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Late-inning decisions have enhanced the difficulty of managing Atlanta’s bullpen

Managing the current Braves’ bullpen seems to equate to attempting to consistently win Blacjack hands that consist of nothing but 7s and 8s.  You might occasionally prove fortunate when holding at 16.  But far too often, you’ll find yourself gambling on whether to hit on 14 or 15.

With this being said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has recently made some late-inning decisions that have simply enhanced the difficulty of managing this weak bullpen. The degree of difficulty has been enhance by some sub-par outings from starting pitchers.  But the Braves also managed to lose Julio Teheran’s two most recent starts, arguably his two most impressive of the season.

We won’t delve into the decision to bring Donnie Veal into a Major League game, let alone a high-leverage situation, because the Braves ended up winning after he squandered a lead in San Francisco on May 31.  But here’s  look at some other recent late-inning decisions.

June 2:  Instead of allowing Shelby Miller a chance to record the fifth inning’s final two outs with his pitch count at 100, Gonzalez called upon Cody Martin, who promptly retired the only two batters he faced. Then after the Braves produced a five-run sixth to claim a 6-4 lead, Gonzalez pinch hit for Martin with runners at second and third and two outs.

It’s understandable that you want to take advantage of the scoring opportunity and you don’t necessarily have a lot of faith in Martin, who had just been recalled from Gwinnett the previous day.  But when working with a thin bullpen, do you really want to begin thinning it even further in the sixth inning?

Maybe Martin would have created the same damage that was incurred by Nick Masset and Brandon Cunniff, who combined to allow three runs before the conclusion of the seventh inning of that night’s loss.  But given what exists in Atlanta’s pen, I’m not sure it is wise to begin eliminating options in the sixth inning.

June 3:  Having already seen their four-run, fourth-inning lead shrink to two runs, the Braves removed Mike Foltynewicz with two outs in the sixth and then watched southpaw Luis Avilan retire left-handed hitter Ender Inciarte to end the inning.   Left-handers have slashed .318/.348/.386 and right-handers have slashed .152/.235/.283 against Avilan.

But despite the fact that Avilan’s spot didn’t come up in the top of the seventh, he did not go back to the mound in the bottom half of the inning, when Arizona was due to send three right-handed sluggers  — A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas — to the plate.  Instead, Martin drew the assignment and promptly allowed two hits before handing the ball to Jim Johnson, who extended his recent woes in that day’s loss.

June 5 After Williams Perez lasted just five innings against the Pirates, Cunniff retired the first two batters he faced in the sixth and then handed the ball to Avilan because well you know despite what the stats say, you have to create lefty-on-lefty matchups. After once again thinning his bullpen in the sixth inning of a tied game, the Braves then watched Avilan walk left-handed hitter Gregory Polanco before allowing Starling Marte’s two-run homer.

Left-handed hitters have slashed .357/.419/.500 against Cunniff.  But with two outs and none on in the sixth, it might have been wise to at least give him a chance to retire Polanco.  If for no other reason, this might have allowed the Braves to avoid a two-inning appearance from Trevor Cahill, who allowed five hits and three runs in the eighth inning of that 10-8 loss to Pittsburgh.

June 6 and 11  Julio Teheran’s past two starts have been more impressive than any others he has completed this season.  Yet, he has two no-decisions to show for his effort because of his inability to get through the eighth inning in a clean manner. Teheran allowed two straight one-out singles in the eighth inning of Saturday’s win over the Pirates and then watched Jim Johnson allow the two runners he inherited to score on a game-tying, two-run single.

Then on Thursday, Teheran limited the Padres to one run through seven innings before surrendering two hits and issuing a walk before exiting the eighth inning with the bases loaded.

The Braves then proceeded to go through four relievers to complete San Diego’s game-tying, three-run eighth inning, which was marred by a couple defensive blunders committed by Christian Bethancourt.  This parade of relievers began with the entrance of left-hander Dana Eveland, who had been called up earlier in the day and had not pitched in the Majors since last season.

