Opening Day roster prediction

Like the NCAA tournament brackets I will sumbit later this month, there is no way this first Opening Day roster prediction will prove to be perfect.  The only difference is that barring a significant injury, I might still feel good about these picks when the weekend arrives.

The intrigue of this year’s Grapefruit League season is enhanced by the multitude of position and roster battles that will unfold over the next few weeks in Braves camp.  With Nick Markakis (neck surgery) currently questionable for Opening Day, first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, catcher Christian Bethancourt and Julio Teheran should be the only ones feeling confident that they will be in the lineup for the April 6 season opener in Miami.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll get a better feel for whether Markakis will be ready and start to understand whether the Braves should indeed feel confident about putting either Eury Perez or Eric Young Jr. in center field on a regular basis.  At the same time, we’ll see if Alberto Callaspo was a waste of $3 million or a productive versatile infielder who will keep the second base spot warm until Jose Peraza is deemed Major League ready.

There are some questions about who will fill the final bullpen spots and reason to wonder if the Braves should really be confident in Wandy Rodriguez’s ability to stay healthy enough to fill the rotation’s fifth spot.

With all of this uncertainty surrounding the Braves as they enter the exhibition season with today’s game against the Mets, these next few weeks will certainly prove interesting and likely destructive to these Opening Day roster predictions:

Catchers: Christian Bethancourt and A.J. Pierzynski

Reasoning:  I liken this to beginning my NCAA bracket selection to advancing every number one seed to the third round (second round if you don’t recognize those games played at  the majestic University of Dayton Arena.

Infielders:  Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmmons, Chris Johnson, Jace Peterson, Alberto Callaspo, Phil Gosselin

Reasoning:  Even before Callaspo arrived in camp looking like a slightly shorter version of Brayan Pena, there was reason to doubt his ability to halt his recent decline.  While I believe Phil Gosselin would be a better option than Callaspo, that $3 million investment will likely influence the ultimate decision.  I’m choosing Peterson over Gosselin because he is a better overall athlete who can provide more with his legs.  I toyed with keeping Kelly Johnson instead of Gosselin because of his experience and ability to play left field if necessary.  But because I’m predicting the Braves will need to fit a four other non-roster invitees on their 40-man roster, I’m going with the right-handed Gosselin.

Outfielders:  Eury Perez, Eric Young Jr. Zoilo Almonte, Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes

Reasoning:  In predicting Markakis will be ready for the start of the season, I’m essentially picking my one #13 seed to win at least one game in the NCAA tourney.  Right now, it seems like a longshot, but he still has a month to prepare. When the season begins, I expect Eury Perez to get most of the time in center field.  The Braves will spend the next few weeks evaluating whether Young is capable of being a sound defender in center.  But I think Young will primarily platoon with Gomes in left field.  When Young is not in the lineup, Perez will fill the leadoff spot.  If Markakis is not ready, Todd Cunningham would likely begin the season in Atlanta.

Rotation:  Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor and Eric Stults

Reasoning: If Wandy Rodriguez stays healthy over the next few weeks, he might grab that fifth spot.  But I’m not one who makes a habit out of picking a #15 seed to win at least one game. Thus, I’m going with Stults, who finished last season strong and has some history with pitching coach Roger McDowell.  Top pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz could seemingly benefit from spending a little more time harnessing his command at Triple-A.

Bullpen:  Craig Kimbrel, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, Josh Outman, Jose Veras, Arodys Vizcaino, James Russell

Reasoning: This prediction will obviously prove incorrect if the Braves opt to limit Manny Banuelos’ innings by putting him in Atlanta’s pen to begin the season. But they can also moderate his workload by limiting him to three and four-inning stints during the early portion of the season with Gwinnett.  While I was tempted to put Michael Kohn in this mix, the fact the Braves have to fit four non-roster invitees, Vizcaino seems to be the better bet.  Luis Avilan could also make things interesting if he pitches effectively enough over the next few weeks to question whether it’s worth keeping Russell around. If Russell provides indication that he will struggle against left-handers again, it will be easier to make the decision.

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