Braves expect tough calls on several roster decisions

Braves manager Brian Snitker takes in the scene from his golf cart early in spring training.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves manager Brian Snitker takes in the scene from his golf cart early in spring training.

Entering the next-to-last full week of spring training, the Braves have roster decisions to make at third base, in the starting rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench.

Manager Brian Snitker is bracing for the decisions to be difficult.

“I think at the end of this camp I’m going to have a rough couple days, quite honestly,” Snitker said Sunday. “Which I think is all good, really. Not fun, but it’s good, so we’ll see. A lot can happen in two weeks.”

The Braves play their final exhibition game on March 24, two weeks from Tuesday, and open the regular season at Arizona on March 26, two weeks from Thursday.

Here’s a look at roster choices they must make in the meantime:

THIRD BASE: Riley or Camargo? 

The highest-profile position battle in the Braves' camp is Austin Riley vs. Johan Camargo for the starting job at third base. Both players are having strong springs.

“It’d be a tough call right now,” Snitker said Sunday. “Both have done good.”

In fact, their Grapefruit League batting averages are identical: .304 (7-for-23 in both cases).  Riley has hit two home runs and struck out five times; Camargo has one homer and five strikeouts.

Camargo played third base and went 0-for-3 in the Braves’ 1-0 exhibition loss Sunday to the New York Yankees. (The Braves had only two hits, both singles.)

Snitker expressed skepticism a week ago about the idea of carrying both third basemen on the opening-day roster, suggesting that whoever doesn't win the starting job would be better served by playing regularly at Triple-A Gwinnett. But that posture might be revisited if Riley wins the starting job, because Camargo's versatility could be an asset on the bench.

STARTING ROTATION: A spot for King Felix? 

The Braves are set on 3/5ths of their season-opening starting pitching rotation, barring injury: Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz. That leaves two openings, including one to fill the spot that would have gone to Cole Hamels, who hasn't pitched in spring training and likely won't pitch in a big-league game until at least May because of an injured shoulder.

Sean Newcomb and Felix Hernandez are the front-runners for the open spots, but Kyle Wright has done enough to remain in the mix, too.

Newcomb started Sunday’s game against the Yankees and impressed with both his fastball and breaking pitches. He allowed no runs and three hits in four innings. He walked two, struck out four and again boosted his case for returning from the bullpen to the starting rotation despite his success as a reliever last year.

“Knowing that I did a pretty good job out there and they might favor that,” Newcomb said Sunday, “I think I’ve done what I had to do (to start) so far.”

“I really liked what I saw today,” Snitker said.

In Grapefruit League play, Newcomb has a 2.00 ERA, Hernandez 2.08 and Wright 2.16. The decision will go deeper than spring numbers.

“You’ve got to look in between things,” Snitker said. “We’ll evaluate command, stuff, the whole thing, and see where we’re at.”

Hernandez is scheduled to start Monday night’s game against the Boston Red Sox in North Port. After battling injuries the past three seasons, the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner, known as “King Felix,” said he has “no complaints” this spring: “I feel healthy. I feel really, really good.”

Braves pitcher Felix Hernandez signals to his catcher as he warms up for a spring exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Venice, Fla.

Credit: Elise Amendola

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Credit: Elise Amendola

BULLPEN: Final two spots 

The Braves will carry eight relief pitchers, and six of them are set, barring injury: Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Chris Martin, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Of the six, Smith is the only left-hander.

The other two spots in the bullpen could go to a long reliever (likely Josh Tomlin, who thrived in the role last season) and a second left-hander (Grant Dayton, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Philip Pfeifer and Chris Rusin are candidates in camp).

But Snitker said a second lefty reliever isn’t necessarily a requirement. Right-handed candidates for one of the final spots could include Chad Sobotka, Touki Toussaint and Patrick Weigel. In Sunday’s game, Weigel pitched a three-up, three-down inning; he hasn’t allowed a run in five appearances this spring.

“We’ll keep looking at guys and see what they do,” Snitker said. “I don’t know that there has to be a second lefty because we’ve got (right-handed) guys that get lefties out. We’ll just see how it shakes out in the very end. Having a couple guys that can go multiple innings will probably be a requirement early on.”

BENCH: A spot for Culberson? 

There’s one opening on the bench, provided the Braves don’t carry Riley or Camargo in a reserve role, and it appears to be between utilitymen Charlie Culberson and Yangervis Solarte. Culberson has helped himself by showing defensive improvement at shortstop.

“Charlie’s had a good spring,” Snitker said. “The thing we wanted to do was play him at shortstop a little bit, and he’s done a good job there.”

The Braves will have a five-man bench, up from four in recent seasons, thanks to MLB increasing the roster limit from 25 to 26. Four of the bench spots appear set: catcher Tyler Flowers (or Travis d’Arnaud when Flowers starts), infielder Adeiny Hechavarria and outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall (or Ender Inciarte when Markakis or Duvall starts).