As soon as Eveland entered the game, the Padres popped Justin Upton off the bench.  The Braves obviously knew Upton was available to pinch hit and would be used in this situation. But they stuck with Eveland, who threw one pitch that eluded Bethancourt and three others that missed the strike zone in the process of walking Upton.

Complicating matters on Thursday was the fact that Jim Johnson was unavailable because he had pitched each of the previous three days.  So, maybe this was an instance where you were going to get burned any way you turned after giving this Atlanta bullpen the challenge of protecting a three-run lead with the bases loaded and none out in the eighth.

Gonzalez does not deserve to be blamed for all that has transpired as his bullpen has recently made a habit of squandering late-inning leads.  He did not leave J.R. Graham unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft and he didn’t decide to deal David Hale for two catchers, who at this point have to be deemed disappointments.  Nor did he give Arodys Vizcaino or Andrew McKirahan the performance-enhancing substances that led to their respective 80-game suspensions.

Gonzalez certainly wasn’t dealt a good hand with this year’s bullpen.  But as things have gone bust far too often recently, you have to question the timing of when he has opted to hit on 16.

Quick thoughts leading into tonight’s game

The Braves ended a seven-game losing skid at Dodger Stadium with Wednesday night’s victory.  Now they will spend these next four days at AT&T Park, a place where they have won just once in their past six tries.

Tonight’s pitching matchup (Shelby Miller vs. Chris Heston) seems to favor the Braves.  Heston has produced some impressive outings this season, but there might not be anybody currently pitching better than Miller, who has produced a 0.87 ERA and limited opponents to a .144 batting average in four starts this month.

Miller has allowed two earned runs or less in each of this season’s first nine starts and he has produced a Major League-best (minimum 12 starts) 1.74 ERA.  Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke (1.93) and Astros southpaw Dallas Keuchel (1.99) are the only other pitchers to produce a sub-2.00 ERA during this span.

This marks the first time Miller has pitched in San Francisco since lasting just 3 2/3 innings against the Giants in Game 4 of last year’s National League Championship Series.  He has allowed just two earned runs in the 12 innings he has completed in two career regular season starts (both in 2013) against the Giants.

Speaking of Greinke, the Braves can be happy that they claimed at least one victory during a three-game series against the Dodgers that included matchups against Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.  But they squandered the opportunity to win Monday’s series opener, a game they led until Luis Avilan walked two of the first four batters he faced and surrendered Adrian Gonzalez’ game-tying groundout.

Nick Masset prevented any further damage in the seventh inning, but then surrendered a career-high three homers in the eighth inning.  Masset likely would not have returned to pitch the eighth if the Braves had been working with a full bullpen. As the ugly inning progressed, we knew that closer Jason Grilli wasn’t available because he had pitched each of the previous three days.

But we had to wait another day to know that Ian Thomas wasn’t available to face either of the two lefties that went deep against Masset because he was part of the multi-player trade that the Braves and Dodgers already had in place.  You know, the trade that died until a $100,000 trade stipend proved to be enough for Alberto Callaspo, to quickly alter his claim that he “wanted to stay with the Braves for the rest of the season.”

Some of you have questioned why Gonzalez opted to go with Masset instead of Brandon Cunniff, who has limited opponents to a .044 batting average (2-for-45) this year. While Cunniff has been impressive in this department, he has produced a strike percentage of 56.1 (124 of 221 pitches).  According to Inside Edge, this ranks 159th out of 160 qualified MLB relievers.

This seems to be a case where a rookie pitcher has to earn the trust of his manager before being consistently placed in high-leverage situations.  But while Cunniff has routinely walked a fine line, he also has limited opponents to a .182 on-base percentage in the five appearances he has made since being recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett earlier this month.

So given the other options in the bullpen, maybe it’s time for the Braves to get a better feel for what they truly have in Cunniff.

