An early look at the potential Opening Day pitching staff

The Braves believe Mike Minor will be ready to join their starting rotation at some point during the regular season’s first week.  But the fact that he will likely not start any of the first eight games adds to the difficulty of predicting who will be a part of Atlanta’s pitching staff on Opening Day.

In case you missed it, Minor underwent a urinary tract surgical procedure on Dec. 31 and was unable to do much of anything in January.   His attempt to accelerate his preparations led to some shoulder soreness during the early days of Spring Training.  Though he is currently behind schedule, the Braves believe he will be ready to fit in their rotation between April 10-12.

This sets up the likelihood that Minor will begin the season on the disabled list.  Because the transaction could be made retroactive to any of the final 10 days of Spring Training, he still would be eligible for activation at some point during the first homestand, which includes three-game sets against the Mets and Nationals.

If Minor does indeed begin the season on the disabled list, scheduled offdays will give the Braves the option of using a four-man rotation through the season’s first eight games.  Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood appear to be the favorites to form the potential season-opening quartet. But Freddy Garcia’s presence also has to be accounted for in the planning process.

When Spring Training began, I suggested that it might be wise to begin the season with Garcia in the rotation and Wood in the pen.  My reasoning was influenced by the fact that Wood will be limited to 170-180 innings during what will be his first full season at the professional level.

If Wood joined the rotation at some point in May, he would likely not have to worry about being limited or possibly shut down at some point in September.  At the same time, the Braves could use another left-handed presence in their bullpen.

But this option is flawed on multiple fronts.  It is not easy to make the in-season adjustment from reliever to starter.  And maybe more importantly, Wood is far too valuable to spend the season’s first month serving as the left-handed specialist that could fortify the already-strong Atlanta bullpen.

So, it seems much more likely Wood will begin the regular season in the starting rotation.  This would set the stage for the Braves to occasionally skip one of his turns with the intention to limit his innings and increase the possibility that he would not be limited down the stretch.

If the Braves go this route, Atlanta’s Opening Day bullpen will likely include Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and Garcia.  The next month will determine who might fill the last bullpen spot.

Avilan, who stands as the only left-hander in this projected bullpen, Walden and Carpenter have all produced splits that give manager Fredi Gonzalez the confidence they can handle both right-handed and left-handed hitters.  But it still would be valuable to have a southpaw available to face a left-handed hitter or two during the middle innings.

Consequently Ryan Buchter stands as one of the favorites to earn a chance to begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen.  The 27-year-old southpaw surrendered 11 hits and recorded 48 strikeouts in the 89 at-bats left-handed hitters recorded against him as he pitched for Triple-A Gwinnett last year.

Along with being dominant against left-handed hitters, Buchter also created concern about his command.  He issued 51 walks (33 vs. RHH) in the 62 innings he compiled over 51 appearances.

During Wednesday’s Grapefruit League season debut against the Tigers, Buchter issued a walk that led to a run. But he also struck out the only two left-handed batters he faced (Jordan Lennerton and Don Kelly).

Luis Vasquez’s hope to begin the season in Atlanta’s bullpen has diminished as he has spent the early portion of Spring Training recovering from a lat strain he suffered in January.  Vasquez is aiming to begin throwing off the mound within the next few days.

Odds and Ends:  Hard-throwing right-hander Juan Jaime lived up to his reputation while recording a pair of strikeouts in a scoreless inning against the Tigers on Wednesday.  One National League scout said four of Jaime’s fastballs registered 100 mph.   Jaime issued 28 walks and recorded 70 strikeouts while compiling a 4.07 ERA in 42 innings with Double-A Mississippi last year.

While Kris Medlen is destined to receive the honor as long as he remains healthy, the Braves will wait a couple more weeks before announcing their Opening Day starter.  Manager Fredi Gonzalez said his current plan sets the stage for three different pitchers to start the three openers the Braves will experience.   Along with opening the season in Milwaukee, the Braves will serve as the opposition in the Nationals home opener.


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