LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before beginning his candidacy to become one of baseball's top relief pitchers, A.J. Minter must prove he is healthy and durable enough to handle the schedule of big league reliever. Minter will have a chance to do so this year, as the Braves have cleared
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before beginning his candidacy to become one of baseball's top relief pitchers, A.J. Minter must prove he is healthy and durable enough to handle the schedule of big league reliever. Minter will have a chance to do so this year, as the Braves have cleared him to pitch without the usage restrictions that limited his availability the past two seasons.
"He feels good and he had a normal offseason," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He's done a lot of work on his physical being. Last year, there were restrictions. This year, he's ready to be a big league reliever."
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Minter certainly displayed his potential last year as he spent the final six weeks of the regular season in Atlanta's bullpen. He posted a 3.00 ERA and recorded 26 strikeouts while issuing just two walks over 16 appearances. Now, he must prove how effective he can be while pitching on a regular basis. He has pitched on consecutive days just twice in the Minors since the Braves took him in the 2015 Draft, while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Minter was bothered by an inflamed elbow nerve during last year's Spring Training, and then he was sidelined for two months after he strained his groin in April. The 24-year-old reliever remained strong over the rest of the season and tried to make a case for back-to-back appearances after getting his first call to the Majors in August.
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"We stayed away from doing that," Snitker said. "He wanted to, and he wasn't happy with us because we didn't rough him up a little bit. He's ready to do that now. I have no reservations about that whatsoever."
Minter produced 15.60 strikeouts per nine innings, struck out 43.3 percent of the batters faced and constructed a 13.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while with Atlanta last year. No other pitcher in Major League history matched any of these numbers in at least 15 innings during a rookie season.
Among all relievers who completed at least 15 innings in 2017, he ranked second to Craig Kimbrel (16.43, 49.9 percent) in strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout percentage. He also ranked second to Kenley Jansen (15.57) with his strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Kazmir fighting to extend his career
When the Braves acquired Scott Kazmir in the deal that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in December, they knew it wouldn't be wise to put any expectations on the three-time All-Star, who missed all of last year while dealing with the lingering effects of a hip injury.
But at the same time, the Braves would certainly like to see Kazmir be healthy and effective during Spring Training. Even if he pitches well, there would be reason to debate whether it makes sense to give him a rotation spot that could be reserved for a younger pitcher with future value to the team.
"When [Kazmir] pitches, he's good," Snitker said. "He's been a successful pitcher."
Snitker said Kazmir has been cleared to go through Spring Training without any restrictions. The 34-year-old left-hander will be vying with Sean Newcomb, Luiz Gohara and Max Fried for the final two spots in the starting rotation.
Looking for versatility
The Braves have said Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz should both be considered the top internal candidates to open the upcoming season as the primary third baseman. But Camargo seems to be the overwhelming favorite.
If Ruiz doesn't get the starting job, he would likely be sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to play either of the two corner-infield positions. Snitker said Ruiz will add to his versatility by getting more time at first base during the Grapefruit League season.
Ruiz's bid for a roster spot will be influenced by whether the team sticks with the plan to go with an eight-man bullpen and four-man bench. If the season opened today, the three non-catchers on the bench might be Charlie Culberson, Preston Tucker and Danny Santana.
The bench's mix would also once be altered once the Braves bring top prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. to the big league level. Until Acuna arrives, Lane Adams and Tucker will likely form a platoon in left field.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.