11. Are Devine & Boyer ready to contribute?

As our series continues on the top 35 questions facing the Braves this offseason, BravesCenter's Bill Shanks discusses the future for Blaine Boyer and Joey Devine, two young relievers.

When the 2005 season began, Adam Bernero, Tom Martin, Kevin Gryboski, and even Jorge Sosa were in the Atlanta bullpen, while Dan Kolb was the team's closer. By the end of the season, Bernero had been sent to AAA Richmond, Martin had been released, Gryboski had been traded, Sosa had saved the rotation, and Kolb was somewhere questioning his future.

It only goes to show exactly how much a bullpen can change during the course of one season.

Now that we know who will not be in the Braves' bullpen next season, notably many of the ones who started there last year, we can look ahead to the pitchers who will make up the 2006 unit. The bullpen will undoubtedly be younger, and the two players who could easily be in the spotlight are Joey Devine and Blaine Boyer.

Devine was drafted back in June with the thought that he could come up later in the 2005 season and help the major league team. He was called up in mid-August after dominating in Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, but unfortunately hurt his hip in his first big league inning. His velocity immediately went down from 96 mph to 92 mph, and it caused him to allow back-to-back grand slams in his first two big league games.

Then Devine returned the last week of the regular season to show the stuff he had displayed in the minor leagues. The impressive performances, including closing out the Braves' clincher against Colorado, got him a spot on the playoff roster. Unfortunately, Devine was the one left standing in the 18th inning of Game Four when the Astros finally poked through a run.

So the big question is can Devine recover from giving up the home run that knocked the Braves out of the playoffs? Will it affect his future?

Well, first off, we all know Joey Devine did not lose that Game Four. There were so many things we could point to in that game, and him giving up the pitch that ended it seems unimportant at this point. But for him personally, it had to be disappointing. He was the newest player on the team, and he did not want to let his team down, especially after the grand battle the rest of the bullpen had waged in the previous seven innings.

But Joey Devine was not only drafted because of his 96 mph fastball, but also because of his makeup, which is outstanding. He has the perfect background for a closer, mainly because he's been successful as one for a number of years at N.C. State. Devine knows what happens to a closer - sometimes they blow games. He has learned how to bounce back and pitch effectively, and that's what the Braves will need him to do in 2006.

Now whether it's Kyle Farnsworth, Billy Wagner, or someone else, chances are the Braves will have a veteran closer in front of Devine next season. It's just not easy to assume a rookie (as I watch Bobby Jenks close out Game One of the 2005 World Series) can step into a closer's role. It's not impossible, just unlikely. So Devine will probably become a valuable 8th inning reliever, and with his terrific and electric stuff, there's little doubt he can do well.

Devine does need to work on a third pitch, which will help him get left-handed batters out. He's lethal against righties, with a slider that's just hard to pick up from his unusual arm angle. But he has had trouble, both at N.C. State and in the Braves' minor league system, with getting lefties out. He'll no doubt work on that with his new pitching coach next spring.

Devine's stuff is just too good for him not to be successful. It's unlikely he'll need any additional time in the minor leagues, unless he continues to struggle mightily against left-handed batters. Expect him to step and become a valuable setup man for a bullpen that craved one all of last season.

The one pitcher that did fill that role in 2005 was Blaine Boyer, who came up in June and was just outstanding. Some wondered if Boyer was completely ready for the big leagues, but he proved he was with a terrific rookie season. The only worry is the injury he suffered the last week of the regular season, which knocked him off the playoff roster.

Boyer suffered a shoulder strain, and he's expected to rehab all throughout the winter. The injury was not serious enough to consider surgery, so Boyer just has to strengthen his shoulder to be ready for spring training. That injury is perhaps the only worry connected with Boyer, who struggled a bit later in the season, but that could have easily been the injury affecting his performance.

The Braves have believed Boyer would become an effective member of their bullpen for a number of years. He has lightning stuff, with a fastball that can touch 96 and a good assortment of breaking pitches. Boyer, who started at third base in high school, has really learned how to pitch. And perhaps the best thing about him is his desire to be a reliever. He's wanted to be one for several seasons now, and even though he was starting in the minor leagues to get his innings in, he relished the chance to be the man Bobby Cox called on late in the games.

There is perhaps no player more proud to wear the Atlanta Braves uniform than Blaine Boyer. And as long as Blaine is healthy, he is going to be a productive member of the Braves' bullpen. He will have to prove he's ok in spring training, but if he does that, there's no reason to believe he won't be an important part of the Atlanta roster.

Both Devine and Boyer have the potential to develop into closers, and not many teams can say they have two young pitchers with their kind of stuff that might fill that role. Expect both to start 2006 setting up whoever the Braves have as the closer, but don't discount either stepping into the main role eventually. They both have the stuff and they both have the mindset to be extremely effective in that position. Either way, the presence of Joey Devine and Blaine Boyer will definitely make a weak position stronger in 2006.

Tomorrow we'll examine whether or not John Foster can be an effective lefty reliever for the Atlanta Braves.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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