Reynaldo López gets Braves’ rotation spot, roster finalized barring any adds from outside

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Some didn’t believe Atlanta Braves officials when they said, after signing hard-throwing Reynaldo López in November, that they planned to stretch him out to start rather than keep him in the bullpen.

Well, they were serious.

López was named the fifth starter on Monday, an hour after the Braves optioned starters Bryce Elder and Huascar Ynoa to Triple-A Gwinnett. López outpitched Elder this spring; Ynoa is coming back from Tommy John surgery and wasn’t a factor in the race since he didn’t make his spring debut until Saturday.

Braves officials discussed the rotation Sunday night and finalized their plan, which includes using plenty of other starters throughout the season when the team wants to give extra rest to any of the regulars, or if there are injuries, which there always are in today’s game. The first four starters have been set since a December trade for veteran Chris Sale, who joined incumbents Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Charlie Morton.

The Braves haven’t said which order those four will be in to begin the season, but Strider appears lined up for the Opening Day assignment. Regardless of the order of the first four, López is No. 5.

“We’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ve got to be really aware of our starter depth, too,” Snitker said, referencing starters with minor-league options, including Elder, Ynoa and prospects AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep, both optioned last week. “We talked a long time last night going over this. Like I say, it’s about (surviving) the season.”

The Braves’ Opening Day roster was all but finalized after another round of roster moves following Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. when infielders David Fletcher, Luke Williams, and Andrew Velazquez were reassigned to minor-league camp along with outfielder Eli White and catchers Drake Baldwin and Chadwick Tromp.

The Braves acquired David Fletcher and catcher Max Stassi from the Angels in December for Evan White and Tyler Thomas. (Jonathan Dyer / USA Today)

That left just 28 on the Braves’ camp roster, including relievers Penn Murfee and Angel Perdomo, both recovering from surgery and headed to the injured list to begin the season. That meant, barring a late addition from outside the organization, the final roster spot will go to outfielder/pinch-runner Forrest Wall, who’s made significant improvement since last year and played well all spring, offensively and defensively.

In deciding on López for the final rotation spot, the Braves reasoned it would be better to get him stretched out and start now, then move him to the bullpen later if they want to or need to, rather than put him in the bullpen now and then have to get stretched out in the middle of the season if they needed him in the rotation.

“It’s exactly what (this move) is about,” Snitker said of that reasoning.

Some thought Elder, a 2023 All-Star in his first full season before fading badly in the second half, might get the fifth-starter job over López. But if it was a spring training competition, as the Braves said it would be, López was the clear winner, posting a 2.16 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in five Grapefruit League games.

“I feel good. I feel ready,” López said through a translator after pitching five innings Sunday against the Boston Red Sox — his previous spring high was 3 2/3 innings — and allowing two runs on four hits including two solo homers and one walk, with four strikeouts. “I feel like I’m ready for the season. I’ve had some good outings and it feels like my breaking pitches and my fastball is good, and I feel like the location on my fastball is good. So I feel ready.”

Snitker said López was tired while going 3 2/3 innings and issuing three walks in his previous start on March 12, but not Sunday on a warm, humid day at North Port, Florida.

“I asked him (Sunday), I was curious because it was hot,” Snitker said. “He said his legs were really heavy (in the previous start), and that goes to the conditioning part of stretching him out. He said he felt great (Sunday). He’s a big strong kid. That’s one of those things, we’ll use common sense as we navigate the next seven months with him.”

His fastball velocity has been around 94-95 mph this spring, but López topped out with several pitches at 96 mph Sunday. Still several ticks below his top end as a reliever, but he said his velocity has ticked up as he’s becoming acclimated to starting again.

“As the body keeps adapting to it, I feel like velocity will continue to go up,” López said. “It’s been three years since I’ve been a starter, so I think it takes a little while for the body to catch up and get accustomed to the differences and the toll it takes on the body. Obviously it’s different to go out there and throw five innings, as opposed to just throwing a bullpen or throwing an inning and something like that. So, yeah, I think it’s just the process and the evolution of transitioning back into a starting role.”

