In a shocking turn of events Friday night, the Atlanta Braves demoted a young infielder that led the entire Grapefruit League in hitting, a young reliever with 20 spring training strikeouts, and moved their number three starter to the bullpen.
And no, it's not a bunch of April fool's jokes.
The Braves set their roster after their exhibition game against the White Sox and answered several questions that had been bothering fans for weeks. But the answers are not just a surprise, but somewhat puzzling.
It is not a shock, however, that Brian Jordan won the backup first baseman's job over James Jurries. Braves' Manager Bobby Cox is known for trusting in veteran players, and Jordan has always been one of his favorites. Jordan, who turned 39 this past Wednesday, had a good spring. He hit .359 with 1 home run and 5 RBI in 44 at bats.
When camp started on February 21st, there was no thought of Jordan dueling with Jurries for the backup spot behind Adam LaRoche. Jurries was expected to have some competition from David Kelton and Matt Diaz. But then Jordan went to Cox toward the end of that first week of camp and asked him if he could try first base.
The athletic Jordan looked decent over at first from the first day, and he surprised everyone by his decent performance there during March. While he is nothing like the player he was when he first signed with the Braves in 1999, he showed in camp that he can still be somewhat productive with the bat.
Jordan's impressive spring was trumped by the great play of Jurries, a soon-to-be 27-year-old that tore of the Grapefruit League from day one. He finished with a .447 batting average, best in the entire league, 2 home runs, and a team-leading 14 runs batted in.
But since he's not the veteran that Cox craves, and has options left, Jurries is now going back to Triple-A Richmond.
The Braves had to discover whether or not a couple of pitchers would be healthy enough to start the season on the roster. Blaine Boyer had a huge setback early in the month as he tried to come back from a shoulder injury he suffered the last week of last year's regular season, but after several solid side sessions pitched in three games without allowing an earned run.
Boyer proved to Cox that he is healthy and is now on the roster. It will be interesting to see how much the young reliever will be used early in the season.
Cox is also convinced the closer Chris Reitsma is healthy. The right-hander suffered a hamstring injury Monday, but after a side session Thursday with no pain showed he is ready to go for Monday's opener.
The last question was the biggest worry: Would projected third-starter John Thomson be healthy enough to start the season on the roster? He came down with elbow tenderness the last ten days of camp, squashing any hopes the Braves had of dealing him to make room for young Kyle Davies in the rotation. Thomson missed his scheduled start Tuesday against the Astros, creating fears he might start the season on the disabled list.
After a solid bullpen Friday at Turner Field, Thomson had no lingering effects from his elbow pain, and the Braves deemed him ready to go. But the surprise was that Cox announced Thomson would start the season in the bullpen, despite the belief that Jorge Sosa, who had extensive bullpen experience in his career, would be the one to make the move out of the rotation and into the bullpen. It's not clear if Thomson will be the long reliever or the 8th inning guy, but it's hard to believe someone that has some issues with his elbow will be able to pitch three or four times a week.
The move could be temporary. If Thomson can prove he is healthy, it's possible the teams that spoke with the Braves will come calling again. And if either Thomson or Sosa are not effective in their roles, they could easily make the switch if needed.
Boyer and Reitsma's healthy status, plus the move of Thomson to the bullpen, forced the Braves to cut one of their relievers previously expected to make the team. Instead of demoting rookie Chuck James or releasing Mike Remlinger and going with one lefty, the Braves sent down Joey Devine, despite his tremendous spring that had most believing he was a cinch for the major league roster.
Devine proved from day one of spring training he was ready for the big leagues. He did not give up an earned run in his first five appearances (8 innings), and Devine he gave up his three earned runs in one appearance (March 19th against St. Louis). In his other eight games, Devine allowed no earned runs, 10 hits in 11 innings pitched, 3 walks, and 20 strikeouts.
Cox is evidently worried that it's more necessary to have two left-handers in the pen to start the season, even though the bullpen had only one lefty (John Foster) through most of last season. Cox loves Remlinger, and despite a rocky start to his spring (six earned runs and four walks in 2.2 innings in his first three appearances) Remlinger pitched well down the stretch (only one earned run and two walks in 7.2 innings in his final six appearances) to warrant a spot. Plus, with all the young arms in the bullpen, Cox appreciates Remlinger's veteran presence.
James' spot on the roster may be temporary. If Macay McBride continues to have good results in his throwing program, he could be ready to go in mid-April, sending James back to Triple-A Richmond. James pitched well this spring, however, earning his spot with a 3.52 ERA in seven games.
So that starting rotation will have Tim Hudson leading off Monday against the Dodgers, followed by John Smoltz, lefty Horacio Ramirez, Sosa, and Davies. Reitsma will start the year as the closer, with Remlinger and James as the two lefties, along with Boyer, Lance Cormier, Oscar Villarreal, and the yet-to-be determined role for John Thomson.
Atlanta's bench will include Jordan, fellow infielders Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, catcher Todd Pratt, and outfielder Matt Diaz, who had a terrific spring. The Braves gave Diaz a good look, as he led the team in 66 at bats, and he produced. The 28-year-old Diaz hit .364 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI. It will be interesting to see if he gets into a platoon role with left-handed hitting left-fielder Ryan Langerhans.
Also on Friday, the Braves placed lefty relievers Foster (elbow) and McBride (forearm strain) on the disabled list, along with starter Mike Hampton (Tommy John surgery) and outfielder Kelly Johnson (elbow).
It seems hard to believe this Opening Day roster will be set in stone for long. But for now, these are the 25 men the Braves will start the season with:
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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