Trio jockeying to be Braves' fifth starter

Trio jockeying to be Braves' fifth starter

Trio jockeying to be Braves' fifth starter
ROSWELL, Ga. -- The Braves Country Caravan stop on Wednesday was only about three miles from manager Fredi Gonzalez's home in suburban Atlanta, making it ultra-convenient.

The new Braves manager deserved a chance to take it easy a little bit. Bobby Cox's successor will have a lot of decisions to make once Spring Training arrives.

The fifth-starter spot in an otherwise established pitching rotation will be among the positions up for grabs. The potential winner could be one of the players signing autographs along with Gonzalez for the hundreds lined up at an East Cobb County supermarket on Wednesday.

Mike Minor, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, will compete with fellow rookie Brandon Beachy and recently signed veteran Rodrigo Lopez for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.

"I'm comfortable to go with rookies," said Gonzalez, who did just that while managing the Marlins. "We'll see what happens in Spring Training. Rodrigo gives us a little backup, but we're looking for the young guys to come through. It should be a good competition."

Minor, who made eight Major League starts last year at the end of his first full professional season, is the early favorite if he can pitch like he did last August.

The left-hander was 3-0 with a 3.91 ERA in his first four starts, setting a Braves rookie record with 12 strikeouts over six innings in a victory over the Cubs. But he faltered in his next four starts, going 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA.

Many believed fatigue was a factor, and the 23-year-old did lose a little velocity. But the real problem was Major League hitters learning to not bite on his curveball as it sailed out of the strike zone.

"I need to have three pitches working to get Major League hitters out, and that's what I'll be working on in Spring Training," Minor said. "I have to be able to throw my curveball for strikes. Hitters in September were taking the curve, because they knew it was going to end up out of the strike zone.

"My fastball and change have always been good. But I need to have better control of my third pitch. It was good at times, but I wasn't consistent enough with it."

Minor went to Major League camp last year as specified in a Braves-record $2.42 million bonus contract he signed after his junior season at Vanderbilt University. But he was sent down to the Minor League camp as soon as it began.

"I got a taste last year, so it won't be all new," Minor said of Spring Training. "I'm looking forward to getting a chance to compete for a spot. Obviously, it will be a lot different than last year."

Beachy, 24, will be competing for a job without even having gone to Spring Training with Atlanta previously. An undrafted signee, he virtually came out of nowhere to lead the Minors with a 1.73 ERA last season and made three starts for the Braves in September, posting a 3.00 ERA.

Lopez, 35, was signed to a Minor League contract after pitching 200 innings last year for the D-backs. In his first full season after reconstructive elbow surgery, the native of Mexico was 7-16 with a 5.00 ERA and gave up 37 homers -- the most in the Majors.

"He pitched pretty well last year at times," Braves general manager Frank Wren said after the signing was announced on Monday. "He's a veteran guy. We'll give him a chance to compete for a spot in the spring and see how it plays out."

"We have three guys for one spot, which is good," Gonzalez said of the battle for the fifth starter. "Before the end of the season, we'll probably need them all."

The Braves also still have Kenshin Kawakami under contract. But Wren remains hopeful of finding a taker for the former ace in Japan, who was outrighted to Double-A Mississippi last fall. Lopez and Kawakami are two of eight Minor League pitchers invited to Major League camp.

Gonzalez joined the Braves Country Caravan stop after watching his son, Alex, sign a football scholarship to West Georgia, an NCAA Division II school. The lineman played at Lassiter High School.

The Caravan, which began Jan. 24 with a visit to Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia, will make its last stop on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. The bus will have traveled more than 3,600 miles by the end of the Caravan, which has made stops in four states in addition to Georgia.

Minor will certainly be in demand at the Nashville stop as a former Vanderbilt standout.

"I've already heard from people who will be waiting for me," he said. "I'm sure that I'll be signing a lot more autographs."

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.