Braves rebuilt bullpen still taking shape

Jim Johnson will be one of the new relievers in the 2015 Atlanta bullpen. But does it need more help before the season starts?

The Braves traded two pieces of the bullpen this week, as David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve were dealt to the Yankees for starting pitching prospect Manny Banuelos.

Where does that leave the Atlanta bullpen for 2015? How much depth is there, at least on paper, right now? Do they need to sign another reliever, even after already bringing in two free agents?

The Braves opening day bullpen could be drastically different than the one that started out last season. Last April, the Braves had Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, Gus Schlosser, Ian Thomas, Anthony Varvaro, Ryan Buchter and Carpenter on the opening day roster.

Walden was traded to the Cardinals in the Jason Heyward trade. Varvaro was traded to the Red Sox for minor league reliever Aaron Kurcz. Buchter was let go. Schlosser was taken off the 40-man roster but was re-signed to a minor league contract. Only Avilan and Thomas join Kimbrel as still being on the Atlanta major league roster.

The Braves have been trying to trade Avilan, who struggled last season. That could still happen, even with the lefty Shreve now off the roster. Thomas will be in camp, but he’ll need a good spring training to win a job.

Kimbrel is still in place as the closer. For now, the Braves believe the best way to stay competitive, even as they retool the roster and the organization, is to keep Kimbrel. That could change, however, if another candidate emerges this season in the minor leagues to perhaps replace Kimbrel at some point. The Braves may be tempted by another team to continue to improve the organizational depth by trading Kimbrel.

Atlanta signed free agent relievers Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli to set up Kimbrel. Two years ago these two pitchers combined for 91 saves. Johnson had 50 for the Orioles, while Grilli had 41 for the Pirates. So they have closing experience, which is what has fueled talk the Braves might listen if a team calls about Kimbrel.

They’d likely listen, but for now the preference is to keep Kimbrel and have Johnson and Grilli simply set him up. Both veterans (Johnson is 31 while Grilli is 38) need to improve on shaky seasons from a year ago.

Johnson was traded by Baltimore in a salary dump following the 2013 season and struggled in Oakland. He had a 7.14 ERA in 38 games and allowed an astonishing 60 hits in 40.1 innings. Then Johnson was traded to Detroit and he didn’t do much better. Johnson had a 6.92 ERA in 16 games with the Tigers.

Can Johnson be effective as a setup man? He did pretty well in 2011 for the Orioles, when he had nine saves and posted a 2.67 ERA. But can pitching coach Roger McDowell get him back on track? There’s talent there, or Johnson wouldn’t have had two straight seasons of saving 50 or more games.

Grilli was just not as dominant to start 2014 as he had been the season before, when he made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. Grilli had a 6.52 ERA in 12 appearances in June before the Pirates traded him to the Angels. While he still saved 11 games for Pittsburgh, he was replaced as their closer by Mark Melancon.

Grilli is older than Johnson, but his numbers did not tumble as drastically as Johnson’s did last season. So that’s why Grilli got the bigger contract. Regardless, both should be very solid setup men for Kimbrel for the 2015 season.

Who will be the top left-hander in the bullpen? Shreve was a good candidate, but he’s now a Yankee. Jonny Venters has been released. So it’s up to Avilan and James Russell, who was acquired from the Cubs before the trade deadline last July.

The issue with Russell is his struggles against left-handed hitters, which is the primary function of a situational lefty reliever. Last season left-handers hit .284 against Russell, while right-handed hitters hit only .165 against him. This is unusual, obviously, and makes it difficult to pencil in Russell as the main lefty setup man for the Atlanta bullpen.

Russell has even been mentioned as a candidate for the fifth starter’s job, if the Braves are unable to acquire another veteran to compete with Banuelos for the position.

The Braves would prefer to trade Avilan. He had a 4.57 ERA last season in 62 games, his worst season of his three-year career. Avilan held left-handers to a .264 batting average last season, while right-handed hitters batted .312 against him. So he really didn’t fool anyone last season after two impressive years in the Atlanta bullpen.

