Cox has tough decisions ahead
Braves likely to carry three catchers due to Estrada's back
ATLANTA -- When Braves manager Bobby Cox met with his coaches and scouts at Turner Field on Monday, there was more to discuss than simply how they were going to pitch to Lance Berkman or attempt to solve Andy Pettitte.
Along with discussing strategy for the upcoming National League Division Series showdown against the Astros, Cox had to evaluate who on his own team was going to earn the final spots on his 25-man roster.
"There are more decisions this year than we've had in the past," Cox said. "We aren't ruling anybody out."
While nothing became crystal clear over the weekend, the final series of the regular season against the Marlins provided Cox an opportunity to make some last-minute evaluations. He was able to test all of his potential backup outfielders and give some relievers another chance to audition for a postseason roster spot.
With some uncertainty surrounding John Smoltz's shoulder and the reliability of some of his relievers in question, it's expected Cox will carry 11 pitchers for the Division Series. That would leave room for 14 position players, three of which will likely be catchers.
While Johnny Estrada's back has been feeling better over the past few weeks, there is still a chance he could have a setback and experience more spasms. Thus, Cox will likely carry Estrada, Brian McCann and Brayan Pena as his catchers.
His only other choice would be to leave Pena off the roster and and utilize Pete Orr as his emergency catcher. But because Orr doesn't have any professional experience behind the plate, it's highly unlikely Cox would take that risk.
Assuming Pena, who provides flexibility because he's a capable switch-hitter, is on the roster, it leaves room for just one backup outfielder. The candidates are left-handed hitters Todd Hollandsworth and Kelly Johnson, or the right-handed Brian Jordan.
Hollandsworth was acquired from the Cubs in August with the hopes that he would be a valuable pinch-hitter who could prove productive in the postseason. But in 35 at-bats with the Braves, he's recorded just six hits (one extra-base-hit) and one RBI, which came via a solo homer. Before recording two hits on Sunday, he had just two hits in his previous 29 at-bats.
Johnson spent most of June, July and August as the team's starting left fielder. But his offensive decline and the emergence of Ryan Langerhans limited him to just 18 at-bats in September. While Johnson has the potential to provide good at-bats because of his occasionally impressive plate discipline, it seems unlikely that he will be given that backup outfielder's spot.
When Jordan went on the disabled list in early July with a sore left knee, it was assumed that he wouldn't be much of a factor for the remainder of the season. Since returning when the rosters expanded in September, he's hit .273 (6-for-22) and had only occasional problems with his knee.
Without a clear-cut choice for the backup outfielder's spot, Cox could go with the sentimental choice and choose Jordan, who is a fan favorite and top clubhouse leader. Or, he could just as easily go with Hollandsworth, who before this year was regarded as one of the game's top pinch-hitters.
Cox's decision regarding his pitching staff appears just as cloudy. It can be assumed that Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Jorge Sosa, Kyle Farnsworth, Chris Reitsma, John Foster, Macay McBride and Jim Brower, who provided scoreless performances in seven of his final eight appearances, will comprise eight of the 11 spots on the pitching staff.
After allowing just one run in five innings against the Marlins on Sunday, Horacio Ramirez received high praise from Cox. Thus there's a good chance that both he and John Thomson will be on the roster. That would bump Kyle Davies, who before struggling out of the bullpen was believed to be the long-relief option.
This would mean the final spot on the pitching staff will be filled by either Joey Devine or Blaine Boyer. Despite getting numerous chances since April to prove himself, Dan Kolb apparently will have the distinction of having gone from being the Opening Day closer to postseason roster exclusion. In his final 12 appearances, Kolb posted a 12.10 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .472 against him.
Although Boyer allowed three earned runs and didn't get an out against the Marlins on Sunday, he still impressed Cox because he didn't show any signs of arm discomfort. The rookie right-hander has battled pain in his upper arm for much of the past three weeks.
Cox is hoping that Boyer can return to form and pitch like he did in August, when he didn't allow a run in 13 appearances. With a fatigued arm, he allowed seven earned runs and 14 hits in his final six regular-season innings.
If Cox doesn't want to risk Boyer coming up lame, he could choose to go with Devine, the club's top selection in this year's draft. Since allowing two grand slams in his first two big league appearances and rehabbing a strained left hip flexor, the 23-year-old right-hander has impressed. In three appearances since Wednesday, he surrendered just one hit and completed three scoreless innings.
Because McBride and Devine were on the 40-man roster on Aug. 31, they are eligible for the postseason roster. Because they weren't on the 25-man roster at that time, they are able to substitute for any pitcher who has since been placed on the disabled list or been disabled for the Division Series. Thus McBride could take Hampton's spot and Devine could take Boyer's spot.
Even if Boyer is determined disabled for the Division Series, he would be eligible to return if the club advances to the NL Championship Series.
Cox doesn't plan to announce his roster until Wednesday morning, just hours before his club plays its first game against the Astros in the best-of-five series.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.