12. Can John Foster be a good lefty reliever?

The bullpen can almost be a four-letter word for Braves' fans. As Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the top questions facing the Braves this winter, he discusses the future of lefty reliever John Foster.

I would never want to be a relief pitcher. You can go from hero to goat in a matter of a week. Your ERA can balloon up with one horrible performance, and it might take two months of great pitching for it to recover. And the fans can be relentless, especially if you‘re streaky.

John Foster relishes the role of a reliever. Here's a kid that really wasn't sure he ever had a chance to make the big leagues. His minor league coaches really had more confidence in him that he did himself. And his journey has taken him away from Atlanta and now back where he started from.

Foster believed he'd spend most of the 2005 season in the minor leagues, continuing his rehab from shoulder surgery. But a phone call to Dayton Moore in mid-March got him to spring training in Orlando, and then after he proved he could be effective and Tom Martin proved he couldn't, Foster was in the big leagues within a month of re-joining the Braves organization.

The lefty was streaky. He didn't allow an earned run until June, and then he struggled for two months, compiling an ERA of 7.11 in June and 7.20 in July. Foster bounced back with a strong August, before struggling again in September.

Foster was definitely not as effective in the second half of the season, posting a 5.82 ERA after the All-Star break. So that lasting impression also creates questions as to whether or not Foster can be an effective reliever for the Atlanta Braves.

Opposing batters had a .213 average against Foster, and lefties were only 16-for-73 (.219). But with any reliever, it's not always how frequent the hits come, but in what situations. Foster did allow a number of inherited base runners score, especially in the second half of the season.

The 2005 season was the most Foster had ever pitched in the big leagues. He had a cup of coffee with the Braves a few years back, and then spent part of 2003 in Milwaukee. Foster did prove in 2005 that he can be effective, but he also raised enough questions to have more than a few fans worried about his future.

Lefty relievers seem like a dime a dozen. When you get a great one, you try to hold on to them. Mike Remlinger was one the Braves held onto, until he got too expensive. Lefty relievers also seem to be easy to throw into a trade, as the Braves did with Ray King. Other teams always seem to be interested in them, and it's easy to assume you can replace one you trade away.

This question is perhaps one of the most unimportant of the offseason. If the Braves need to throw Foster into a deal, it's not like it's going to kill their bullpen. And if the Braves do bring Foster back, he'll probably have to compete with Macay McBride and perhaps another veteran for his job next spring.

Foster does have the ability to get better, and the Braves have to know that. I realize I've said this a lot in the last few reports, but you wonder if a new pitching coach can make Foster better. He does have stuff to get hitters out, and he did show he can be effective against left-handed hitters. If our overall bullpen is better, perhaps Foster could be more exclusive as a lefty reliever.

There is no reason to non-tender Foster. He has more value to keep than to just let go, and it's not like he's going to be expensive next season. He'll still be relatively cheap, and for a team that might be maxed out financially, they'll need options like that. If Foster comes to spring training and is not effective, then the Braves could let him go and not be harmed.

But let's hope Foster can be effective. You can't give up on pitchers too soon, and while some fans may want to do just that, you have to remember that Foster did show he has the ability to be a very good lefty reliever last season. Now he's got to build off that and simply get better. There are a lot of positives to look at with Foster, and you'd hate to give up on him because he didn't leave you with a grand impression.

Tomorrow we'll discuss whether or not Macay McBride can be an effective lefty reliever in Atlanta in 2006.

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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