published Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Braves turn to young duo

By Charles Odum
  • photo
    Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jonny Venters throws in the outfield, Monday, Feb. 7, 2011, at Turner Field in Atlanta. Venters and Craig Kimbrell are the leading candidates to replace Billy Wagner as the National League baseball team's closer, and new manager Fredi Gonzalez said the two may share the job. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA -- The one-week countdown to the start of Braves spring training found Craig Kimbrell and Jonny Venters doing what they do best: throwing hard.

Kimbrell, a 22-year-old right-hander, and Venters, a 25-year-old left-hander, are the favorites to take the closer's role left vacant with Billy Wagner's retirement.

One week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, Kimbrell and Venters were showing off their fastballs Monday at the Braves' early pitchers camp at Turner Field.

New manager Fredi Gonzalez said Kimbrell and Venters may share save situations this season. Some believe Kimbrell may win the job after he averaged two strikeouts per inning in 2010.

Kimbrell was 4-0 with an incredibly low 0.44 earned run average and a save in his only opportunity last season. He had 40 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings.

Even Venters said Kimbrell pitched like a closer.

"I think Craig is probably the front-runner for that job," Venters said Monday. "He's got a great arm and strikes out a bunch of guys."

Kimbrell said he wasn't trying to audition for the 2011 closer's role last season.

"I didn't see it like that at all," he said. "I saw it as going out there and just pitching to help the team win. It didn't matter if it was in the sixth inning or in the 12th inning, I was going to give it my all."

Kimbrell and Venters insisted they would be happy in any role. But when asked if he sees himself as the closer, Kimbrell acknowledged, "I hope so. There's a lot of guys working for that job this year. No job is set in stone."

Of the two, Kimbrell had a shorter stay with Atlanta last season. He stuck after his second promotion and appeared in only 21 games.

"Kimbrell came in last year and really built a lot of confidence with us and with the coaches with how he came in and pitched his second time up last year," veteran starter Tim Hudson said Monday. "He looked like he really belonged, and we're excited about how he's come."

Venters was called up on April 17 and never went back to the minors. The left-hander assumed an increasingly more important role and finished 4-4 with one save and a 1.95 ERA in 79 games. He had 93 strikeouts in 83 innings.

If Gonzalez has a favorite for the closer's role, he's not saying. He hinted that each could be used to finish games.

"The plan is, we're going to give Venters and Kimbrell the opportunity," Gonzalez said. "Whichever way it falls, lefties or whatever."

Venters said he'd be happy sharing saves "as long as whoever comes out for the ninth gets the job done."

"It's about getting the job done, not about who's closing," Venters said.

An offseason priority was adding experience to the bullpen. The Braves acquired right-hander Scott Linebrink from the White Sox and signed left-hander George Sherrill as a free agent.

"So you have backups if something happens," Gonzalez said.

The veterans were needed after Wagner's retirement and the team's decision not to re-sign Takashi Saito.

Two other veterans, right-hander Peter Moylan and left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, return in the bullpen.

Sherrill totaled 51 saves with Baltimore in 2008-09, but he said Monday it will be a surprise if the ninth inning belongs anyone other than the kids this season.

"I've heard a lot of good things about Venters and Kimbrell," said Sherrill, 33. "I think it's one of their jobs to lose, is how I kind of see it. It doesn't matter to me. It'd be nice to close again, but that's not the most important thing. Anything I can do to help us win, that's what I'm here for."

The Braves equipment truck and some staff members left Atlanta for Florida on Monday.

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