With James looking solid in his first two Spring Training outings and Jeff Bennett bouncing back from a sinus infection that zapped some of his strength at the beginning of this month, the Braves know they have at least five solid options to fill the final two spots of their rotation.
Any chance of that list consisting of six names was erased at Osceola County Stadium on Wednesday night, when Jo-Jo Reyes put up a third consecutive disappointing start. After allowing five runs and throwing 82 pitches in four innings, the 23-year-old left-hander seemingly punched his ticket to begin the season with Triple-A Richmond.
"He had a rough outing," said manager Bobby Cox. "He's still not getting enough strike ones and getting ahead of the hitters so that he can use everything."
Given that his previously ailing left shoulder has limited him to two outings, there's a good chance that James could also start this season in the Minors. But at the same time, he's at least making the Braves feel they could use him in early April if necessary.
If Mike Hampton continues to stay healthy, he'll obviously own one of the final two rotation spots. In addition, Jair Jurrjens, who has been solid in three of his first four starts, appears to be the heavy favorite to win a spot in the rotation.
But one week before the club leaves Florida, Bennett, James and Buddy Carlyle still find themselves with reason to fight for a roster spot. Though Carlyle's numbers might not look impressive, Cox continues to say that he's been impressed with the right-hander, who won eight games for Atlanta last year.
Bennett, who has allowed one hit while keeping opponents scoreless over his past four innings, and Carlyle both are candidates if Cox wants to put a long reliever/spot starter in his bullpen.
As for James, who was held back at the beginning of camp because of his slightly torn rotator cuff, which was detected in October, he's at least reminding the Braves that he's still around. The 26-year-old southpaw passed his latest challenge on Monday, limiting a group of Astros Minor Leaguers to one hit over three scoreless innings.
James, who has won 11 games for the Braves both of the past two seasons, made his Spring Training debut last Thursday, when he completed two scoreless innings against the Tigers. So far his mechanics have backed up his claim that his shoulder isn't the problem that it was last year, when he posted a 4.24 ERA in 30 starts.
"He's very free and easy and very comfortable," pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "He's getting sore in the right places, not in the front, where he was having soreness."
Scheduled to complete four innings on Saturday, James could have the endurance to complete five before the start of the regular season. But instead of worrying about whether or not he'll begin the season in the Majors, the young hurler seems more concerned with developing his slider, which would give him a much-needed third pitch.
"It's gotten better, and it's getting better," McDowell said of the slider. "It's just a matter of throwing it and having the confidence to throw it. That confidence comes with getting some ground balls or seeing [the pitches] break the way he wants to see them break."