Youngsters Beachy, Minor In Race For Braves Fifth Starter's Job

KISSIMMEE, FLA.As far as their fifth starter is concerned, the Braves opened the Grapefruit League schedule in much the same situation as they ended the 2010 season.

Rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, both of whom made their major league debuts late last year, were battling veteran Rodrigo Lopez, whom the Braves signed late in the winter to a minor league contract.

First-year manager Fredi Gonzalez said repeatedly that he had anointed no favorite entering the competition. The 35-year-old Lopez obviously had the advantage from an experience standpoint, and enters the season with 199 career big league starts. After spending time in the minors every year from 2007-09, including a two-week stint with the Braves in late 2008, Lopez hasn't posted many positive numbers of late, including a 7-16, 5.00 performance in 33 starts with Arizona last season.

The two younger contestants could not have come from more diverse backgrounds. Minor, a 23-year-old lefthander, was the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft after a solid college career at Vanderbilt.

The righthanded Beachy, 24, was a third baseman and closer at Indiana Wesleyan, an NAIA school, prior to signing with Atlanta as a nondrafted free agent in 2008. Both pitchers went through Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett on their way to Atlanta last year, and both are expected to contribute in Atlanta again this season.

"Getting (to the big leagues) last season was not something I expected, especially when just a few years before I received no interest from scouts," said Beachy, who led the minor leagues last year with a 1.73 ERA before going 0-2, 3.00 in three major league starts. "In college, I played mostly at third base and moonlighted as our closer. I dealt with some tendinitis, which happened to me every year while trying to balance playing third and pitching."

Beachy opened last season as a reliever before moving to the rotation in June at Double-A Mississippi. He has good command of three pitches and does an excellent job of getting ahead in the count. Given his success in both roles, Beachy could grab a spot in the bullpen if he doesn't win a starting job.

Much like Beachy, Minor has excellent command of three pitches, including a plus changeup. His fastball showed better velocity last season and continued to sit in the low 90s early this spring.

"My control has always returned quickly in the spring, and now I'm trying to hit my spots over and over again," Minor said. "I still need to work on the consistency of my breaking ball, but overall I feel confident with the way things are going."

Wigwam Wisps

• The Braves are counting on 22-year-old rookie Craig Kimbrel to handle late-inning situations out of the bullpen. Kimbrel credits Billy Wagner with helping him calm down when on the mound in the major leagues last year. The advice worked, as Kimbrel struck out 40 in 21 innings for Atlanta in 2010.

• The Braves had their minor league managers report for the opening of big league camp to provide added instruction as well as reinforce the organization's teaching methods.