Competition begins for spots in Braves rotation, bullpen

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s message to his troops was simple Saturday morning before the first official workout for pitchers and catchers: There’s a lot openings on the staff, boys. Go get one.

“I said this is a great place to have the opportunity to be a pitcher,” Gonzalez said. “So just go out there and go about your business. Even if you don’t break camp with us April 3, you still have a good chance to help us during the course of the season. So be impressive.

“And that’s the stuff that we talked about all winter when we signed some guys like Kyle Kendrick and Bud Norris, some of the veteran guys – there’s an opportunity for you to come and pitch.”

The Braves have at least two openings in their starting rotation, behind certainty Julio Teheran and likely starters Norris – who signed a one-year, $2.5 million major league contract — and Matt Wisler, the most impressive of the rookie starters who debuted last season for Atlanta.

Among other candidates for two or three rotation spots are veteran non-roster invitees Kendrick, Chris Volstad and Jhoulys Chacin, and others from last year’s rookie class including Williams Perez and, if fully recovered after fall surgeries, Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz. Also, several from among the most advanced of the Braves’ top prospects will compete for a spot or two, led by left-hander Sean Newcomb and right-handers Aaron Blair, Chris Ellis and Lucas Sims, with Tyrell Jenkins another possibility to at least make his debut at some point in 2016.

“It’s all out there to get, there’s a lot of open spots,” said Newcomb, who was the Angels’ top-rated prospect when the Braves got him and Ellis as part of a November trade that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. “It’s definitely a good motivation to get on the horse now, to get after it.”

After dealing with sub-zero temperatures at home in Boston last week, Newcomb, now a consensus No. 1 among Braves pitching prospects, was thrilled to get to spring training and start competing for a spot with his new club.

“I like to have some competition, it makes me kind of push myself a little bit more,” said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound lefty, whose fastball tops out at 97 mph.

The Braves might also have a few spots up for grabs in the bullpen in the rotation, but again, plenty of competition. The only bullpen certainties at this point appear to be veterans Jim Johnson and Chris Withrow along with hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino and, if he’s fully recovered from Achilles surgery, closer Jason Grilli.

Grilli participated in all drills in Saturday’s workout, albeit with fewer repetitions in areas such as covering first base during pitcher’s fielding drills. Gonzalez and Grilli have agreed the veteran will ease into things early in camp.

The Braves must keep their December Rule 5 pick, left-handed reliever Evan Rutckyj, all season or offer him back to the Yankees for $25,000, and must keep former Rule 5 pick Dan Winkler for about two months or offer the right-hander back to the Rockies, after he missed most of 2015 recovering from elbow surgery.

Lefties Ian Krol, acquired from the Tigers in the Cameron Maybin trade this winter, will compete with lefty returners Matt Marksberry and Andrew McKirahan, who showed promise but looked overmatched at times as rookies in 2015.

“I’m really impressed by some of the arms I saw today,” Gonzalez said after Saturday’s workout. “Some of the guys I hadn’t seen live. I had seen video and read about them in (scouting) reports, but I got to see some guys live that were pretty impressive. It’s the first day, but I’m really pleased about the bodies, the athletes that we’ve got out there. We’ve got some guys that have got some size, some big, strong guys.”

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