also must make a decision on the final spot in the bullpen.
If all are healthy, it appears these seven relievers likely will make the roster: Raisel Iglesias, Joe Jiménez, A.J. Minter, Collin McHugh, Kirby Yates, Lucas Luetge and Dylan Lee.
Nick Anderson, Jesse Chavez, Jackson Stephens and Michael Tonkin are competing for the final spot.
The Braves know Chavez, a non-roster invitee, but he entered camp expecting to compete for a job. Anderson, signed in the offseason, has allowed two runs over five innings with 10 strikeouts this spring.
Something to note: The Braves can tinker with their roster in different ways for the start of the season.