LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Though the concerns about the depth of Atlanta's rotation will not go away any time soon, the Braves gained some encouragement as Williams Perez, Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz all completed successful outings during split-squad games Thursday.
Perez and Banuelos both surrendered just one hit and completed three scoreless innings during a 5-3 loss to the Astros at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex. Meanwhile in Viera, Fla., Foltynewicz counted Ryan Zimmerman's two-run homer as the only damage he incurred within a two-inning stint of Atlanta's 9-7 loss to the Nationals. It marked his first appearance in a game since he was sidelined by a blood clot in September.
"I was definitely nervous out there, but once you get that first batter, it's time to play ball, and I think I got relaxed," Foltynewicz said. "I was very confident. I think I'm more confident than I was last year."
After entering last season as the Braves' top pitching prospect, Foltynewicz produced a 5.68 ERA over 15 big league starts. His season abruptly ended when doctors removed a portion of his rib after detecting the blood clot. He was on blood thinners most of this past offseason and consequently came to Spring Training a couple of weeks behind schedule.
But there was no apparent sign that he was lacking arm strength as his fastball touched 98 mph during Thursday's outing. The only costly damage came after Foltynewicz issued a two-out walk to Bryce Harper in the first inning and then allowed Zimmerman to follow with his homer to dead center field.
"I'm not going to let that two-out walk and home run down my progress, but that stuff's going to happen," Foltynewicz said. "I know what I need to improve. Instead of, 'How does your arm feel,' let's go out there and pitch now and get guys out. My arm felt great today, and that's what mostly I was concerned about today, and the other things will come."
Before this week, it was assumed Foltynewicz might need to wait until at least the latter portion of April to join Atlanta's starting rotation. But his sudden candidacy for an early-season rotation spot seems to be influenced both by his progress and the uncertainty that remains in the battle for the rotation's final two spots.
Even though Jhoulys Chacin surrendered eight hits and three runs in three innings against the Cardinals on Wednesday, he still seems to be a strong candidate to fill one of the rotation's two vacancies. The Braves would not be taking a great financial risk if they opt to provide Chacin the $950,000 guarantee he will receive if he's placed on the Major League roster.
Because the Braves will not need a fifth starter until April 12, there is still a chance Foltynewicz and Banuelos -- the Braves' No. 9 prospect, who did not make his first start until Saturday -- could have time to prepare for that role. But Perez has strengthened his candidacy as he has surrendered just one earned run and four hits over seven innings.
There had been some thought that Perez might open the season as Atlanta's long reliever. But that role seems to be a better fit for Carlos Torres, a non-roster invitee who has served as the Mets' long reliever in the past.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.