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Confident Banuelos fighting for spot with Braves

Left-hander is a candidate for rotation, could also pitch in bullpen

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The question was simple, but it made Manny Banuelos laugh: "When he's pitching well, what's working for him?"

"I've had a long time since I pitched well, so I forget," he said early Tuesday morning in the Braves' clubhouse.

Now focused on trying to claim the fifth spot in Atlanta's rotation, Banuelos hopes to remember the answer soon.

"I will do everything I can, try to pitch well. The best thing is my arm feels much better than last year, so that's a good thing," he said. "My ball's coming out good. I feel more confident. I'm ready for everything. I want to fight for it, try to get a shot."

The former top prospect, traded from the Yankees to the Braves this winter, is a little more than two years removed from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Last spring, he got back on the mound for the first time in 22 months.

Video: [email protected]: Banuelos returns to mound, fans Springer

Banuelos was limited by pitch counts and innings limits last year, but he reported to Champion Stadium this year feeling healthy and strong. The Braves say the mix for the fifth spot in the rotation includes Banuelos, the club's No. 12 prospect, but it might be difficult for the 23-year-old left-hander to win the job right out of camp.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested Tuesday that Banuelos isn't necessarily going to be sent to Triple-A if he's not the fifth starter. He could pitch out of the bullpen, possibly as a long reliever.

"For me, he's in the mix of being that No. 5 starter," Gonzalez said. "If he could help us in the bullpen and we could do that as a way to manage his innings a little bit, we're open to that."

Banuelos never threw more than 80 pitches or five innings in a game last season. He pitched well down the stretch, with a 2.76 ERA from July 22 until the end of the year, but overall Banuelos was 2-3 with a 4.13 ERA in 76 1/3 innings for Class A Advanced Tampa, Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Banuelos said Tuesday he hasn't been informed of any restrictions on him this season. He said he feels as good as he has in years. He's no longer worried about throwing his curveball, like he was at times last year.

Former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera once referred to Banuelos as the best prospect he'd ever seen in person, according to ESPN New York. Banuelos spent seven years with the Yankees, the only organization he'd known since signing as a 17-year-old.

"They surprised me," Banuelos said. "But I'm ready for everything, so when [Yankees general manager Brian] Cashman called me and told me about the trade, I was like, 'OK, I'm a Brave now.'"

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
Read More: Atlanta Braves, Manny Banuelos