Reynaldo Lopez is the player to watch most during Braves Spring Training

MLB: SEP 06 Twins at Guardians

The battle for the final spot in the Braves rotation features a number of candidates capable of being significant contributors in 2024.

Bryce Elder, who made the NL All-Star team a year ago and has a career 3.66 ERA over 40 starts, isn’t even guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster. The Braves top two prospects — AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep — have entered their names into the conversation after strong performances in 2023. However, it’s the hard-throwing Reynaldo Lopez that could really end up shaking things up this Spring.

The Braves signed Lopez to a three-year, $30 million contract just days after learning Aaron Nola, who they aggressively pursued this offseason, would be re-signing with the Phillies. Initially, it didn’t seem as if the moves were correlated. Nola is a workhorse, one of the most valuable starting pitchers in the game, and Lopez’s best work has come out of the bullpen in recent years. However, it was announced soon after the signing that the Braves would let Lopez stretch out as a starter like he was earlier in his career, and see how he handles it.

The prospect of that took a little bit of a hit when the Braves proceeded to trade for Chris Sale, patching up their rotation in a big way. But Alex Anthopoulos and company aren’t changing their minds on their vision for Lopez, at least not as Spring Training begins this week.

In Lopez’s early years of his career with the White Sox, he was used exclusively as a starter and the results were middling, recording a 4.76 ERA from 2018-2020. It wasn’t until he was moved into a bullpen role that his high-powered arm became an effective weapon, owning a 3.14 ERA in 149 appearances over the last three seasons, with only 10 of those appearances being starts.

There’s a good chance Lopez ends up being most valuable for the Braves in the bullpen, but trying him out as a starter can do no harm. Injuries to the rotation have plagued Atlanta in recent years, and as Justin Toscano of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, utilizing Lopez as a starter to begin the season will give the Braves flexibility with their roster.

“At this moment, the Braves have seven relievers who appear ticketed for bullpen roles, barring injury: Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, Pierce Johnson, Joe Jiménez, Tyler Matzek, Dylan Lee and Aaron Bummer.,” Toscano writes. “If Lopez ends up in the bullpen, Lee will be the only reliever with minor-league options, which would limit the Braves’ flexibility.”

That roster flexibility could play a massive role in how the Braves approach their Opening Day roster. The Braves have incredible pitching depth, and they are going to want to keep as many of these arms within the organization as possible because injuries will inevitably arise. In the long-term, Lopez may be best suited as a multi-inning reliever, but in the short-term, it may be in the best interest of the Braves to see if they can squeeze some starts out of him.

Photographer: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

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