NORTH PORT, FL- With the end of Spring Training in sight and the regular season now just two weeks away, the marquee roster battles over the last month have mainly focused on third base and the starting rotation. But there’s another area that could still be up for grabs over the next couple weeks and that is how the club will round out it’s bullpen. As of now, Will Smith stands as the lone left handed lock for the pen, but ideally, a second southpaw would be ideal to add to the mix. So let’s take a look at the most logical candidates for that final spot in the Atlanta pen:
AJ Minter – The 26 year old Minter has made 117 appearances at the Big League level over the last three seasons, but command has always been his Achilles heel. In 2019, Minter struck out 35 batters in 29.1 innings pitched, but over that span, also issued 28 free passes (five intentional). Minter has shown flashes of promise over the last three seasons. In 2017, as a 23 year old, Minter went his first 13 appearances (13 innings pitched) without issuing a walk. However, over the past two seasons, Minter is allowing four-and-a-half walks per nine and has posted a 4.47 ERA in his last 101 appearances. Harnessing command of his four seamer in 2020 could be huge to get him back on track. But for now, Minter remains in line to start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Tyler Matzek – In camp as a non-roster invite, Matzek has made quite the impression over the last few weeks. In three appearances this Spring, Matzek has struck out seven of the 26 batters faced without issuing a single free pass in 3.2 IP. This time last year, Matzek was in camp on a Minor League deal with the Diamondbacks and would later end up playing Independent Ball with the Texas AirHogs of the American Association. After posting a 2.64 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 30.2 innings with the Hogs, Matzek’s contract was purchased by the Braves where he spent the final two months of the season between Mississippi and Gwinnett. Matzek is no stranger to Braves bench coach Walt Weiss, who managed him in 2014 and 2015 with the Rockies. While Matzek has shown to have pretty good command this spring, the club would need to open a spot on the 40 man roster if he was to break camp with the Big League club.
Grant Dayton – Originally an 11th round pick of the Marlins in the 2010 Draft out of Auburn, Dayton broke into the Big Leagues in 2016 with the Dodgers and was a waiver claim of the Braves back in November of 2017. We saw Dayton appear in 14 games from the Atlanta pen last season where he posted a 3.00 ERA and held lefties to a .250 average against. However, Grapefruit League play has not been kind to Dayton this year as he’s been touched up to the tune of a 12.71 ERA in five appearances with as many walks (three) as strikeouts.
Phil Pfeifer – The 27 year old product of Vanderbilt has very quietly put together a nice spring for himself. Appearing in six games from the Braves pen, Pfeifer is yet to allow a run and has allowed just four hits over five and two thirds innings of work. But the strikeout number is the most encouraging sign as Pfeifer has punched out nine batters and issued just one walk. Pfeifer spent time at three levels of the Braves Farm System last season, combining to post a 3.44 ERA in 30 appearances (18 starts) with 159 strikeouts in 133.1 innings of work. While Pfeifer was part of the latest wave of cuts on Wednesday morning, he certainly caught the eye of the Braves skipper, who said he could envision a scenario where the Braves use Pfeifer at some point here in 2020.
External help – We all know players have “out clauses” in their contracts and typically over the final two weeks of camp, we see guys get cut loose or walk on their own. I’d say there’s certainly a chance the other lefty from the pen on Opening Day isn’t even here as of yet. Much like Anibal Sanchez and Josh Tomlin joined the team in the final week of Spring, I could certainly see a situation where the club adds another veteran lefty to give them that extra depth in the bullpen to start the season.
Lone lefty – There’s also the possibility the club could enter the regular season with just Will Smith as the lone lefty. Fortunately, the club is in a good position where they don’t have any matchup guys. Their righties have track records of getting lefties out, so there’s definitely the possibility they could go with seven righties out of the gate. Either way, it’ll be a fun storyline to follow over the final two weeks from North Port!
@KevinMcAlpin has covered the Braves since 2012 for @680TheFan and the @BravesRadioNet.