03/25/12 6:50 PM ET
As spring nears end, Braves face key questions
Club's starting shorstop, fifth starter remain undetermined
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
But with one week remaining on the Spring Training schedule, there are a number of questions to be answered beyond how Chipper Jones' absence will affect the club. With Jones expected to miss at least six games while recovering from knee surgery, the Braves will make another utility player happy by adding him to the Opening Day roster.
General manager Frank Wren said the fact Jones could miss just a handful of games will not pressure him toward making a move. But as Opening Day nears, there are some players in his clubhouse wondering if he might attempt to acquire an outfielder or a reliever before his club begins to play games that matter.
Below are the four most pressing questions surrounding the Braves entering the exhibition season's final week:
Will the Braves begin the season with Tyler Pastornicky or Andrelton Simmons as their starting shortstop?
While many are still questioning who might begin the season as Atlanta's starting shortstop, few doubt the possibility that Simmons will end up in that role by the time the season ends. Scouts were tabbing Pastornicky as a utility player at the end of last year and he has not done enough this month to alter that line of thinking.
While Pastornicky has performed better offensively and defensively as he has become more comfortable over the past couple of weeks, Simmons has struggled at the plate and provided more reason to believe he still needs to develop offensively and could benefit from the chance to at least test himself for a couple months against Double-A pitching.
Those who believe Simmons should make the jump from the Class A Advanced level to the Majors also believe the Braves should take the better defensive player and accept whatever he provides in the eighth spot of the lineup.
But those accounting for the developmental factors in this decision understand that asking Simmons to make this jump could alter what he provides in the future and also damage the psyche of Pastornicky, who spent most of this winter preparing for his first Major League experience and a role as a starting shortstop.
It might be easier for the Braves to send Pastornicky back to the Minors if he struggles than it would be to ask him to jump to the Majors if Simmons struggles through the season's first few weeks and proves he is not ready for the Majors.
Who will fill the final available roster spots for position players?
As the injury report has assumed a different look this week, so too has the answer to this question. No longer bothered by the strained right calf that he brought to Spring Training, Jack Wilson is now projected to begin the season as a backup infielder on Atlanta's roster.
Jones' absence will have a greater influence on the makeup of the Opening Day roster. It will likely create a roster spot for either Drew Sutton or Josh Wilson, whose candidacy was hindered by a strained hamstring. It will also create the need for Martin Prado to vacate left field and play third base for at least the first six games.
Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz could platoon in left field while Prado is handling third-base duties. Because this arrangement would weaken the bench, the Braves could opt to carry Jordan Parraz as an extra outfielder. Parraz can handle the corner outfield positions and is a more multidimensional offensive threat than Luis Durango and Jose Constanza.
But if the Braves would rather carry a backup outfielder who possesses speed and the ability to play center field, Durango or Constanza would be the choice. The candidacy of these two players has been weakened as Jason Heyward has looked comfortable in all of the innings he has logged in center this spring. Heyward could make the move from right field to center for a few innings or a handful of games.
Who will round out the starting rotation?
The club gained a much-needed confidence boost when Jurrjens produced six solid innings against a split-squad Astros club on Sunday afternoon. With Tim Hudson sidelined until at least the final week of April, Atlanta needs Jurrjens and Hanson to take some pressure off the inexperienced duo of Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy.
The final rotation spot will be given to either Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran. Delgado has been ahead in this battle since camp began and he might get the nod to make what could amount to just three starts. Barring any schedule changes, the Braves will only have to use their fifth starter three times before Hudson rejoins the rotation.
Under this arrangement, Teheran and Delgado could both be used in this role at some point in April. So if Delgado starts against the Astros on April 11, the Braves could then send him down to use an extra reliever for four days and then have Teheran start against the Mets on April 17. The last time they would need the fifth starter before Hudson returns is April 22.
Which relievers will take the final spots?
This competition became less interesting over the past week as Cory Gearrin seemingly solidified his spot with a few more scoreless outings and Anthony Varvaro saw his candidacy weakened by a strained right pectoral muscle. The Braves are much more optimistic about Varvaro's condition than they were originally. But it seems easy to assume he will not be ready for the start of the season.
Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez will hold the first five bullpen spots. Gearrin, who has not allowed an earned run in 9 1/3 innings, has shown the club his improved changeup will allow him to challenge left-handed hitters.
Assuming Gearrin is on the roster, the final 'pen spot will likely go to Jairo Asencio or Yohan Flande. Asencio is out of options. But if the Braves choose to add a left-handed specialist to their pen, Flande could get the job.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.