Freddy Garcia’s clause could impact the battle for Atlanta’s two available bullpen spots
Welcome back to Disney World, where Freddie Freeman and Ryan Doumit have spent the past couple days showing off their legs and proving you don’t have to visit the Magic Kingdom to see snow white.
While pitchers and catchers will not hold their first workout until Friday, Atlanta’s latest winter storm led many of the players to migrate a little sooner than expected this year. As for Gerald Laird, he chose to get acquainted with his new truck while making a 33-hour drive from Phoenix to Orlando. He broke the trip up in three segments. But it should be noted that his time on the road was just slightly 20 hours longer than the trip Freeman and Fredi Gonzalez made from Turner Field to their suburban Atlanta homes two weeks ago.
So far, all of the injury-related news has been positive. Brandon Beachy (elbow) and Ramiro Pena (shoulder) have both arrived in camp without any restrictions. Tyler Pastornicky will be restricted from some activities over the next couple weeks. But he has been encouraged by the way his surgically-repaired knee has responded as he has been running over the past month.
It is still too early to accurately project when Gavin Floyd might be able to join Atlanta’s starting rotation. But the veteran hurler, who is returning from elbow reconstruction surgery, was further encouraged after throwing a 75-pitch bullpen session in front of the Braves coaches on Thursday morning.
As things currently stand, it appears the most intriguing roster battle will determine which two pitchers gain what appears to be the final two available spots in Atlanta’s bullpen. If Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter all remain healthy, they are obviously guaranteed bullpen spots to begin the season. Anthony Varvaro, who his out of options, also seems to be a likely candidate to be in the pen when the regular season begins in Milwaukee on March 31.
Left-hander Ryan Buchter and right-hander Luis Vasquez rank as the most likely candidates to fill those final two spots. But the hard-throwing Juan Jaime and Wirfin Obispo, who made a strong attempt to earn a spot in Atlanta’s pen out of Spring Training last year, could also produce strong candidacies.
J.R. Graham has unlimited potential and he has come to Spring Training looking to impress like he did in his first camp last year. There’s a chance he could gain a spot in Atlanta’s pen at some point this year. And if looking ahead even further, this vibrant, hard-throwing reliever might be a top candidate to serve as closer once Craig Kimbrel’s days with the Braves are done.
But given that Graham missed all but six weeks with a sore shoulder last year, he will likely be given a chance to gain a little more Minor League seasoning before he gets his first call to the Majors.
Another factor to consider when projecting the bullpen is the opt-out clause in Freddy Garcia’s contract. If Garcia has not been guaranteed a Major League roster spot by March 25, he can void his Minor League contract and become a free agent.
When he reported to camp on Thursday, Garcia said he did not sign with the Braves until they decided to offer him this opt-out clause a few weeks ago. The 37-year-old pitcher says he would rather return home to his family than pitch at the Triple-A level this year.
So if Garcia pitches effectively during the Grapefruit League season, there is seemingly plenty of reason to believe he will be on the Opening Day roster as either a starter or a reliever.
If the Braves opt to put Garcia in the rotation, one of those two available bullpen spots could be filled by left-hander Alex Wood. While the club still views Wood as a starter in the future, the decision to put him in the bullpen at that beginning of this year would create the opportunity to moderate his workload. He will be on an innings limit as he enters what will be his first full Major League season.
There is certainly a chance Wood could be in Atlanta’s rotation at some point this year. And if the club believes he could be an asset down the stretch, it might be wise to limit his innings during the early portion of the season and then stretch him out to start, like he did last year.