13. How good can Bob Wickman be in 2007?

Would the Braves have made the playoffs if Bob Wickman had been around since the first day of the 2006 season? Perhaps. But the simple fact that'll he'll be with the Braves for the entire 2007 season is enough to keep the fans happy. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

The day was July 21st. The Braves finally got their closer when they acquired Bob Wickman from Cleveland for minor league catcher Max Ramirez. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for the Braves, who had already dug a hole so deep they were unable to climb out. But thankfully, the team found its closer, as Wickman re-signed in September to return to the Braves next season.

He was simply outstanding, saving 18 of 19 games, allowing only three runs in 28 games, and walking only two batters in 26 innings. After Wickman was somewhat mediocre in his first half with the Indians, he was one of the best closers down the stretch for the Braves.

There is no doubt that the lack of a proven, established closer early in the season is a major reason the Braves have watched the playoffs from their living room instead of actually being there this October. The plan the team had in place simply failed, and by the time Wickman was traded for, the deficit was too large to make up in time to make a definite run for the playoffs.

The team tried to sign Wickman last season, but he instead returned to Cleveland. The Braves also had discussions to try to bring back Kyle Farnsworth, along with talks with other free agent relievers like Todd Jones, Billy Wagner, and even Trevor Hoffman. But when they struck out on every one of those guys, the team decided it would go into spring training with Chris Reitsma as the closer.

The Braves knew Reitsma was a huge question mark, but they believed that if he struggled they would have two young relievers that might take over as the closer. Joey Devine and Blaine Boyer were both serious candidates, but Boyer struggled with his shoulder trouble in spring training and wound up having season-ending surgery. Devine struggled with back pain in March, and by the time he rehabbed and got back on track with his mechanics, it was September before he made it back to the major leagues.

So after Reitsma struggled in April and May, the Braves were searching for a closer, which in turn made the entire bullpen a mess. It was pretty much musical chairs down there, as even the relievers themselves didn't know what to expect when the phone rang in the bullpen. After Reitsma got hurt, Ken Ray and Jorge Sosa got opportunities to save games and were not consistent. There was no doubt a trade had to be made to give the team any chance at reaching the playoffs.

When Wickman arrived, and everyone knew he was the man coming out for the ninth inning, the entire bullpen improved. Before Wickman made his debut on July 23rd, the Braves bullpen had a 4.87 ERA, allowed 313 hits in 301 innings, 163 earned runs, 164 walks, and 203 strikeouts. The most telling stat was 20-40 - the Braves bullpen blew exactly half of the save opportunities it had before Wickman was acquired.

Then the entire bullpen gained order with Wickman at the top. After he made his debut, the bullpen had an ERA of 3.75, allowed 204 hits in 211.1 innings, 88 earned runs, 83 walks, and 178 strikeouts. It then saved 18 of 26 saves opportunities, with all 18 of those saves being Wickman's. The other relievers were 0-7 in save opportunities, which raises another question of who will set him up to give him some occasional relief in 2007. But there was no doubt the entire bullpen was better after Wickman came on board.

But Wickman was valuable in other ways. He was tremendously helpful to the other relievers in the Braves' bullpen. He was a positive influence on guys like Kevin Barry, Chad Paronto, and later in the season Joey Devine. He became their leader, sitting and talking baseball after games were long over. Wickman became a great teammate and a great leader, something sorely needed for a group that was lost before he arrived.

So now we know he'll return next season. There will be no mystery as to who the closer is in 2007. Having Wickman at the top of the bullpen only allows for the team to now build around him so the bullpen will be improved next season. But how long can this beer-drinking 38-year old go? And can he be as effective next season as he was in 2006?

Well there's no reason to think Wickman is slowing down. Remember, he led the American League in saves in 2005 with 45. And if he had spent the entire 2006 season with the Braves, he likely would have had close to 40 saves. So even though he's gotten older, he's remained very effective.

Plus, it's relevant to assume that Wickman's happiness will contribute even more to his performance. There is no doubt, as evidenced by his decision to re-sign, that Wickman is happy. So that could lead to him continuing his solid work as the Braves' closer next season.

He'll be 38 next spring, so you have to worry about him slowing down a bit. But Wickman's stuff is just too good to worry about - unless his performance gives you reason to. And you can bet that simply his presence in the bullpen will make teams play the Braves differently next season. They won't take the bullpen for granted anymore, as many opposing teams may have done earlier in 2006. Now there's a dominating closer out there to worry about, which will mean if the Braves get Wickman some help in the middle innings, it's going to be much tougher to score on the team in 2007.

Compared to what the Braves had as the closer before Wickman arrived, he's Mariano Rivera. And while we can't expect him to be as perfect as he was in 2006, there's little reason to doubt Wickman can still be one of the top relievers in the game next season.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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