With veterans returning, tough roster moves loom

It’s not everyday that a team gets to bolster its bullpen with three hurlers the caliber of John Smoltz, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez. However, that is exactly what the Braves have ahead of them in the not too distant future. As these three come back, Atlanta will have to make some tough calls on who goes out to make room for these relievers on the road to recovery.

Smoltz_Mississippi.gifAll three men are on the mend, with Smoltz and Soriano in full rehab appearances and Gonzalez wrapping up a successful trial in extended Spring Training action. Smoltz needed just 12 pitches to throw a scoreless frame with Double-A Mississippi on Saturday night. With some tightness the day after but no pain reported during the outing, the Braves will presumably decide when to activate him or further his assignment sometime early this week. He may see one more appearance before coming back to Atlanta.

When he is activated, Smoltz will rejoin the bullpen after spending more than three seasons in the starting rotation as the team’s ace. It became clear to Smoltz that, at this point in his career, his durability was not going to allow him to give his club the innings they need from a starter.

Some would call it noble, others have called it a case of going back on what he said prior to 2005. He did leave the pen to alleviate the day-to-day stress he encountered as reliever. Becoming a starter again was supposed to remedy that. For a good while, it did, but this is an older Smoltz. He’s not thinking about ways to extend his career at this juncture.

Look, I don’t know what is best for John Smoltz, but I do think that after all these years that he knows what is best for himself. He has gone on record as saying that he simply cannot push himself beyond five innings. I believe that the 2005 transition was the right move for the club… and I believe that this one would be as well. The bottom line is, Atlanta has the chance to turn that negative (a five inning starter) into a major positive. Now we all just have to wait and see if he’s the same guy who racked up 144 saves from 2002-2004.

One interesting thing to note, it will be a different John Smoltz who returns. He broke a three-quarters arm angle during his recent simulated game at Turner Field earlier in the week. That adjustment will hopefully help relieve the stress on his shoulder.

Moving on to Soriano, who pitched a perfect inning for Mississippi on Friday, the Braves are hoping to have him back in the fold sometime in the next week. Assuming he is able to resume his role from a year ago, he should see some spot saves and a good portion of the set-up work. It’s doubtful that Atlanta is going to run Smoltz out there too many nights in a row. Soriano makes that reality a little less stressful.

Gonzalez will further that sentiment when he returns as well. Missing roughly a year’s worth of action with Tommy John surgery, the lefty Gonzalez will serve as the perfect late inning compliment to the nasty Smoltz/Soriano combo. He may see some ninth inning chances himself, having been a successful closer for Pittsburgh in 2006. Gonzalez was slated to be evaluated by team doctors on Sunday and, given a clean bill of health, to start a rehab assignment of his own.

So who stays and who goes? That’s always a tough call. The problem at the end of spring was the fact that more than a handful of relievers are all out of options. Royce Ring, Blaine Boyer and Chris Resop all stayed on, while Tyler Yates was sent to Pittsburgh for a minor league hurler. Atlanta has already had to part was with Brayan Pena this week, whom they had held on to as a third catcher and utility-type player. He’ll find work, but it just goes to illustrate that there aren’t always enough roster spots to go around. 

If you ask me, my gut feeling is that Phil Stockman, Ring and Resop are the most likely candidates to go out for the returning trio of relievers. Stockman will be able to head back to Richmond, but Resop and Ring would have to be designated for assignment when the time comes. With Smoltz or Soriano coming back in the near future, look for Stockman to head out first, followed by Resop and finally Ring when Gonzalez shows he is healthy. While Atlanta would love to hang on to both Resop and Ring, it just isn’t possible with the lack of options.

When all the shuffling is done, the Atlanta Braves could be building their strongest relief corps in years as these three return. While most teams scramble at the trade deadline to acquire more arms, Atlanta will be able to bolster their bullpen from within. Adding a healthy Smoltz, Soriano and Gonzalez to an already effective squad that includes Will Ohman, Manny Acosta, Jeff Bennett and Boyer will give the Braves one of the best bullpens in the game. Bar none.


Till Next time,


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