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It's a Tight Race for the Braves' Bench Spots

There are 4 bench spots on the Braves roster this year, if we assume that they will carry 12 pitchers (12 pitchers + 8 regulars + 1 backup catcher = 4 spots left on the 25 man roster). I think we can also safely assume that Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr will return as the primary backup infielders. So that leaves us with 2 spots to fill between outfielders and first basemen, and there are a lot of contenders. Enough contenders, in fact, that TBS may want to turn this into a reality show where each week someone is voted off, until there is only one. Because if there's one thing we need more of, it is reality shows.

The contenders are: James Jurries, Scott Thorman, Matt Diaz, Kelly Johnson, Brian Jordan, David Kelton, and Michael Ryan - seven candidates for only two spots. So what are their qualifications?

James Jurries has the inside track on the backup first base job. He's naturally a first sacker, who can also play some outfield. He'll have a bit of a setback after being stepped on while diving for an errant throw, but he'll be back in the lineup and ready to prove he belongs. Lack of major league experience may hurt him, but he's not showing it by hitting .500 so far this spring.

Scott Thorman may have made the wrong choice in going to play for Team Canada in the WBC. That departure has so far allowed him only three at bats for the Braves, and just one at bat for Canada. Not enough of a sampling to show people what he's got.

Matt Diaz was the (rather old at 28) outfielder we acquired from Kansas City. I thought it an odd trade at the time, being that he is perhaps just a 4-A player. He's good defensively and has proven that he can hit in AAA, and as the front runner for the 4th outfield spot he needs to prove he can hit major league pitching. He's off to a good start this spring, hitting .400 with power.

Kelly Johnson most people should know about. He came up last year and started out about as bad as you can, at one point going 1 for 30, but then turned it around enough to be named NL Player of the Week shortly thereafter. The Braves love his raw hitting ability, but he's still real streaky at the plate. Another season of AAA might be good for him to work on his hitting.

Brian Jordan is the granddaddy of this group of contenders. Cox and company want him on the team, but they also want him to be healthy before they commit a roster spot to him. He will have to prove he's recovered from his many ailments, but he's adding some value to his portfolio by re-learning first base. He could be to the 2006 Braves what Julio Franco was the last three years - the veteran presence in the clubhouse and the primary pinch hitter off the bench.

David Kelton was once a highly regarded prospect for the Cubs. In 2002 he ranked 45th on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list, two ahead of Kelly Johnson. He's shown decent power and above average speed in the minors, but has never been able to find success above AAA. He went to high school in Georgia (La Grange), so that may be his reason for signing with the Braves. His window of opportunity is limited, and he has not been too impressive yet this spring.

Michael Ryan is another 4-A outfielder who's running out of time. He's had the most Major League experience of anyone in the group except Jordan, serving as a backup outfielder each of the last three years for the Twins, splitting time between the Majors and AAA. After showing lots of pop in the minors in '02, he has never repeated that display of power.

Right now I'd have to say that James Jurries and Matt Diaz have the inside track on these two spots. I'll check in each week with an update on whose chances of making the team are getting better and whose are getting worse.

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