Thomas pitched 16 games out of the Atlanta pen last season and had a 4.22 ERA, with 13 strikeouts in 10.2 innings. He pitched well, but the Braves believed he needed to work more on his secondary pitches to maximize his effectiveness against lefty hitters. Thomas allowed a .318 average against lefties in their 26 plate appearances against him last season.

So the Braves probably need to bring in another lefty reliever before spring training starts next month. Among the free agent left-handed relievers still on the market:

Phil Coke - a 32-year old former Tigers reliever
Neal Cotts - a 35-year-old who salvaged his career with Texas the last two seasons
Franklin Morales – a 29-year-old who also started 22 games with Colorado last season
Tom Gorzelanny – pitched well in relief for the Brewers last season – could also start
Scott Elbert – still only 29 but can he stay healthy? He supposedly is finally free of arm issues
Joe Beimel – Turns 38 in April – had a 2.20 ERA in 56 games with Seattle last season
Joe Thatcher – was effective for Arizona last season and with San Diego in 2013. Inconsistent
Rich Hill – oft-injured lefty pitched with the Yankees and Angels last season

There are a few right-handers to keep in mind. Casey Janssen is available. He saved 81 games in the last three seasons for the Blue Jays. Janssen’s former teammate, Dustin McGowan, could also be a possibility. McGowan has experience as a starter, too.

Donnie Veal will be in big league camp as a non-roster pitcher. Two years ago Veal made 50 appearances for the White Sox out of their bullpen. He will be one to watch closely considering his experience.

The Braves would love to see Arodys Vizcaino win a job in the bullpen. They believe he is fully recovered from his elbow issues that have delayed his career. The Braves clocked him in the mid-90s late in the season, so they believe he is ready to contribute.

Shae Simmons is supposedly healthy after some shoulder trouble last season. Simmons made a tremendous impression in his 26 games out of the Atlanta bullpen. Simmons had a 2.91 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 21.2 innings pitched.

Juan Jaime is still on the 40-man roster. He made 16 relief outings in Atlanta last season and showed a tremendous fastball that reached 100 mph. Jaime will get another strong look this spring.

Brandon Cunniff is a minor leaguer placed on the 40-man roster this winter. Cunniff was signed by the Braves out of the Frontier League in 2013 and he had done great work ever since. The 26-year-old right-hander pitched 33 games for Mississippi last year and had a 2.05 ERA, so Cunniff is close.

The Braves would love to see Michael Kohn win a job. The 28-year-old was signed to a minor league deal a few weeks ago. Kohn made 25 relief appearances for the Angels last year and 63 games pitched in 2013. He’s got a 3.67 ERA in his four years with the Angels. Kohn has regained his fastball following his Tommy John surgery in April 2012.

Schlosser will be back in the farm system. He’s a name to keep in mind, particularly during the season if a need arises. Cody Martin will likely be in the Gwinnett rotation, but the coaches really like what Martin does on the mound and he could make a case for a job.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Braves do with Jason Hursh. Will they send him back to Double-A Mississippi, where he made 27 appearances (26 starts) last season, or could they promote him up to Triple-A? Many believe Hursh’s future is in the bullpen and not as a starting pitcher. So with his solid fastball, Hursh could be a candidate if needed.

The Braves will closely monitor Aaron Kurcz, who was acquired for Varvaro. He has a chance to be in the Triple-A bullpen this season but could be a candidate if he does well there.

Of course, David Hale will return for his second season as the long reliever. Hale was very effective in that role last season, posting a 3.81 ERA in 39 relief appearances. Hale had a 2.45 ERA in his six starts, so he presents value to the team with his versatility.

Expect the Braves to add another reliever and probably two before spring training starts. They have money available, and with obvious questions about the rotation the Braves could decide to make sure the bullpen is a strength.

The Braves have longed believed most relievers are somewhat interchangeable, and that theory likely hasn’t changed even with the new front office in place. While the trade with the Yankees presents a few more questions, the confidence is there the team will have plenty of options available once the 2015 season starts in April.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at Follow Bill at and email him at

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