Veteran setup man Jim Johnson has certainly been Atlanta’s most valuable reliever this year.  Johnson created some concern when he allowed runs in four consecutive appearances (April 17-24).  But in the 14 appearances (13.2 innings) that have followed, he has allowed one run, surrendered eight hits, notched 13 strikeouts and issued just one walk.

Meanwhile Jason Grilli has allowed at least one run in five of his past 10 appearances and allowed opponents to produce a .431 on-base percentage during that same span.  Grilli has blown just one of his 14 save opportunities this season.  But if his struggles continue, the Braves have to start seriously thinking about having him switch roles with Johnson.

The time is right for the Braves to test Perez and their other young starters

As Williams Perez completed five strong innings during Wednesday night’s win over the Rays, I was forced to at least reassess my thought that he might not necessarily be an upgrade over Eric Stults in the starting rotation.

But even if my initial reservations about Perez are validated over his next few outings, I think it is safe to say there really wasn’t any reason for the Braves to continue sending Stults to the mound once every five days at the expense of not gaining a sense in what they truly have in Perez and some of their other top pitching prospects.

As things currently stand, the Braves have seven legit candidates  —  Shelby Miller, Alex Wood, Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Manny Banuelos, Matt Wisler and Perez  —  for their 2016 starting rotation.  Tyrell Jenkins, who has surrendered two runs or less in six of his first eight starts for Double-A Mississippi, might also factor into this mix.

While it has often been said that you can never have enough starting pitching, the Braves will have the attractive option to trade at least one of these hurlers in attempt to satisfy their glaring need to acquire a power-hitting outfielder.

So, it only makes sense to spend the next few weeks and months taking advantage of every opportunity they have to learn what they truly have in Perez, Wisler and Banuelos.

If Perez proves successful in Atlanta’s rotation, the Braves would have the option to continue being patient with Wisler, who had produced three consecutive strong starts for Triple-A Gwinnett before allowing four runs in six innings against Toledo last night.

The Braves are also closely monitoring the progress made by Banuelos, who has allowed less than two earned runs in six of the eight starts he has made for Gwinnett.  Banuelos’ candidacy for a spot in Atlanta’s rotation is influenced by the fact that he will likely be limited to approximately just 80 more innings (approximately 14-15 more starts) the remainder of this season  —  because he totaled just 76 1/3 innings when he returned from Tommy John surgery last year.

Though Perez stands as the least-heralded member of this trio from a prospect standpoint, he certainly legitimized his candidacy for a long-standing rotation spot while surrendering one run and notching seven strikeouts against the Rays Wednesday night.  He escaped a few jams during the 79-pitch outing and most importantly showed that his secondary pitches —  curveball and changeup  — have the potential to be effective at the Major League level.

Before yesterday’s start, a Major League scout said that Perez “tips his pitches as much as any pitcher I have ever seen.”  This will be something to monitor as clubs develop a book on him over the next few starts.  But the Rays didn’t seem to detect anything revealing.

Perez utilized his sinker with 70.9 percent (56 of 79) of the pitches he threw last night.  He induced a swing-and-miss with five of the 13 changeups he threw and  with four of the nine curveballs he displayed.  The curveball concluded three of his strikeouts and the changeup concluded two others.

We’ve seen far too many Kyle Davies’ pass through this town to be fooled by a starting pitcher’s instant success.  But I will at least say, that it does make much more sense to  provide Perez with this opportunity, even if he doesn’t end up being much more effective than Stults would have been.

A look back at Folty’s outing and other Braves tidbits

Baseball is a  funny game, but you probably already knew this.  Had Mike Foltynewicz recorded just one more out against the Rays last night, we’d probably be talking about the steady progress he has made through each of his first four career starts.

Instead, Foltynewicz opened Tuesday’s fifth inning with consecutive strikeouts and then issued his only walk of the night, before uncorking a wild pitch ahead of surrendering consecutive run-producing two-out hits.  Suddenly, the Rays had a two-run lead and the rookie hurler was doomed to speak to reporters about the disappointment he was feeling following his first career loss.

