Braves mulling over spots to fill in their bullpen

Braves mulling over spots to fill in their bullpen

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Braves have the potential to possess Major League Baseball's best group of relievers. But with Opening Day less than two weeks away, it is still not clear exactly who will be in Atlanta's bullpen at the start of the season.

As of Thursday night, closer Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty, Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin appeared to be the only locks to begin the season in the Braves' bullpen. The two key omissions from this list are Jonny Venters, who has not appeared in a game since March 13, and Jordan Walden, who missed nearly a month of the Grapefruit League season because of a bulging disc in his back.

Despite Venters' long layoff, manager Fredi Gonzalez has continued to say the left-handed reliever is simply getting some extra rest during this year's extended spring season. Venters battled upper arm discomfort early last year and was placed on the disabled list in July with a left elbow impingement.

Venters completed a bullpen session on Thursday. The Braves will rest him on Friday before determining when he might again pitch in a game.

"We're just giving him a little breather right now," Gonzalez said. "I think he'll be fine."

Gonzalez also remains confident that Walden will have enough time to make his necessary preparations before Opening Day. Walden's one-inning appearance during Wednesday's game against the Pirates was his first since Feb. 23.

Pitching coach Roger McDowell has mapped out a plan for Walden to make four more appearances before the start of the regular season. Gonzalez said this might be sufficient for the right-handed reliever, who was acquired from the Angels in November in exchange for Tommy Hanson.

If Venters and Walden are both ready for the start of the regular season, the final bullpen spot will go to either Cristhian Martinez or Anthony Varvaro, who are both out of options.

Martinez's experience in the long relief role he has handled for Atlanta the past two seasons seemingly makes him the favorite for the spot. But he has allowed at least three runs in three of his seven appearances, including one against the Tigers' Double-A affiliate this week.

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