August 18, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta Braves Rafael Ortega hits a grand slam to take a 5-3 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers during the sixth inning in a MLB baseball game on Sunday, August 18, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Braves confident in transitioning bench

The Braves have seen their rich depth diminish in recent weeks. Utilityman Charlie Culberson is out for the season with a fractured cheekbone. Utilityman Johan Camargo has been out with a shin fracture, and it’s unknown if he’ll return in time for the National League Division Series.

Even with neither having his best season, Culberson and Camargo were the team’s two most valuable bench players. They’re capable of playing almost anywhere and both have previously shown to be better with the bat than they’ve been this season.

“It’s hard,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Unfortunately that’s what baseball and pretty much every other sport is, it’s next man up. We took a hit with our starters, Dansby (Swanson) and Nick (Markakis), and those guys stepped up. Now we took a hit with our bench. Other guys will step up. (Adeiny) Hechavarria has been huge already this year. (Rafael) Ortega is going to have to get going, (Austin) Riley, (Adam) Duvall. We have the right pieces to cover it, but losing Charlie and Johan is a big blow.”

In Culberson’s case, it was a difficult loss on the field, but Culberson plans to keep contributing off it. He’ll stay around the team providing moral support – he’s one of the most respected players in the clubhouse – but the team will miss him as a chess piece.

“That’s a big hit there,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He means so much to this team. The person he is, the teammate he is. Let alone how versatile he is, the job he’s done pinch-hitting, when you need him to play multiple positions. He’s the one guy in the clubhouse where you’d be hard-pressed to not find someone to go on and on about what he means as a teammate.”

The Braves haven’t ruled out a Camargo return, as unlikely as it may seem. But his likely absence further dents the team’s options. The Braves still have plentiful choices to fill out their infield and outfield come October – Hechavarria, Ortega, Riley, Duvall, Billy Hamilton – as well as carrying a third catcher if desired. 

But none possess the skill sets of Culberson and Camargo, one-man Swiss army knives who help the Braves match the Dodgers’ deep bench. The Dodgers’ depth advantage was among the glaring differences between the clubs last October.

“As we’re seeing today, (the bench is) still in transition a little bit,” Snitker said. “You can’t walk the halls without tripping on one of the guys who went down that had done such a good job. When Francisco (Cervelli) came up, when Camargo came back from Triple-A and how well he was doing. It’s tough to replace those guys this time of year.”

How the Braves construct their postseason roster is that much more intriguing. Now that they’ve lost their two most versatile bench players, perhaps they lean more towards an additional position player than a 12th pitcher. 

Carrying three catchers is still on the table. How many outfielders do they need, with Hamilton a near lock to make the team for his speed while Riley and Duvall are competing for spots? How would Ender Inciarte affect that equation, with the gold glover a possibility to return in time for the postseason?

The Braves’ playoff bench isn’t nearly as clear as once thought, but they believe it’s still a strength and reason for optimism entering next month because it offers an aspect last year’s thinner group didn’t: options.

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