Yeah, Foltynewicz might have lost his focus when he was admittedly “overthrowing” in the process of issuing James Loney a two-out walk in the fifth.  He had registered strikes with 57 of the previous 76 pitches he had thrown before issuing the free pass to Loney.  The only three-ball count he had encountered against the previous 21 batters he faced had occurred way back in the first inning.

But within a span of three batters, all that he had accomplished through his first 4 2/3 innings was tarnished by what transpired as he attempted to notch his final out.

There is a definitely a place in this game for numbers.  But when reviewing Foltynewicz’s latest outing, it might be best to go with the simple assessment manager Fredi Gonzalez provided when he said this was simply a case of a young pitcher “losing his concentration

Foltynewicz was hurt by a 0-2 curveball that he didn’t bury in the first inning (Kevin Kiermaier’s leadoff triple) and a poorly-located two-strike fastball (Asdrubal Cabrera’s fourth-inning home run). But he was steady through most of the outing and his confidence likely grew as he needed just seven pitches to notch consecutive strikeouts to begin the fifth inning.

Unfortunately, that additional confidence likely fueled the adrenaline rush that led him to make the “youthful” mistake to begin overthrowing

“I kind of started trying to overthrow stuff and trying to make things break a little more than I wanted to,” Foltynewicz said after allowing the Rays five runs over five innings.

With Tuesday’s outing now in the rear-view mirror, Foltynewicz has no choice but to take the positives that have developed through his first four starts and attempt to learn from the mistakes he has made.

Odds and ends:

As Foltynewicz has flashed his curveball more consistently in his past two starts, he has produced better swing-and-miss rates in his past two starts (13.2 percent vs. Rays and 13.5 percent at Cincinnati) than he did in his first two starts (10.9 percent vs. Phillies and 4.3 percent in his first start against the Reds).

To put these numbers in perspective, the only six Major League starting pitchers to produce a 13 percent swing-and-miss-rate this year are James Shields (14.8), Corey Kluber (14.6), Clayton Kershaw (13.8), Max Scherzer (13.7), Carlos Carrasco (13.1) and Francisco Liriano (13.0).

Given that Foltynewicz has drawn some comparisons to John Smoltz, it might be worth noting that Smoltz’s first real rough outing also occurred in his fourth career start.  Smoltz posted a 3.63 ERA in his first three career starts and then did not get out of the third inning in any of his next three starts.

Braves left fielders were batting .209 with a .600 OPS before Todd Cunningham went 9-for-15 with a pair of doubles while manning the position over the past four games.  Cunningham’s production has improved those left field numbers to a .252 batting average and .703 OPS.

The Braves have faced a left-handed starting pitcher just once in their past 25 games.  They didn’t see a left-handed reliever in five of these contests.  Thus, Jonny Gomes’ on-field value has been minimal as of late.  Gomes has batted .175 (7-for-40) while compiling just nine at-bats against left-handers during this 25-game span.

Though the Braves are not scheduled to face a left-handed pitcher the rest of this homestand, expect Gomes to get at least one start in left field during this weekend’s series against the Brewers.  This would allow him to prepare for the consecutive starts he will likely get against lefties Brett Anderson and Clayton Kershaw on Monday and Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

If Cunningham remains hot, Gonzalez would have the option to put him in center while Gomes fills the left field role.

Wood and Teheran exited D.C. in differing fashion

As the Braves attempt to distance themselves from a frustrating weekend that might have been pleasurable had Jason Grilli’s back not suddenly become cranky, there was reason to be encouraged by the way Alex Wood concluded Sunday’s six-inning effort.

