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G-Braves set to begin exhibition games

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Dave Brundage had just one day with the early version of his Gwinnett team before the exhibition opener today against Houston's Oklahoma City affiliate.

"Time to get back to reality," he said.

But as far as the veteran minor league manager is concerned, his month in major league camp with the Braves was time very well spent.

The G-Braves will have a greater player changeover than usual in 2012 and Brundage had an opportunity to get to know many of them while filling in as an extra coach on spring staff of Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez.

"You're not starting cold turkey," Brundage said. "That why I enjoy big league camp so much. You get to start developing a relationship with the players new to the organization and those you might be moving up to AAA."

Of the players who saw time in Gwinnett a year ago, 15 signed elsewhere as minor league free agents. That leaves plenty of spots open with the G-Braves and it will be up to the eight free agents the Braves signed with spring invitees and prospects moving up from the lower minors to help them.

Gone are Coolray Field favorites like Matt Young and Mauro Gomez. But Mississippi slugger Enesto Mejia will likely take Gomez's spot at first base and the G-Braves could end up with spring sensation Andrelton Simmons, the slick fielding shortstop who won the batting title in the Class A-Advanced Carolina League last year.

Free-agent signees Luis Durango and Jordan Parraz have been having good springs at the plate for the Braves and could be part of Gwinnett's revamped outfield in 2012.

"There are a lot of good battles for roster spots in Atlanta," Brundage said. "The players who lose out will be disappointed. But it's our job to make sure they are ready in Gwinnett for when they're needed."

The G-Braves seem likely to get either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado to head up their rotation at the start of the season.

Teheran was 15-3 with a 2.53 ERA for Gwinnett last season while earning honors as the International League's top pitcher and rookie of the year. That would automatically merit a major league job with most teams, but not necessarily this year with pitching-rich Atlanta.

Most of the starting pitchers that Brundage gets will be limited to about 75 pitches at the beginning. That's why he's glad that Class AAA rosters have been expanded to 25 players -- the same as in the majors.

"We'll carry 13 pitchers and that should really take a load off the bullpen when most of the starters aren't stretched out early in the season," Brundage said. "Going to 25-man rosters was long overdue."

The G-Braves have winning records in each of their first three seasons, finishing second in the South Division of the International League each time. Gwinnett made the Governors' Cup playoffs in 2009 as the wild card, losing to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

The G-Braves will only play 12 exhibition games, but Brundage believes that is enough. The team will break camp after April 1, when roster decisions are made.

"It always seems too long by the time you get to the end," Brundage said of minor league exhibitions. "You can't wait to get your team set and get going for real."