Elder had an 8.25 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in four spring starts, after his 5.75 ERA in the final 14 starts he made in 2023. That came after a stunning 2.45 ERA in his first 17 starts of the season. The 24-year-old began last year as Triple-A Gwinnett’s Opening Day starter, but was called up by the Braves later that week after injuries to Fried and others.

“We used, what, 13 starters last year?” Snitker said, citing the number of starting pitchers Atlanta used in 2023, not counting relievers to open three other games. “And normal years, 11 (starters). So, it’s just a way to keep everybody in play. I told Bryce, too, a year ago today we did the same thing, and then you got called back up within the first week and made the All-Star team. And I said, I don’t know that that won’t happen again, quite honestly.”

Fried said of the rotation, “We have a lot of really good, talented guys. Bryce might not be starting with us, but he’s going to be a big part of this team. And I know that every single guy in the clubhouse believes in him and is excited to see him come back with us at some point.”

López, 30, signed a three-year, $30 million deal after posting a 3.27 ERA in 68 relief appearances last season with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, totaling 83 strikeouts with 34 walks in 66 innings. That included a couple of appearances against the Braves when he dominated with 98-100 mph fastballs.

When he signed, López was told he’d get stretched out to start but was given no guarantees about his role. He said then, and again after his latest spring start, that he was fine with however the team wanted to deploy him.

“They told me they were going to build me up as a starter going into spring training,” he said. “So ultimately, the decision is the team’s, and whatever they decide is fine with me. I’m happy with whatever role I get placed in. I think this is the right approach.”

The last time López pitched as a full-time starter was 2018-2020 with the Chicago White Sox, and the last time he pitched more than two innings in a game was 2021, when he made nine starts with the White Sox.

“I think it’s a lot easier to just get stretched out as a starter,” López said, “and then if you move into the bullpen, (to do it) that way. As opposed to the opposite, where if you start in the bullpen and then try to get stretched out later on as a starter, I feel like that’s more challenging. So I think it’s the correct approach.

“But like I said, ultimately it’s the team’s decision and whatever role they think is best for me, I’m going to be happy with that.”

Fried sharp most of the way

When the Rays got four runs (two earned) and four hits against Max Fried in the sixth inning Monday, it didn’t diminish what had been a strong performance by the left-hander in his next-to-last spring start.

Fried limited the Rays to two hits through the first five scoreless innings on a warm, humid afternoon in a 7-3 loss.

“It was awesome — really, really good,” Snitker said of the performance by Fried, who got close to the 90 pitches that Snitker is having each of the starters go in their penultimate spring start before backing them down some in their last one. “He was going really good.”

The lefty was charged with four singles in a span of five batters to start the sixth inning, including three hits on ground balls and one that was accompanied by a throwing error by first baseman Luke Williams.

“I felt like that kind of went exactly how I wanted, where I felt pretty sharp using all my pitches, attacking guys,” Fried said. “And then in that last inning, still feeling good physically. Some things not going my way, driving the pitch count up. At this time of the year, it’s really about making sure I get my (innings), get my pitches in, that I’m feeling good when I come out, and getting ready for the first (regular season) start.”

Strider started Sunday and could be in line for his first Opening Day start March 28 at Philadelphia, with Fried presumably pitching Game 2 on March 30 in that scenario.

Fried started each of the past three season openers, including last season at Washington when he strained a hamstring in the opener and went on the 15-day injured list.
He had a three-month IL stint for a forearm strain that kept him out most of May and all of June and July, and Fried finished 8-1 with a 2.55 ERA in 15 starts, with 80 strikeouts and 18 walks in 77 2/3 innings.

In 2022, Fried was the NL Cy Young Award runner-up after going 14-7 with a 2.48 ERA and 170 strikeouts in a career-high 185 1/3 innings.

(Photo of Reynaldo López: Jonathan Dyer / USA Today)

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