NORTH PORT, Fla. -- With two more weeks of Spring Training remaining before Opening Day, the Braves still are evaluating how best to construct their rotation, bullpen and bench. This week’s Inbox focuses on some of the primary questions the team has left to answer.
Has Félix Hernández secured a spot in the Opening Day rotation or does he still have work to do?
If Hernández remains healthy over the remainder of camp, I would expect him to win one of the two available rotation spots. He faced primarily Minor Leaguers in his first two outings (against the Orioles and Tigers), but he proved to be just as effective on Tuesday, when he faced a Rays club that included at least six players expected to begin the year in the Majors.
Though the Braves aren’t setting a timetable for Cole Hamels, I think they have to plan for him to be on the injured list through the first half of May. So, the Braves are looking at the possibility of having to fill his rotation spot for a while.
As things currently stand, Hernández and Sean Newcomb are the most likely candidates to fill the two vacancies. Even though I believe Newcomb would be most valuable as a reliever, giving him a chance to prove himself in the rotation makes sense. If he pitches well, he can remain in that role. If he struggles, there still could be value there for the Braves if his presence allows Kyle Wright -- the Braves’ No. 4 prospect and No. 52 overall, according to MLB Pipeline -- the extra seasoning he needs to be truly ready for the Majors.
How are the Braves feeling about Philip Pfeifer? He's been used as a relief pitcher so far in Spring Training. Any chance they stretch him back out and consider him for the rotation at some point this year?
When I asked Freddie Freeman who has most impressed him in Spring Training, he mentioned how he’s been hearing a lot of his coaches and teammates talk about how much they have been impressed by Pfeifer, Atlanta’s No. 28 prospect, who has recorded eight strikeouts while retiring 13 of 18 batters over 4 1/3 scoreless innings.
There’s no doubt Pfeifer made significant strides when he was pushed into a starting role last year. That experience delayed his plans to attend law school. But serving as a reliever is his most likely future at the big league level. If he continues to impress, it won’t be long before that future arrives.
As you likely know, my crystal ball has long shown Culberson on the bench to begin the season, and then as the odd man out after Riley spends at least a few weeks at Triple-A Gwinnett. But we all know what happens to those preseason visions -- remember when Culberson was going to be the odd man out two or three times during the first month of what became a career-best 2018 season?
I still believe the Braves are best served by starting Riley at third once it’s clear he is ready to be productive again at the big league level. Camargo would strengthen the bench with his offensive and defensive versatility.
Earlier this week, Braves manager Brian Snitker said he believes Camargo and Riley both need to play every day, even if it means one of them is doing so at the Triple-A level. I think that was just something a manager says when the conclusion of a position battle is still three weeks away.
Eventually, Riley and Camargo both will be on Atlanta’s roster. At that point, Culberson could be expendable.
Is there a real shot for Patrick Weigel to make the team out of Spring Training, or does he start the year at Triple-A?
Weigel says it took him two years to recover from the 2017 Tommy John surgery that likely prevented him from already being a key piece in the Atlanta bullpen. While the big right-hander has allowed just two hits over 5 1/3 scoreless innings thus far, what’s more important is that he has shown he is indeed healthy. There’s a slight chance he’ll open the season in the Braves’ bullpen. If he doesn’t, I wouldn’t bet against the possibility he makes his MLB debut before the end of April.
Which players do you think are possible roster casualties at this point?
If the Braves are going to place Hernández and Culberson on their Opening Day roster, they’ll need to clear two spots from their 40-man roster. I can’t see them messing with their thin catching depth. So Alex Jackson’s spot remains secure, at least until Atlanta satisfies its need to find a viable “third catcher” willing to play for Triple-A Gwinnett until needed.
When the Braves need to start making these 40-man moves, they’ll likely remove some pitchers. Grant Dayton is a possible roster casualty. Hamels’ status will also influence these decisions. There’s a chance Hamels or Jeremy Walker, who has been dealing with right shoulder soreness, could become candidates for the 60-day injured list.
What are Peter O'Brien's chances of making the Opening Day roster?
Barring injuries, O’Brien’s chances fall somewhere between slim and none. As mentioned above, the Braves are already looking at the need to create at least two spots on the 40-man roster for Hernández and a utility player (Culberson or Yangervis Solarte). O’Brien’s infield versatility is restricted to first base, and if Freddie Freeman were to miss extended time at any point, Nick Markakis would be the most likely candidate to step in.