Back end of bullpen starting to take shape

Grilli 'right on track,' battling with Vizcaino for closer's job

Back end of bullpen starting to take shape

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Jason Grilli has spent the past week providing indication that he will realize his goal to be ready for Opening Day, the Braves have gained a better sense of how their bullpen might be constructed at the start of the regular season.

Grilli took another positive step as he completed a scoreless sixth inning during Sunday afternoon's 8-2 loss to the Tigers at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex. The veteran reliever has made two Grapefruit League appearances, and in the process, he has shown how far he has come since he battled expected rust during a March 11 simulated game.

"I'm just excited," Grilli said. "Things are progressing as I expected, and I just want to get a little more feel for things. I'm right on track. I don't want to do too much, but at the same time, I want to amp things up as best I can in all facets."

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Grilli's arm strength appears to be nearing normalcy, as his fastball touched 94 mph during Sunday's outing. He will now make at least five more appearances before entering the regular season with the chance to prove that at 39 years old, he can indeed make a successful return from the ruptured left Achilles tendon he suffered on July 11.

If Grilli continues to make progress over these final two weeks of Spring Training, the Braves will have the choice to utilize him or Arodys Vizcaino as their closer. Vizcaino capably filled this role for Atlanta over last season's final two months, and he has certainly looked primed for the role, as he has surrendered three hits and notched 11 strikeouts while not allowing a run over six Grapefruit League innings.

Vizcaino's scoreless inning

Jim Johnson has been projected to serve as a setup man. But as Johnson has allowed seven hits over his past three innings, he has left reason to wonder if he'll be as reliable as he was with the Braves last year or extend the struggles he endured after being traded to the Dodgers on July 30.

"You get [Grilli] pitching well and [Jim Johnson] pitching well and Vizcaino pitching well, yeah that's encouraging," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But you need a lot more than three guys."

Because the Braves will not need a fifth starter until April 12, they will likely carry eight relievers through their first six regular-season games. This leaves room for five more relievers, three of which could be non-roster invitee Alexi Ogando, Daniel Winkler, a 2014 Rule 5 Draft pick, and Jose Ramirez, who is the only Braves player out of options.

Winkler has made a strong case, as he has surrendered six hits and recorded 12 strikeouts while allowing three runs over 7 2/3 innings. Because Winkler missed most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and then got some service time in September, the Braves would only be required to keep him on their Major League roster through June's first week. If they don't, they need to offer him back to the Rockies, his previous organization.

Ramirez has lived up to his reputation as a hard-throwing reliever who struggles to consistently throw strikes. He has recorded seven strikeouts and issued four walks over 7 2/3 scoreless innings. His bid is strengthened by the fact that the Braves could not send him to the Minor League level unless he first passes through waivers.

Non-roster invitee Alex Torres and Ian Krol are the remaining left-handed relief candidates in camp, but Krol's struggles have forced the Braves to at least prepare for the possibility to evaluate other options.

Carlos Torres or John Gant could begin this season as Atlanta's long reliever. But this list of candidates could grow once the Braves decide whether Manny Banuelos or Williams Perez will begin the season in the starting rotation.

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