If simply looking at the fact that Wood surrendered three runs over 6 2/3 innings, you are ignoring why he should enter this upcoming weekend’s start against the Marlins with renewed confidence.  After being doomed by Cameron Maybin’s misplay (hometown hit, if you were scoring at home) of Bryce Harper’s first-inning, two-out double, the Braves southpaw surrendered four hits and issued one walk over his final 5 2/3 innings.

Wood threw exactly 100 pitches, but he did not need more than 11 pitches to complete any of his final five complete innings.  Along with finally finding more comfort with his sinker, he seemed to have a better feel for his changeup, a pitch he utilized a season-high 16 percent of the time on Sunday.

As Wood concluded this series finale in impressive fashion, he finally started to look like he had when he posted a 1.92 ERA while completing at least seven innings in seven of his final 11 starts last season. His inability to gain a feel for his sinker and changeup had led him to produce a 4.32 ERA in the six starts he had made leading into Sunday.

You can break down the Braves’ encouraging offensive production and also attempt to figure out how their bullpen might improve.  But really the most important aspect of this club to monitor of the next couple weeks is whether Wood and Julio Teheran can both get on a roll at the same time.

Teheran halted his recent woes last week against the Reds and then surrendered two costly homers during Saturday’s loss to the Nationals.  Was his latest ugly pitching line (six runs, 10 hits and three walks in six innings) simply a product of two bad pitches or an extension of the growing pains the 23-year-old hurler has experienced so far this season?

There were some encouraging signs that developed during Saturdays’ outing for Teheran.  He threw first pitch strikes to a season-best 69 percent of the batters he faced; his four-seam fastball touched 95 mph and he produced a season-best 13.4 swinging strike rate.

But for the second time in less than two weeks, he surrendered a double-digit hit total to the boys from D.C. Teheran has allowed at least 10 hits in just six of his 74 career starts.  The Nationals have accounted for four of these occasions (twice this year) and Coors Field served as the environment for one of the others.

Maybe Teheran needs to alter his plan of attack against the Nationals in the future.  Or maybe he simply needs to alter his approach against Jose Lobaton, Washington’s  31-year-old backup catcher who can thank Teheran for the only two home runs he has tallied over his past 145 at-bats, dating back to June 5.

The good news is that barring a trade, Lobaton will not be wearing a Marlins uniform this weekend, when Teheran attempts to prove that this past Saturday’s outing was more a product of misfortune than it was a resumption of the struggles he has encountered through this season’s first five weeks.

As Teheran and Wood have struggled this year, Shelby Miller has established himself as the staff’s ace.  When Miller opens this week’s three-game series against the Reds, he will  attempt to pick up where he left off last week, when he baffled the Phillies during a three-hit shutout.

Dating back to Aug. 23 — when he first started using his sinker on a regular basis, Miller leads all National League pitchers (min. 12 starts) with a 1.88 ERA.  During the two starts he has made against the Reds within this span, he has completed 14 innings and surrendered just two runs.

Thoughts about the leadoff spot, CF and Peraza

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez laughed on April 13 when I playfully asked if he would ever repeat a lineup’s construction for any of this season’s 162 games. Twenty-six games into season, Gonzalez stands as the only Major League manager that has not yet repeated the construction of the non-pitching elements of a lineup.

This should not be seen as a problem for those who have a strong feel for Atlanta’s roster makeup and the benefits of utilizing a platoon at least three different positions (third base, left field and center field).  But given the data he has collected through this season’s first month, Gonzalez should not feel the need to do as much mixing and matching with the center field position and leadoff spot.

In other words, Eric Young Jr. should no longer be viewed as an option to bat leadoff or play center field, except on those days when Gonzalez chooses to sit Cameron Maybin against a starting pitcher that is tough on right-handed pitchers.

Including Monday night’s matchup against Aaron Harang, Maybin has served as Atlanta’s starting center fielder in three straight games against right-handed pitchers.  Though this trend is in its infancy expect it to continue as the Braves have become disillusioned with Young, who has slashed .169/.239/.292 through this season’s first 72 plate appearances.

