Today I take a look at the pitchers who are non-roster invitees to 2014 Atlanta Braves spring training. Every year there seems to be someone from this group who challenges for a role on the team. This year there are a few pitchers who could work their way into the bullpen picture, though many of these guys are the up-and-coming pitching prospects for Atlanta — who are actually all talked about as bullpen options.
This is part four of my five part preview of Braves bullpen building blocks. Earlier posts include: Core Hold-Overs, Starters who could Relieve, and Other Relievers on the 40-Man. In the coming days I’ll look at relief prospects further down on the farm, but today there is a mix of prospects (both starting and relieving) and a few minor league free agents with some Major League experience. I have presented them alphabetically.
Lay Batista: A minor league free agent from the Angles system. He completed double-A last year, his highest level, and is still just 24-years-old. Baseball America says that Batista has a plus mid-90s fastball as well as a plus changeup. The Braves will likely move him up to triple-A and see how he fares. Even with a strong spring I doubt he makes the club, but he has a chance to help the Braves pen during the season if needed.
J.R. Graham: One of Atlanta’s top young starting pitching prospects, Graham was shut down in mid-May last year after just eight starts because of shoulder soreness. The Braves were extra cautious with him and he didn’t pitch the rest of the year. He has a max effort delivery in a short 5’10″ frame. Because of his small size many evaluators have said he will eventually end up in the bullpen. He has a mid-90s fastball as a starter, but as a reliever he can reach up into the high-90s, touching 100. Because he missed so much time last year the organization may need to move him to the pen to limit the innings on his arm. That move could actually speed up his ascendance to the Majors. We’ll have to wait and see how the Braves manage his workload before we know if his future is going to be in the bullpen or the rotation. He will likely start the year in Gwinnett, regardless of his role.
Jason Hursh: Drafted last year in the first round, the Braves watched his innings closely during his pro debut at low-A Rome. Many believe he could make the jump to double-A Mississippi this year, and I have to believe the Braves will push him as much as they can. He already has the plus fastball, but needs to work on his off-speed offerings to stay in the rotation. Depending on how those off-speed pitches progress will determine whether he stays in the rotation or moves to the bullpen. It’s still too early in his career to tell where he will ultimately wind up — bullpen or rotation — but he has a live arm and looks like a good bet to see the Majors at some point in the next year or two.
Mark Lamm: One of my personal favorite minor league relievers. He personifies a workhorse-like approach to middle relieving. He’s not spectacular, but he’s not terrible either. It’s hard to predict a reliever’s performance from year to year, but I feel like Lamm is about as close as one can come to being reliable-to-good without imploding. He represents terrific depth for the Braves, and should be ready now to fill a Major League bullpen role. He’s up against a lot of competition, but a good spring could setup a mid-season promotion from triple-A Gwinnett.
Cody Martin: Currently a starting pitcher, Martin was a closer in college, so he has experience as a reliever. The Braves will likely keep him in the rotation at Gwinnett, but he is certainly a candidate to move to the pen at any time, especially if needed in that capacity in the Majors. His ceiling as a starter is not that high — he’s more of a back-of-the-rotation guy — so relieving may ultimately be in his future. His presence made Sean Gilmartin expendable in the Ryan Doumit trade. I would also list Martin as a candidate to be traded in a role-player-deadline-trade this July.
Yunesky Maya: His name may be familiar to some, as he had some cups of coffee with the Nationals three of the last four years. He’s started and relieved in the Majors (all of it unimpressive), but he’s exclusively been a starter in the minors. He will likely fill out the starting rotation at Gwinnett this season, filling the role vacated by Omar Poveda. Basically he’s just minor league roster filler. If he’s used in the Majors then something has gone terrible wrong.
Hector Daniel Rodriguez: Signed in late 2012 out of the Mexican League, the Braves liked his ability to strike people out, and saw him as a possible late bloomer in the rotation. He was mostly awful last year at Gwinnett, and went down for the rest of the season with an arm injury at the beginning of June. He’s still an unknown, as his numbers in the Mexican League were terrific, but was his performance last year in triple-A a result of an injury or a true reflection of his ability? The Braves seem to want to keep believing in him, but at 29-years-old this season will likely be make-or-break. He’s more of a starting option than a relief option at this point.
Gus Schlosser: Another favorite of mine, Schlosser is climbing the minor league ladder with regularity, progressing one rung each year, and getting better every time he moves up. Dismissed by many as a soft-tossing organizational arm, he relies on deception in his delivery to get batters out. That deception from a side-arm delivery wreaks havoc on right-handed batters, but he’s got some work to do against lefties. He will likely join the Gwinnett rotation this year, but could be called on to pitch in a number of roles in Atlanta if needed. It will be interesting to see if he continues to improve as he moves up to triple-A. If he does then the Braves may find a spot for him. Expect a late-season call-up if he’s pitching well.
Atahualpa Severino: Another Nationals castoff, he had a cup of coffee with Washington in 2011. Since then he’s bounced around to KC and Pittsburgh. He’s a lefty reliever with a pulse, so he’ll find a job somewhere until he doesn’t want to pitch anymore. He’s a pure LOOGY with dominant numbers against left-handed batters. Of course, like most LOOGY’s he’s all too hittable against right-handers. There would have to be several injuries to lefty relievers in Atlanta before he gets a chance.
Shae Simmons: Here’s the guy on this list with the best shot to make a big impact in Atlanta’s bullpen. He’s moving fast through the system, having started last year with low-A Rome before being jumped to double-A Mississippi. He also participated in the Arizona Fall League, where he was the Braves lone pitching standout. My favorite description of him is that he’s a “poor-man’s Craig Kimbrel,” and that is not an insult — just the opposite. Kimbrel is in a class all by himself, so any tangential comparison to him should be considered a compliment. Simmons is a bit generous with the free passes, but those should decrease with more experience and more refinement of his repertoire.
He’s a hard thrower with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider. He doesn’t yet posses a repeatable third pitch, but he has a curve ball that is a work in progress. If he can develop that into a reliable weapon, then he could be a dominant reliever or closer. Last year it was Alex Wood who refined that third pitch which took him to the next level, perhaps this year it will be Simmons. Expect him to get a long look this spring, but he’s likely start in Gwinnett, and with good results should see Atlanta at some point this year.
Ian Thomas: So far Thomas has been a terrific find for the Braves scouting department. Signed out of the Independent Leagues in 2012, he transitioned last year to starting with tremendous success. He’s a lefty, but not a hard thrower, topping out at around 90 mph. He creates a ton of deception with a similar motion on all his pitches, and his plus off-speed change and curve clock in around 20 mph less than his fastball, making it tough for batters to distinguish between his pitches. He was equally effective last year against lefties and righties, holding each to an identical .192 BAA. Because of his success in the rotation in the second half of last season, it will be interesting to see where they put Thomas this season. He arguably doesn’t need any more time in the minors, and could probably slot into a Major League rotation now with some early career Chuck James-esque success. Because he’s not a hard thrower it would be easy to say he’s not bullpen material, but his 10.6 K/9 last year says otherwise. He will probably start off at Gwinnett.