The Braves bullpen has been an area of strength the last few seasons. Let’s first take a look at where the bullpen has ranked in MLB and the National League in the last six years.
SEASON – BULLPEN ERA – MLB RANK – NL RANK
2014 – 3.31 – 11th – 6th
2013 – 2.46 – 1st – 1st
2012 – 2.76 – 2nd – 2nd
2011 – 3.03 – 1st – 1st
2010 – 3.11 – 3rd – 3rd
2009 – 3.68 – 6th – 5th
That’s pretty impressive. Before last season, the Braves had been in the top three in four of the previous seasons and in the top six in the five-year span. So last season’s bullpen, while still effective, was not as strong as it had been between 2009-2013.
Craig Kimbrel has established himself as the best closer in baseball. He has 185 saves in the last four seasons, leading the NL in all four years. Last season he was still tremendous, saving 47 games out of 51 chances. After blowing eight saves in his rookie season, Kimbrel has blown only 11 save opportunities in the past three seasons.
Kimbrel is signed through 2017, with an affordable team option in 2018 for $13 million, so he’s locked up for the next four years. That will take him through his 30th birthday.
Some have wondered if the Braves would consider trading Kimbrel, since they are building for the 2017 season. But that is not an option. The Braves feel when you have the best player at a position, there is no reason to trade that player if you want to stay even somewhat competitive for the next few seasons. And that is the goal – to build for 2017 but to still be competitive.
So Kimbrel is in place for the next few years as the leader of the bullpen. The relievers around him will probably be a key to how well the bullpen does as a unit.
Jordan Walden was effective for the last two seasons as a main setup man. He was traded to the Cardinals in the Jason Heyward – Shelby Miller deal. The Braves did not want to pay Walden close to $3 million he would have probably received in arbitration, so with two years left before Walden becomes a free agent the Braves sent him to St. Louis.
Walden had a 3.15 ERA in his two seasons with the Braves, so he was very solid. A player the Braves acquired the day before Walden was traded could be his replacement.
Arodys Vizcaino is back with the Braves after being with the Cubs for two years. Vizcaino missed two full seasons with Tommy John surgery, but he returned to the mound in 2014 and pitched in 17 games in Triple-A. Then the Cubs brought him to Chicago at the end of the season and he pitched five games in the big leagues.
The Braves believe Vizcaino has fully recovered from his elbow issues and they liked his performance late in the season. He’s always had a great fastball and that seems to be back, so the Braves are anxious to see what he can do as a setup man for Kimbrel.
Vizcaino might not be the main setup man, but he could be a very important part of the bullpen. James Russell is certain to have a vital role, as well. Russell was acquired from the Cubs before the trade deadline. He was very effective in Atlanta, posting a 2.22 ERA in 22 games, with 21 hits allowed in 24.1 innings pitched.
Russell is a southpaw, but he was unusually not very effective last season against lefty hitters. Russell limited right-handed hitters to a .222 batting average, while lefties hit .259 against him. That was better than his performance with the Cubs, as he held right-handed hitters to a .103 average but lefties batted .295 against Russell.
The Braves will probably employ Russell as their man lefty setup man to start the season and see how the does in situational pitching. But his ability to get right-handed hitters out is a huge plus. Russell has another year left on his contract, and through arbitration will earn close to $2.4 million (according to projections from MLB Trade Rumors.com).
Anthony Varvaro had a second-straight outstanding season for the Braves in 2014. After posting a 2.82 ERA in 2013, Varvaro came back with an even better 2.63 mark. The Braves gave him a few more opportunities in later situations and Varvaro did well. So they may not be afraid with him having a larger role next season.
Varvaro still has a year left before he’s eligible for free agency, so he will be a cheap option for the bullpen in 2015.
David Carpenter did not have as good a season last year as he did in 2013, but Carpenter was still pretty decent. He had a 3.54 ERA in 65 games, with 67 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched. Carpenter is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason. He’ll likely make in the neighborhood of $1.1 million.