Jayson Werth (.426) and Marlon Byrd (.529) are the only National League outfielders (minimum 70 plate appearances) who have compiled a worse OPS than Young (.532) thus far.

Maybin has not necessarily set the world on fire as he entered Monday having slashed .222/.340/.489 through 54 plate appearances.  He has three hits, including two homers, in 14 plate plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.   Though he has recorded five hits, including a homer, in his past seven at-bats against right-handers, Maybin has slashed .206/.325/.382 in 40 plate appearances against them this year.

These are not overwhelming numbers, but as the Braves evaluate what the future might hold for Young, Maybin serves as the best option.

Evaluating how Markakis has fared in the leadoff spot reintroduces us to the lunacy of placing any relevance on statistics compiled with a small sample size.  He has hit .200 with a .317 on-base percentage through his first seven games as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter.  Those of you discouraged by these numbers probably would have been encouraged had I written on Friday afternoon that he had batted  .304 with a .448 OBP through his first six games as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter.

Right now, it’s too early to deduce whether it would be wise to keep Markakis in the leadoff spot over the remainder of the season.  But until Jose Peraza or Mallex Smith arrives, he stands as the best option.

Peraza has long been considered Atlanta’s leadoff hitter of the future.  But as he has been positioned in the second spot of Triple-A Gwinnett’s lineup since the start of this season, the Braves are providing some indication that they are preparing him for the role that he might have once Smith begins his reign as Atlanta’s center fielder  — something that likely will not occur until at least next season.

Over his past 14 games with Gwinnett, Peraza has slashed .385/.421/.385 and proven successful with six of his seven stolen base attempts. It still seems like the Braves will allow the highly-regarded prospect at least another month to develop before bringing him to Atlanta to serve as their starting second baseman.

Jace Peterson has performed effectively since being given the chance to play second base on a daily basis again last week.  But Peterson’s long-term role with Atlanta will likely be to serve as a utility player or a third baseman, until Rio Ruiz is deemed Major League ready.

A few quick thoughts about Teheran, Bethancourt and Cunningham

The Braves knew they weren’t as good as their 6-1 start might have suggested.  Now they can only hope they are not as bad as their current 4-11 stretch might suggest.

Mike Foltynewicz’s presence will bring some added excitement to tonight’s game against the Reds.  Still, while Foltynewicz is certainly a better option than Trevor Cahill, but the Braves’ hope to get more value from their starting rotation will be more significantly influenced by how Julio Teheran and Alex Wood progress over the next few weeks.

The recent front-of-the-rotation-woes leads us into today’s thoughts:

1) Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell want Teheran to get back to relying on his fastball as consistently as he did the past two seasons.  Per Fangraphs.com, Teheran’s four-seam fastball has accounted for 32 percent of the pitches he has thrown this year, down from the 38.4 percent mark compiled last year.  His two-seam fastball has accounted for 25.8 percent of his pitches, up from 21.9 percent last year.

Overall Teheran has thrown a fastball (2-seamer and 4-seamer) with 57.8 percent of his pitches, down from 60.9 percent in 2014 and 63.8 percent in 2013.  The average velocity of his 4-seamer over the past three season is as follows: 91.1 mph (2015), 91.3 (2014), 92.1 (2015).

Given the small sample sizes provided to record this year’s percentages, there is not much reason to put a lot of stock in these numbers(especially velo) unless the trend continues into the warmer months.  But one number that must improve is Teheran’s 50.4 percent first-strike percentage, down from 60.3 percent in 2014 and 65.4 percent in 2015.

Of course if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that Teheran produced a season-best 60.7 first-strike percentage when he allowed the Nationals seven runs (three earned) and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings on Tuesday.  And he threw a first-pitch strikes to Jose Lobaton and Denard Span before they surrendering home runs to them during his final two innings that night.

