When the Braves opened their Grapefruit League season with a 9-7 loss to the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Sunday, they took another step in the always interesting process of building an Opening Day roster.
Here are the top five questions the Braves will face over the remainder of Spring Training:
Will Cristian Pache begin the season as the starting center fielder?
While recently researching reactions to the late Hank Aaron’s first home run, I found a few newspaper accounts that mentioned that Braves manager Charlie Grimm was still planning to put Aaron back on the bench when Bill Bruton returned from injury in April 1954.
That never happened. But this story reminds us that players far greater than Pache have had to prove themselves before entrenching themselves in a Major League lineup.
Pache’s big league experience consisted of four plate appearances before he was forced to become an everyday player during Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. That’s quite a small sample size. But as he went 4-for-22 with a homer and a double during that tension-filled week against the Dodgers, the 22-year-old Pache -- baseball's No. 12 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- did create reason to believe he would be a better option than Ender Inciarte in center field.
Braves manager Brian Snitker has said he is not describing his center field situation as a position battle between Inciarte and Pache. That’s understandable. There’s no reason to put undue pressure on Pache. Nor is there any reason to agitate Inciarte, who will make $8 million in the final year of his contract.
Spring Training is not the best environment to make decisions that could have long-term repercussions. But if Pache’s performance over the next few weeks backs up what was seen during the NLCS, then I think the club would be happy to have him serve as its Opening Day center fielder.
That being said, the Braves have to be prepared for the possibility that Pache needs more time in the Minor Leagues. Ronald Acuña Jr. will see some time in center this spring, and Inciarte will be prepared for the possibility of opening one more season as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.
Nobody is envisioning Inciarte being the center fielder for an entire season. But if using him in that role for another month or two enhances what Pache might provide over the next few years, wouldn’t that at least be a wise fallback option?
When will Mike Soroka join Atlanta’s rotation?
The good news is that Snitker has said Soroka is right on time with everything Atlanta is putting him through. The bad news is that this really doesn’t tell us anything, given that the Braves have not revealed their timetable for their talented 23-year-old hurler, who is coming back from a torn right Achilles tendon.
Soroka has not had any setbacks since he began throwing off a mound on a regular basis a little more than a month ago. Nor has he had any problems while completing running exercises every other day over the past week. But there still shouldn’t be any reason to rush.
With the offseason additions of right-hander Charlie Morton and lefty Drew Smyly, the Braves have plenty of pitching depth. At the same time, they will need to monitor the workload of all their starters as they attempt to go through a full 162-game season after a shortened 2020.
Yes, the NL East might be the game’s strongest division. But it would seemingly make sense to have Soroka skip four or five starts if that positions him to be that much more durable and effective over the season’s final four or five months.
So, I’m thinking Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson or possibly even Huascar Ynoa could capably fill that rotation spot while Soroka spends most or all of April making his sure his legs and body are ready for this year’s long haul.
Who will begin the season as the backup catcher?
William Contreras has been the organization’s most improved player over the past year. He made great strides while working out with his All-Star brother, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, during last year’s shutdown. But William, 23, has played just 64 games above Class A Advanced.
If the Braves don’t add a veteran over the next few weeks, they might opt to have Contreras begin at Triple-A Gwinnett and use Alex Jackson as their backup. Jackson has improved defensively over the past couple of years and has tremendous raw power. His high whiff rate might affect his long-term status as a big leaguer. But he could be serviceable in the role for at least a couple of months, if necessary.
Who will fill the final bullpen spots?
Will Smith, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter and Josh Tomlin can be penciled into five of the available spots. Exactly how many vacancies remain depends on whether the Braves opt to begin the season with just four starting pitchers. A few early off-days gives them this option.
But for now, let’s assume there will be just three available bullpen spots. Luke Jackson and Grant Dayton are both out of options. So, barring a total collapse by either, I’ll project they will fill two of those spots. My favorite for the other spot would be Carl Edwards Jr., who if healthy could team with Martin to give the team at least two right-handed options for high-leverage situations.
Who will fill the final bench spots?
Without the universal designated hitter, the value of pinch-hitters will once again increase for NL clubs. Johan Camargo, Jake Lamb, Inciarte and Jackson stand as top candidates for four of the five available bench spots. If Camargo proves he can still play shortstop, the Braves’ choices for that final spot would widen to the point where they might consider carrying Jason Kipnis, who can play second base or either corner outfield spot if necessary.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Braves have added a number of potential fourth or fifth outfielders to their camp. But for now, I’m thinking their last bench spot will be filled by a player who is currently with another team.