Kimbrel, Venters Could Offer Braves Immediate Relief

KISSIMMEE, FLA.—Outfielder Jason Heyward was without question the top story from big league camp this spring, but the 2007 first-round pick was not the only rookie in the hunt for a job at the game's top level.

The Braves entered the final two weeks giving long looks to relievers Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters after both put together solid showings against major league hitters.

Kimbrel, 21, impressed Atlanta manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell in much the same manner he has opened eyes in the minor leagues during his first two pro seasons. A third-round pick in 2008 out of Wallace State (Ala.) CC, Kimbrel possesses a fastball that has been clocked as high as 98 mph and an above-average curveball.

Kimbrel struggled with his control early last year at high Class A Myrtle Beach but regained his rhythm at Rome before making his ascent all the way to Triple-A Gwinnett over the rest of the summer. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound righthander concluded the season with a 2.85 ERA and 18 saves in 60 innings.

"Craig has been much more consistent with his mechanics this spring, which has allowed him to have much better control and command of all his pitches," farm director Kurt Kemp said. "He's impressed our coaches with the way he's willing to consider new ideas and try different things."

Venters, 25, has been working his way up the organizational ladder since he was a draft-and-follow pick out of Indian River (Fla.) CC in 2003. The lefthander suffered a setback when he missed the 2006 season after tearing an elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

Venters was a combined 8-11, 4.42 last year while making 29 starts between Double-A Mississippi and Gwinnett. According to M-Braves' pitching coach Marty Reed, Venters would have been a candidate for a 15-win season had he stayed in the Southern League.The lefthander throws an 88-94 mph fastball with a plus slider and an average curveball and changeup. His biggest challenge has involved throwing strikes and locating all of his pitches consistently.

Wigwam Wisps

• Brooks Conrad and Joe Thurston, a couple of infielders who have spent most of their careers in the minor leagues, entered the final weeks of spring training as the leading candidates to earn the final spot on the Atlanta roster.

• Outfielder Jordan Schafer continues to make strides in regaining the strength in his wrist after missing the last three months of the 2009 season. Schafer, who broke camp with Atlanta last year, was expected to open the campaign at Gwinnett.