With all the roster turnover the Braves have undergone over the past 16 months, it should come as no surprise that there will be multiple positions up for grabs as the team arrives in Orlando next month. In addition to a few returning starters, the Braves are set to field a spring training roster that will include a mixture of promising prospects and veteran retreads who are looking to earn a spot with the team.
Maybe the most important player with regards to the impending position battles is Hector Olivera. After spending the final month of 2015 in Atlanta as the club’s starting third baseman, the Braves have reportedly trained Olivera in left field this offseason, perhaps with the intention of having him play there full time moving forward. Since it is almost a foregone conclusion that Olivera will occupy a starting job somewhere, the location of that job could have a major impact on who else makes the roster. This will certainly be something to watch when the team arrives, and should be just one intriguing storyline in Braves camp.
Here are three important position battles to watch this spring:
The Braves acquired Jace Peterson last offseason as part of a package that sent outfielder Justin Upton to the San Diego Padres, and after a strong showing in spring training, Peterson opened the season as the team’s starting second baseman.
Peterson battled through some early season struggles, and on June 21 was hitting a respectable .284/.363/.389 before struggling mightily in the second half and finishing the season batting .239/.314/.335. Despite his underwhelming final line, Peterson was a mainstay in the Braves lineup in 2015, partially due to his consistency on defense.
This offseason, the Braves signed veteran infielder Gordon Beckham, a former All-American at the University of Georgia. As a member of the Chicago White Sox last season, Beckham batted .209/.275/.332. If Beckham is to win the starting job in Atlanta he will certainly need to improve on his performance from 2015, but with Peterson’s struggles in the second half it is not out of the question for the Braves to employ a platoon at second base between the right-handed Beckham and the left-handed Peterson.
The starting third base job is complicated by the Olivera situation, and if the Braves decide to keep him in the infield it is likely that he would be the starter. However, based on the reports that surfaced earlier in the offseason, it appears as though Olivera will play left field, leaving the third base job open for competition.
The likely front-runner at this point is Adonis Garcia, who played 42 games at third base for Atlanta in 2015 and hit .277/.293/.497 with 10 home runs. While Garcia’s defense may be a bit suspect, his showing last season at the plate could give him an advantage in this position battle. His performance in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason, where he hit .353/.411/.529, should also be encouraging with regards to his potential output this season.
Kelly Johnson spent the first half of last season in Atlanta before being traded to the New York Mets, and in Atlanta he hit .275/.321/.451 while serving as a utility infielder/outfielder. The Braves signed him to a one-year deal this winter, and it is very possible that Johnson will serve a similar purpose in Atlanta this season, mixing and matching between positions depending on matchups and rest days.
Beckham could also figure into the equation at third base, as he will likely see time at both second and third, but it remains to be seen how much the Braves trust his ability to hit as it pertains to giving him a starting job out of spring training. Again, all of this speculation is contingent upon where Hector Olivera ultimately plays, but we should hear more rumblings in the coming weeks about where the Braves feel most comfortable starting him.
The Starting Rotation: Pretty Much Everybody Not Named Julio Teheran
This may seem like an exaggeration, and it probably is to some extent, as Matt Wisler and Bud Norris are both expected to make the major league rotation barring injury, but nonetheless the Braves rotation still has a lot of questions marks.
It is hard to imagine a rotation that does not feature Teheran, Wisler, and Norris in some order, as Teheran and Wisler were two of the Braves’ best pitchers last season, and Norris signed a major-league deal this offseason to presumably fill a spot in the rotation, but after that we could list close to ten candidates who could break camp as a starter.
At this point, the most viable candidates of those being considered would likely be Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos. But there are certainly others, like recently acquired prospects Aaron Blair, John Gant, and Chris Ellis, as well as veterans on minor-league deals like Kyle Kendrick, Jhoulys Chacin, and Chris Volstad.
Ideally, the first two names mentioned above, Foltynewicz and Banuelos, take control of these starting spots early and do not relinquish them. Not only would this allow them to further develop against major-league hitters and potentially help the club, it would allow the Braves to keep other prospects in the minor leagues and keep their arbitration clocks on zero. If Blair, Gant, Ellis, or any other prospect are truly needed to fill a spot out of camp, then it would be to their disadvantage in the future.
It will be fun to watch as many of these young phenoms make their way to the big leagues, but for now the back of the Braves rotation is relatively open if someone is able to seize the opportunity in spring training. This will be a development worth following next month.