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Braves have trio of dark-horse candidates

Kazmir, Ruiz, Blair all could snag roster spots with strong spring
MLB.com @mlbbowman

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Whenever Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has discussed potential roster plans, he has mentioned there will inevitably be a Spring Training injury that will alter his line of thinking. There's also always the possibility that the alteration of another team's plans could create the availability of a player that could be a fit on Atlanta's roster.

Spring Training also serves as a fertile ground for underdog stories, created by veterans that unexpectedly prove they have something left to offer, or Minor Leaguers who provide every indication they are ready to accept the challenge of competing at the game's highest level.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Whenever Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has discussed potential roster plans, he has mentioned there will inevitably be a Spring Training injury that will alter his line of thinking. There's also always the possibility that the alteration of another team's plans could create the availability of a player that could be a fit on Atlanta's roster.

Spring Training also serves as a fertile ground for underdog stories, created by veterans that unexpectedly prove they have something left to offer, or Minor Leaguers who provide every indication they are ready to accept the challenge of competing at the game's highest level.

Braves Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule

The Braves will gain a better idea about their potential Opening Day roster makeup during the Grapefruit League season, which begins with Friday's game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Bullpen candidate Matt Wisler will get the start, but he's slated to throw just one inning. The game is scheduled to begin at 1:10 p.m. ET and will be shown live on MLB.TV.

While Braves fans want to see top prospect Ronald Acuna make his Major League debut as early as possible, they'll likely have to wait until at least the latter portion of April. But, below is a breakdown of a few dark-horse candidates to earn a spot on Atlanta's Opening Day roster.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

LHP Scott Kazmir: Acquired from the Dodgers via the swap of unwanted contracts that was completed in December, Kazmir is a three-time All-Star who missed all of last season with a hip injury. The veteran southpaw stood as a fiscal element within the financially motivated trade, and has not been described as a legitimate candidate for Atlanta's rotation. But if he proves to be healthy, he could at least make things interesting and force the Braves to weigh the possibility of giving him a spot in favor of Sean Newcomb or Luiz Gohara.

Though he has just five career starts under his belt, Gohara stands as the heavy favorite to win the fourth spot in Atlanta's rotation. Newcomb has the potential to be a frontline starter, but he also possesses control problems that could open the door for Kazmir, who produced a 3.10 ERA over 31 starts in 2015, and then posted a 4.56 ERA over the 26 starts he made for the Dodgers in '16.

Kazmir has made just one appearance since Aug. 23, 2016, and there is certainly reason for the Braves to favor providing experience to one of their young starters, who has the potential to provide future value. But if Newcomb falters, and there's still a sense Max Fried could benefit from more time in the Minors, then Brandon McCarthy might not be the only former Dodger who begins the year in Atlanta's rotation.

UTIL Rio Ruiz: Ruiz might no longer be considered the club's third baseman of the future, but if he proves to be versatile enough to handle the outfield during Spring Training, he might earn a spot on the Opening Day roster and possibly help fill the left field position until Acuna is brought up to the Majors.

Video: PHI@ATL: Ruiz puts the Braves on the board with homer

Ruiz is capable of handling both corner infield positions, and as he gets some reps in the outfield over the next few weeks, he'll look to prove he still has some of that athleticism he possessed as a high school quarterback who drew attention from some top football programs, including USC.

The current safe bet would be to project Preston Tucker to serve as the left-handed portion of the left field platoon, which would include Lane Adams. Tucker tallied 13 homers during his 2015 rookie season with Houston, but faltered the following year and spent all of last season at the Triple-A level.

Even if Ruiz isn't placed within this platoon, there's a chance he could earn a bench spot. But Danny Santana's status as a switch-hitter would likely give him the nod.

RHP Aaron BlairIt's not too often that a pitcher can go from top pitching prospect to dark-horse bullpen candidate within two years. But at this point, Blair is willing to do whatever it takes to get back to the Majors, and he might do so with the help of his slider, which has proven to be an effective swing-and-miss pitch.

If assuming Peter Moylan will be on the Opening Day roster, there are a number of candidates fighting for what would be the final two bullpen spots. Rule 5 selection Anyelo Gomez and Josh Ravin (out of options) have an advantage given that they could be lost to another organization if they don't start the season in Atlanta's bullpen. But neither should be considered a roster lock.

There is seemingly a need for a lefty specialist, a role that Rex Brothers might fill, and for a long reliever, a role that could be filled by Lucas Sims or Chase Whitley. But the Braves could also opt to use Blair as their long reliever. It might be best to see what Blair can do when not required to navigate a lineup multiple times. But by placing him in the swing role, they might get a chance to see what he might be capable of doing if he becomes more of a two-pitch pitcher assigned to go through just a portion of a lineup.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Aaron Blair, Scott Kazmir, Rio Ruiz