Hicks, Young crack Opening Day roster

Hicks, Young crack Opening Day roster

Hicks, Young crack Opening Day roster
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Brandon Hicks and Matt Young received a welcome surprise Sunday morning when they learned they will be with the Braves for Thursday afternoon's season opener in Washington D.C.

While Hicks and Young were part of the Opening Day roster released by the Braves Sunday afternoon, Scott Proctor and Joe Mather were the most notable omissions. Proctor was released and Mather was placed on outright waivers.

"It was wide open all the way until this morning, until we made that decisions," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You can't advertise that it's an open competition and then not give it to the guys who deserve it."

If Jair Jurrjens feels some discomfort in his right side while throwing a bullpen session on Monday, the Braves might have to make a slight change to their roster plans. But this alteration wouldn't affect Young, Hicks or Cristhian Martinez, who had never previously been part of an Opening Day roster.

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All were provided a chance to feel the same excitement Brooks Conrad felt last year when he made his first Opening Day roster at the age of 30. After being told he had made his second straight Opening Day roster on Sunday, Conrad was able to appreciate what Young, Hicks and Martinez were feeling.

"I can't keep the smile off my face," said an almost speechless Young. "There aren't enough words."

Young essentially outplayed Mather, who was projected to fill many different roles after the Braves claimed him off waivers from the Cardinals in November. The Braves were excited that he could serve as a reliable backup at both the corner infield and corner outfield positions.

Because Mather is out of options, the Braves didn't want to reach this point where they might lose him to another Major League club via waivers. But while he hit just .137 and produced many less-than-encouraging at-bats during the exhibition season, they were essentially left with no other option.

"He showed us in camp he would be what we hoped he would be defensively," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "He's just got some things he needs to work on offensively, and he knows that. Defensively, he more than fills the bill."

Unable to find the promising form he had before breaking his left wrist in 2008, Mather opened the door for Young, who has overcome many obstacles since the Braves signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2004.

Young provides the Braves with speed on their bench and fills the need to have a dependable backup for center fielder Nate McLouth.

"He's going to do all the little things, no pun intended, to help you win games," Gonzalez said of Young, who stands at an estimated 5-foot-6 -- but is listed at 5-8.

Young started to open eyes in 2008 when he hit .289 with 30 stolen bases for Double-A Mississippi. The 28-year-old outfielder enjoyed similar success in 2009 with Mississippi, and then hit .300 with 42 stolen bases for Triple-A Gwinnett last year.

Because Young is left-handed, there was reason to wonder if the left-handed heavy Braves would find a roster spot for him. But he did hit .356 (21-for-59) in a limited number of at-bats against southpaws last year. Wren's staff also saw that he had success against left-handers in the Mexican Winter League.

"Matt Young came in and he won the job," Wren said. "He won the job by the play we've seen throughout his Minor League career and his two years in Mexico. He does something every day to beat the other team."

While Young has never previously been in the Majors, Hicks' time in the big leagues has been brief and limited. When he hit .211 with Gwinnett last year, there was reason to doubt whether he would ever hit enough to provide himself a chance to show off his talented glove at the Major League level.

Some of those doubts were erased as Hicks batted .314 (11-for-35) during this exhibition season. After spending the winter hitting with Brian McCann and Mark DeRosa in Atlanta, he came to camp without some of the flaws that led him to tally 205 strikeouts in the 725 at-bats he compiled over the past two years.

"He's made some adjustments, and his winter working on his offense I think really paid off for him," Wren said.

Hicks' success at the plate allowed him to win this roster battle against non-roster invitee Ed Lucas, who is more versatile but not as skilled at the shortstop position as Hicks. Lucas' bid was hindered by the fact that he hit just .244 (10-for-41) during the exhibition season.

"I feel outstanding, 100 percent better than last year -- just confidence-wise and feeling athletic at the plate," Hicks said. "I just feel confident in the batter's box."

Joining Hicks and Young on the bench will be backup catcher David Ross, utility man Eric Hinske, and Conrad, who proved to be a capable switch-hitting pinch hitter last year. As the season progresses, the Braves could seemingly benefit from adding a right-handed bat to complement the left-handed Hinske.

While Proctor struggled recently -- he allowed 10 runs in his final 2 1/3 innings -- it became clear the Braves would likely cut ties with him. Because they released him before Monday, they are only responsible for a fraction of his $750,000 salary.

Martinez gained the final spot in the bullpen because he has proven he be effective in a long-relief role. Ironically, the Braves acquired him last year when he was placed on waivers after Gonzalez opted not to keep him on the Marlins' Opening Day roster.

"We're looking for a legit long guy and I think Martinez filled that need," Gonzalez said.

BRAVES OPENING DAY ROSTER

Infielders (6): Brooks Conrad, Brandon Hicks, Freddie Freeman, Alex Gonzalez, Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla

Outfielders (5): Jason Heyward, Eric Hinske, Nate McLouth, Martin Prado, Matt Young

Catchers (2): Brian McCann, David Ross

Pitchers (12): Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens, Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, Cristhian Martinez

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.