LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Nearly two full years have passed since Paco Rodriguez's left elbow has been healthy enough for him to pitch in a Major League game. But if the left-handed reliever pitches effectively during Spring Training, he could open the season as a key piece in Atlanta's bullpen.
Rodriguez missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he has understandably shown occasional signs of rust during the bullpen sessions he has completed within the first week of Spring Training. But because he is feeling healthy, he has passed the only test that matters at this point of the year.
"He's doing everything he's supposed to be doing right now," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "There haven't been any setbacks. So I think he's right on time and right where the medical staff thought he would be right now."
Rodriguez will be ready to take the next step his progression on Tuesday, when Braves pitchers begin throwing live batting practice for the first time this year. Barring any setbacks, he will not have any restrictions placed on him when Grapefruit League games begin on Saturday.
Though the Braves still seem to be leaning toward utilizing an eight-man bullpen, they are still at least evaluating whether it is wise to do so and consequently carry a short bench. But regardless of whether they opt to go with seven or eight pitchers in the bullpen, they'll have legitimate reason to consider carrying Rodriguez, who stands as their most likely left-handed specialist.
Lefty Ian Krol produced a 3.18 ERA over 51 innings for the Braves last year, and he will most likely begin the upcoming season back in Atlanta's bullpen. But because Krol allowed left-handed hitters to hit .287/.330/.391 against him, there's reason for the Braves to look for a lefty to match up against Bryce Harper and some of the National League East's other top left-handed hitters.
Left-handed hitters have hit .174/.245/.234 against Rodriguez, who has not pitched in a big league game since May 29, 2015.
Rodriguez was acquired by the Braves with the three-team trade that brought Hector Olivera to Atlanta on July 30, 2015. Initially, it was believed he was simply dealing with a bone spur at the time the trade was made. But this thought evaporated approximately a month later when he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.