Teheran’s flyball percentage is down from 43.8 percent in 2014 to 34.1 percent this year.  This seems encouraging until you see that his home run/flyball percentage is up from 8.1 percent in 2014 to 21.4 percent this season.  A string of misfortune (influenced by an outing at Toronto’s homer dome) might be to blame for this spike.  But this is something to keep your eye on over the next few starts.

2) After last night’s game, I opined that Shelby Miller might not have surrendered back-to-back homers to begin the seventh inning had he not had to throw 29 pitches during a sixth inning that would have been cleaner had Christitan Bethancourt not dropped the knee-high fastball Miller snuck past Billy Hamilton to begin the frame.  The Braves love Bethancourt’s arm, but they have been discouraged by his glovework behind the plate.

Had John Buck not retired near the end of Spring Training,  I’m pretty certain the Braves would have already sent Bethancourt down to Triple-A Gwinnett.  But because there is not an attractive backup option within the system right now, Bethancourt will continue  serving in the backup role to A.J. Pierzynski, who I’m told has been a stern mentor to the young catcher.

3) Foltynewicz will fill the roster spot created when Chris Johnson was placed on the disabled list with a fractured left hand last night. But the Braves will need to promote a position player on Saturday.  Elmer Reyes is the most likely option if the Braves choose to call up an infielder.  But Kelly Johnson and Phil Gosselin are already present to serve as versatile backup infielders, the Braves seem more likely to promote Todd Cunningham, a sound defender who is capable of being an offensive upgrade over what Eric Young Jr.  and Cameron Maybin have provided in center field.

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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.

Hart says he will not trade Kimbrel

Now that the Braves have traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, some fans and media members have opined that they should now move Craig Kimbrel.  Those who hold this opinion, question why a club would choose to keep the elite closer when it appears they are destined to struggle over the next couple of seasons.

While Braves president of baseball operations John Hart acknowledges that he has focused on improving the club’s long-term future with the flurry of moves he has made this winter, he remains optimistic that his team will be competitive this upcoming season.  Thus, it was not surprising when he shot down the notion of moving Kimbrel when asked on Thursday morning.

“We love our core group,” Hart said. “We have added quality players around this group to allow us to compete while strengthening the farm system.  We’ve added (Nick) Markakis, (Jason) Grilli,  (Jim) Johnson, A.J. (Pierzynski) and others to help us compete this year.  We have never entertained trading (Kimbrel) and have had zero conversations with any clubs about Craig. I want him finishing out a World Series win.”

Even if the Braves struggle this upcoming season, they believe some of the prospects they’ve acquired this winter could begin providing value as early as the 2016 season.

Kimbrel is signed through the 2017 season and has a $13 million option for 2018.

Braves are still talking to clubs about Gattis

UPDATED

With the start of Spring Training a little less than a month away, the Braves are still talking to a few clubs that had shown interest in Evan Gattis during the early portion of this offseason.

As USA Today’s Bob Nightengale first reported, Gattis traveled to Houston on Wednesday for a physical with the Astros.  But the Braves are currently talking to at least one other club about a potential deal that would involve Gattis.

If Gattis is traded, his most likely destination would be to the American League, where he could be utilized as both a designated hitter and catcher.  The Astros, Rangers and Royals have been among the clubs that have shown interest this winter.

While the Royals now appear to be out of the mix, the Astros and Rangers might still have some interest in the right-handed power hitter, who has already tallied a pair of 20-homer seasons, despite not playing more than 108 games during either of his first two seasons at the Major League level.

There was a point when the Braves were hoping to land a Major League-ready starting pitcher or outfielder in exchange for Gattis.  But it appears their most recent discussions have provided reason to believe they would be more likely to gain a crop of prospects if they deal the 28-year-old slugger, who will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season.

Gattis is currently slated transition from the catcher’s position to starting left fielder in Atlanta.  While this would create the potential to compile approximately 150 additional plate appearances over the course of the season, it also creates some concern about his lack of experience as an outfielder.

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