The Braves may be a bit concerned about Carpenter’s performance, but they are more likely worried about Luis Avilan. There were rumors in spring training last year Avilan was hurt, but he never had a major issue. His stuff was not the same, however, and he struggled for the first time in his three-year career.
Avilan is still a year away from arbitration, so he remains a cheap option in the bullpen. The Braves will monitor him closely to see if he can return to his pre-2014 form when he had a 1.69 ERA in his first two seasons. But last year Avilan’s ERA skyrocketed to 4.57 last season in 62 games.
David Hale was very solid last season in his first full year in the big leagues. He posted a 3.30 ERA in 45 games, with a 3.81 mark in his 39 games out of the bullpen. Despite hit 2.45 ERA in his six starts, Hale is still viewed as more of a long reliever by the Braves at this point.
Those could be the seven relievers in the Atlanta bullpen, but there will be a number of other options for the Braves to analyze in spring training.
Shae Simmons will be one pitcher the Braves will watch closely. He was very impressive in his 26 games out of the Atlanta bullpen. Simmons allowed seven earned runs on 15 hits in 21.2 innings, with 11 walks and 23 strikeouts. His ERA was 2.91.
Simmons battled shoulder issues in the final two months of the season and did not pitch after July 26. The Braves do not believe he had a serious issue, and the hope is Simmons can compete for a spot in the bullpen. He’s got a power arm, and he may be just as good a candidate as anyone to help replace Walden as the power arm setting up Walden.
Juan Jaime is another power arm. He pitched in 16 games last season and displayed his upper-90s fastball. Jaime struck out 18 in 12.1 innings. His ERA was 5.84. In Triple-A Gwinnett, Jaime struck out 63 in 41 innings, but he walked 36. So the control is an issue. Jaime will likely be back in Triple-A, unless he can win a job in spring training. But Jaime is a good backup option to have in the minor leagues.
Lefty Ian Thomas won a job on the big league roster out of spring training and pitched in 16 games. He had a 4.22 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 10.2 innings. But Thomas struggled against lefty hitters, allowing a .318 batting average while limiting right-handed hitters to a .167 mark.
Another lefty to keep an eye on for 2015 is Chasen Shreve, who came up and made a very positive impression in 15 big league games. Shreve allowed only one run on 10 hits in 12.1 innings, with three walks and 15 strikeouts. Shreve pitched in 46 games between Mississippi and Gwinnett and had a 2.67 ERA, with 87 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 64 innings. Lefty hitters had six hits in 22 at bats against Shreve while he was in Atlanta, so the Braves will want to test Shreve against more lefties in spring training to see how effective he might be in the bullpen.
Gus Schlosser struggled in his three stints with Atlanta. He had a 7.64 with 23 hits allowed in 17.2 innings. The Braves still believe Schlosser is a decent backup option in case of injuries, so he’ll likely return to the Gwinnett rotation and will be a possibility if an arm is needed in Atlanta.
Brandon Cunniff was placed on the 40-man roster. He’s a 26-year-old signed from the Frontier League in 2013. Last season Cunniff pitched in 42 games between Lynchburg and Mississippi and had a 1.58 ERA. He struck out 71 batters in 68.1 innings. The Braves are anxious to see him in big league camp next spring.
Ryan Buchter was taken off the 40-man roster. He continued to struggle with his control, walking 40 batters in 63 innings. Buchter struck out 63 in Gwinnett, so he still has some value that will be watched closely in Triple-A next season.
The Braves will probably bring in some non-roster invitees to spring training for more options. They’ve already signed Chien-Ming Wang, Greg Smith and Donnie Veal. They’ll get a shot in March to show the Braves if they can be a candidate for next season.
Since the Braves are talking trades with numerous clubs, it’s possible the team could acquire another arm for the bullpen this offseason.
There are a number of good arms on the roster now, so there is no reason to believe the bullpen will be an issue next season. But with a number of young unproven pitchers, expect a serious competition for the final few positions in the 2015 bullpen.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Braves bullpen looks strong for 2015
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