Why Braves' bench battle is more than spring numbers

March 4th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman’s Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- As the Braves were taking batting practice on Friday, a fan asked how I felt seeing Forrest Wall hit a pair of homers less than an hour after publishing an article that didn’t include him as part of my Opening Day roster projection.

Quite honestly, you just have to laugh when something like this occurs. Enjoying a two-homer game like Wall did against the Rays on Thursday could certainly help a player’s bid for an Opening Day roster spot. But at the same time, it could just lead a team to think you’re too valuable to just gather rust on a big league bench.

Remember how Charlie Culberson went two months without playing last year? Before Nicky Lopez arrived, the Braves used their backup infielder as frequently as you’ve used a 1 iron on the golf course. Once Michael Harris II distanced himself from his back issues and got rolling in June, backup outfielders were utilized as often as heaters during Atlanta’s summer months.

When looking at who the Braves will choose to fill their final bench spots, you have to account for the fact the backups aren’t going to play that much. So you have to find the right fit in terms of both versatility and attitude.

Culberson accepted his role and never complained last year. Kevin Pillar also seemed to be a perfect fit. But this year, Pillar decided he wanted more playing time, so he signed a Minor League deal with the White Sox.

You can’t fault Pillar. He’s got to do what he believes is best for him at this late stage of his career.

So who might fill the Braves’ final two bench spots?

Luke Williams is a name that continues to be heard. Williams spent the final six weeks on Atlanta’s active roster last season. Remember him? No? This is why you could say the Braves’ backup infielders were as recognizable as the Falcons’ third-string punter last year.

The Falcons don’t have a third-string punter? Well, then you understand what I mean.

The top internal candidates for the two bench spots are Williams, Wall, Eli White, J.P. Martinez and Jordan Luplow. But there’s a good chance one vacancy could be taken by a player who is currently in another team’s camp.

Just remember how much value the Braves gained from the likes of Ryan Flaherty and Josh Tomlin after they became available during the final days of Spring Training.

My latest Opening Day roster projection called for Williams and Martinez to get those two spots.

Wall’s offensive game includes more than his tremendous speed. He’s certainly more valuable offensively than Williams. But Williams has speed, and his ability to play the infield and outfield makes him the more versatile option.

When telling stories about former third-base coach Ron Washington’s dedication, I’ve written and talked about the daily defensive work he did with Williams during last season’s final weeks. Wash deserved credit for being dedicated to a player who wasn’t going to play. But this also indicates what kind of attitude Williams brings to the park on a daily basis.

There’s certainly a chance Wall will spend significant time in the Majors this year. But there’s also a chance the Braves decide it’s best for Wall and Williams to both get regular at-bats at Triple-A Gwinnett.

The Braves will continue to evaluate what they have over the next couple of weeks. But if forced to guess right now, I’d say at least one of the final two bench spots will be filled by a player who is currently with another team.