LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As they began the penultimate week of spring training, the Braves were still discussing the final spots in their bullpen and considering choices from a stockpile of relievers still in camp.
“Part of it is, we need to talk about, is it a seven-man bullpen or is it an eight-man bullpen? We’re still talking about that,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “There’s a few guys that are kind of locks for the pen. There’s probably two or three spots open where you have a pretty good idea who it may be, but it’s not written in blood. We’re still feeling it through.
“Obviously we made a waiver claim a few days back (Kevin Chapman), but we’re still trying to figure things out in a few areas.”
They are more than likely to go with an eight-man bullpen, and at least five look like certainties: closer Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino, Mauricio Cabrera, Jose Ramirez and left-hander Ian Krol. Josh Collmenter also has emerged as a near-lock for a spot as the long reliever who can make spot starts if needed.
That would be six spots filled and a handful of candidates for two remaining jobs: right-handers Chaz Roe and Blaine Boyer and lefties Eric O’Flaherty, Paco Rodriguez and Kevin Chapman.
Among those five, O’Flaherty and Boyer are on minor league contracts. Roe and Chapman are on the 40-man roster and out of minor-league options, meaning they could not be sent down without going through waivers.
Rodriguez is the only one of the five who’s on the 40-man roster and not out of options. Hard-throwing right-hander Luke Jackson, acquired in the offseason trade for Tyrell Jenkins, was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday.
“We feel good about having our starting five set, having pretty much our every-day lineup set,” Coppolella said. “Part of the reason we haven’t figured out our pen is that we have a lot of really good options. So it’s not kind of the last man standing, like it was in the past two springs. It’s OK, there are some really good choices here, which way do we want to go?”
O’Flaherty has been a pleasant surprise, posting a 2.35 ERA in seven appearances before Monday while allowing seven hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings. He’s pitched more like the reliever he was in his first stint with the Braves through 2013 than he did in his return to the team last season, when he struggled mightily (6.91 ERA in 39 appearances) before season-ending surgery, the second procedure on his pitching elbow.
Boyer, coming off three good seasons in a late-career revival, struggled in three of his first four spring appearances before pitching effectively in his past three.
Roe came to camp as an incumbent and frontrunner for a bullpen spot, then gave up seven hits and seven runs in one inning over his first two appearances. He’s had much better results since – three innings, one unearned run, five strikeouts, three walks — after regaining the movement of his bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker.
Rodriguez, entering his first season since September 2015 Tommy John surgery, gave up four hits and one run with one walk and four strikeouts in four one-inning appearances before Monday. If the Braves think he can be nearly as effective against lefties as he was with the Dodgers before surgery, he’ll be in the bullpen.
If they think Rodriguez could benefit from some minor league appearances , or if it’s easier to shape the roster early without him, he could start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett since the Braves now have multiple lefty options — albeit none who is the lockdown lefty specialist that Rodriguez was prior to surgery.
The Braves have seen Chapman in only one spring game – one inning, one hit, one walk — since claiming him off waivers from the Astros a week ago. The 29-year-old lefty pitched just 13 1/3 innings over the past two seasons with Houston and had a 4.87 ERA in 61 innings for their Triple-A team in 2016.