PORT ST. LUCIE – Sidearmer Luis Vasquez and catching prospect Christian Bethancourt were among five players trimmed from the Braves spring-training roster Thursday in the latest round of roster cuts, as the field narrowed for the remaining bullpen and bench jobs.
They optioned relievers Vasquez and Juan Jaime, Bethancourt, and outfielder Todd Cunningham to Triple-A Gwinnett, and optioned shortstop Elmer Reyes to Double-A Mississippi.
Vasquez was a strong candidate for a bullpen spot after the Braves signed him as a free agent during his impressive winter season in the Dominican Republic. But he got off to a late start because of lat-muscle injury sustained in his final winter-ball playoff appearance, and his fastball velocity was down a few miles per hour.
The sidearmer allowed just two hits in 3-2/3 innings over four appearances, but had six walks with two strikeouts, including two walks and two runs (one earned) in the seventh inning Wednesday against the Yankees.
“His arm strength’s still not back to where we saw in the Dominican,” Wren said. “In the Dominican we were seeing him consistently more in that 94 (mph) range, and we haven’t seen that here. Having that tear in the lat muscle and being out for six weeks, I think it impacted him and set him back. Then he just looked to me like he was trying to play catch up on the mound all the time, not what he was doing in the Dominican. So for him to go down (to Gwinnett) and just get settled in and show us what he showed in the Dominican, that’s really all we’re going to be looking for.”
The Braves are expected to carry eight relievers for the first nine to 11 games, until they activate starter Ervin Santana. Five spots seem assured for Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, left-hander Luis Avilan, David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro, and sidearmer Cory Gearrin is out of minor-league options and appears likely for the opening-day ‘pen. That would leave two opening-day bullpen jobs and four candidates: lefties Ian Thomas, Ryan Buchter and Atahualpo Severino, and sidearmer Gus Schlosser.
With spring training entering its final week and decision time looming, manager Fredi Gonzalez used all three of those lefty candidates in Thursday’s game against the Mets.
“We brought in some of the left-handers, just to face some left-handed (hitters) in there, and they did a nice job,” Gonzalez said. “Thomas got two left-handers out. Buchter came in and got a left-hander out. Severino unfortunately didn’t face any left-handers, but he still got the right-handers out, in a situation where the game was on the line in the eighth inning.”
Braves general manager Frank Wren continues to consider or pursue possible trades, indicating if they do anything else for now it would likely be a smaller deal. But he also said they believe there’s enough depth to get through this spate of pitching injuries.
When Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd join the rotation – likely late April and early May, respectively — they would displace two others who could potentially be moved to the bullpen to strengthen that unit.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Wren said. “And it’s one of those things that as we go into April and start getting guys healthy and start being able to add that (to the bullpen) from our starting depth, then that could also give us more overall depth to form our team maybe a little differently as we go forward. We feel like there’s enough internal candidates, but we’re always going to look outside, too. If there’s guys that improve us, even if it’s small improvements you’re looking to do that.”
One bench job: Infielder Tyler Pastornicky could make his Grapefruit League debut Friday and still might have enough time to be considered for the lone remaining bench job on the Braves opening-day roster. Pastornicky, coming off September knee surgery for a torn ACL, played in three minor league games this week and is tentatively scheduled to play in the major league split-squad game Friday against the Orioles in his hometown of Sarasota, Fla.
Other candidates for the last bench job include first baseman/left fielder Joey Terdoslavich, former Cardinals utility player Tyler Greene, and possibly speedy outfielder Jose Constanza.
The Braves have versatile Ramiro Pena as their top utility player and don’t necessarily have to keep a second backup infielder capable of playing shortstop and second base. There would be only slight risk involved in having Pena as their only backup middle infielder – if they had an injury they could bring up another infielder – Reyes or Pastornicky, for example — before the next day’s game.