Pitchers and catchers will report to North Port for the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, with positions players slated to join them in camp by February 20. The first full-squad workout is scheduled for February 21 and the Grapefruit League opener will follow on February 25.
The Braves are coming off of a 101-win season and another NL East division title. They were relatively quiet this offseason, with the exception of the big trade for Oakland catcher Sean Murphy whom they locked up on a six-year extension. Murphy’s deal adds to Atlanta’s apparently ever-growing young core. Early on, projection systems have Atlanta pegged as one of the best teams in league, but as always, we will have to see how things play out on the field.
Here are some storylines to follow as the Braves begin Spring Training.
Who will take over at shortstop?
This one could probably be restated into “can Vaughn Grissom lock down the shortstop spot for Opening Day”? While the Braves have presented the shortstop situation as a competition between Grissom and Orlando Arcia, it certainly feels like they are going to give Grissom every opportunity to win the job. Grissom spent part of the offseason in New Orleans working with infield coach Ron Washington. The progress Grissom has made defensively will theoretically be on display in live game action when the Grapefruit League schedule begins.
If Grissom isn’t ready, then Arcia will probably get the first crack while the Braves figure out a path forward. Arciaproduced a league average season at the plate in 2022, but hasn’t really played shortstop with any regularity since coming to Atlanta. At this juncture of his career, he is likely best suited for a reserve role. To this point, the Braves haven’t gone looking for any veteran help at shortstop, but could circle back if they decide that Grissom needs more time in Triple-A.
Can Eddie Rosario bounce back in left field?
Eddie Rosario was a key contributor for the Braves in their run to a World Series title in 2021. He parlayed that performance into a two-year deal that also includes a club option for a third season. The first year of that deal couldn’t have gone any worse. Rosario got off to a terrible start and then missed two months after undergoing laser eye surgery to correct blurred vision. He wasn’t much better after he returned, and was just never able to get on track, instead posting one of the worst MLB player-seasons of 2023. Rosario is going to play with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and how he performs will be something to watch throughout the season.
Atlanta added outfielder Jordan Luplow in free agency and he could serve as a right-handed complement to Rosario in a platoon situation, though Luplow’s one-time lefty-crushing ability has been absent in recent seasons. Other options that will be in camp include Sam Hilliard, Eli White, and longtime MLB veteran Kevin Pillar, who is in camp on a minor league deal.
How will the Braves handle the DH spot?
I didn’t mention Marcell Ozuna as an option for left field because given his defensive limitations, he probably won’t be in that mix given that the Braves don’t have a different dedicated DH on the roster. Ozuna is entering the third year of a four-year extension that also includes a club option for a fifth. The first two years of that contract couldn’t have gone much worse. Ozuna has struggled both on and off the field, but the Braves have had no luck finding someone to take him or the $37 million still owed to him over the next two seasons (at least without receiving something just as bad back), and haven’t outright cut him, either. Alex Anthopoulos was noncommittal earlier this offseason as to whether or not Ozuna is assured of a spot on the Opening Day roster. If he makes it, then he will likely see time at DH and could figure into the left field mix in a less than ideal situation.
The best scenario at DH, given the current roster mix, appears to be Travis d’Arnaud seeing the bulk of time there with Sean Murphy behind the plate. Still, if the Braves can’t unload Ozuna during the spring then they will have to decide whether to pay the hefty price for just cutting him loose or keep him and try to figure out a role for using him. Ozuna’s xwOBA in 2023 wasn’t terrible (but it wasn’t great for a player who provides little value anywhere else), and d’Arnaud outhit his xwOBA a ton last year, so it’s a complicated situation all-around. The Braves could really benefit from a no-field, left-hand-hitting, legitimate masher, but they don’t have anyone for the DH spot that fits that particular description.
Who will win the fifth starter spot?
Michael (yes, Michael) Soroka and Ian Anderson will enter the spring as a part of a competition for the final rotation spot for Opening Day. Soroka returned to the mound in 2022 for the first time after a pair of torn Achilles tendons kept him out of action since the 2020 season. He had a normal offseason and will presumably come to camp without restriction. Anderson began the 2022 season in the rotation, but lost his spot and was demoted to Gwinnett. He finished the season on the Injured List after failing to impress or show any real progress or innovation after his demotion.
Anderson spent some time this offseason working at Wake Forest’s pitching lab. If he can regain the form he showed in 2020 and 2021, he could be a huge boost to Atlanta’s rotation. No one really knows what to expect from Soroka at this point, but he recently discussed how getting back on the field in the minors last season was a huge step in his return. Others in this mix also will be Bryce Elder, who saw an opportunity in 2022, along with Kolby Allard, Jared Shuster, Darius Vines and Dylan Dodd.
Who claims the final bench spots?
It always seems like the Braves’ bench is one of the last things to come together during the spring and that will likely be the case again in 2023. Projecting the four-man bench depends on several of the other roster decisions. One will go to Travis d’Arnaud and another, almost certainly, to Jordan Luplow. If Grissom wins the job at shortstop, then Arcia will take a third bench slot. If Grissom goes to the minors, the Arcia would likely be the starter and that would open the door for another infielder, such as veterans Ehire Adrianza and Adeiny Hechavarria who are both in camp as non-roster invitees. Additionally, it looks like Sam Hilliard and veteran Kevin Pillar could battle it out for the final roster spot.
Of course as history has shown us, the Braves could keep adding players to the mix as well, especially as teams start to pare down their rosters towards the end of spring. Alex Anthopoulos is no stranger to the late add: Anibal Sanchez was added during Spring Training in 2018 and ended up being a huge part of that team’s out-of-nowhere success.
Any surprises in the bullpen?
Unlike most teams, who use Spring Training action to figure out which relievers to take with them into April, Atlanta’s bullpen appears to be largely set with Raisel Iglesias moving into the closer role, while A.J. Minter, Joe Jimenez, Collin McHugh and Dylan Lee and Lucas Luetge look like locks. That leaves the likes of Jackson Stephens, Dennis Santana, Kirby Yates and Nick Anderson competing for the final two spots.