BY KEVIN MCALPIN
680 THE FAN – NORTH PORT, FL – As we inch closer to the start of Grapefruit League games on Saturday, I thought it’d be fun to give the fans a little cheat sheet on the storylines to follow with Opening Day now just five weeks away…
Starting Rotation: Barring an injury, we know that Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz will be the top three in the Atlanta rotation. But, where does the club go from there? Unlike in years past, where a handful of off days were sprinkled in over the first few weeks, the Braves don’t have that luxury here in 2020. As a matter of fact, there’s just one scheduled day off for the team in the span of its first 24 games. This means that, unlike most seasons, a fifth starter will be necessary right out of the gates. Up until a few weeks ago, the Braves were looking at Sean Newcomb to round out the staff as the number five. But now with Cole Hamels injury, Newcomb will slide into the fourth spot in the order. So, where do they go for their fifth? Will it be Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson? Both made the club out of Spring Training 2019 as the team dealt with injuries to both Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka. Both will once again be given every opportunity to win the final spot entering 2020. But, don’t count out fellow righty Touki Toussaint, who showed spurts of putting his fastball command along with his nasty curveball. The Braves are also going to give 33 year old Felix Hernandez a chance to rejuvenate his career, much the same as Anibal Sanchez did in 2018. Even if he doesn’t prove to be the longterm answer, if he can give the team ten to fifteen starts to bridge the gap for another young starter to have more time, he’d be worth every penny of the $1 million dollar salary he’d earn. My best guess is Newcomb and Hernandez round out the rotation and hold the fort until Cole Hamels is ready to return from his shoulder injury.
Third Base: Perhaps just as important as what happens on the mound will be the competition that takes place at the hot corner. Both Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will compete at third base to win the every day job. Camargo entered camp about 20 pounds lighter and much more trim than this time last year, while Riley spent his offseason refining his swing with a coach in Texas. Camargo says he’s worked hard to improve his range, something he felt was lacking last season. While Riley on the other hand looks at his simplified mechanics adjustments made in the offseason as a benefit where he doesn’t have to spend six weeks in Florida making those changes. In a perfect world, I think the team would love for Riley to get four at bats a day to start the season in Triple-A. But, the fact they know he can also play the corner outfield spots and is also going to get reps at first base could help him return to Atlanta sooner rather than later. If I had to guess, it’s Camargo’s job to lose at this point.
Bullpen: While the relief corps has been a main area of focus for Alex Anthopouls and company, there could potentially be a spot or two up for grabs during camp. Lefties AJ Minter, Grant Dayton and Phil Pfeifer will all be in the mix, as will righty Jacob Webb, who missed the final two months of the season last year with a right elbow impingement. All of the above still have options remaining, so even those who don’t make the cut will still be one phone call away at Triple-A. I love what I saw from Webb in 2019, posting a 1.39 ERA over 36 appearances with nearly a strikeout per outing.
As we’ve seen in years past, there’s always a few surprises that pop up during the course of spring, so expect the unexpected. But, unlike years past, the Braves are starting their spring session relatively healthy and hope to have Cole Hamels join the club as early as this weekend. Don’t forget, you can hear and follow every pitch of Braves Grapefruit League baseball on The Fan family of stations and we will be sure to let you know where to find the play-by-play every single day!
Kevin McAlpin has covered the Braves since 2012 for @680TheFan and the @BravesRadioNet