After the Braves acquired Bob Wickman from Cleveland, it remained apparent that the team still needed help getting the ball to him. A week after the Wickman trade, GM John Schuerholz acquired another reliever, picking up Danys Baez from the Dodgers (along with Willy Aybar) for Wilson Betemit.
The importance of a quality setup man for your closer cannot be overlooked. Baez and Wickman formed a pretty good combo until Baez had his appendix out in September. And with Wickman coming back next season, it can now afford Schuerholz the opportunity to construct a bullpen around his closer, with the setup man the main priority.
Baez could be an option. He's a free agent, and while he says he wants to be a closer again, he might find that market dried up. So there's a chance, albeit an outside shot, that Baez could return as Wickman's main setup man. But count instead on some team overpaying for him to be a closer.
There is another veteran currently on the roster that might be an option. Chris Reitsma started the 2005 season as the Braves' closer, but by late May he had done so poorly his neighbors were making negative comments to him. The right-hander had surgery on his arm, but he's expected to come back healthy next season.
Reitsma is well-liked in the Braves' clubhouse, but the Braves face a financial decision on him. He made $2.75 million in 2006 and he's eligible for arbitration again this winter. Since he struggled last year, and then missed half a season, he won't command a raise. But with the arbitration process being what it is, the Braves won't be able to lower his salary that much. He'd still make a little over $2 million if he returns next season, so that's a large amount to commit to a player with major questions.
The Braves could non-tender Reitsma, and then bring him back in a minor league deal that would place his salary at $1 million or so if he made the big league roster. They will have interest in doing this, since they still believe he has the stuff to be effective in the bullpen. But with the issue revolving around finances first and foremost, it does put Reitsma's future in jeopardy.
However, Reitsma has shown at times he can be an effective setup man. In 2004, after his trade to Atlanta, he set up John Smoltz. Then after the Dan Kolb experiment failed in 2005, Reitsma stepped in and was effective. So will the Braves chalk up Reitsma's disastrous season in 2006 to his injury and try to bring him back to set up Bob Wickman? Possibly.
But the most probable internal candidate to set up Wickman is right-hander Tyler Yates. Who would have believed back in spring training that Tyler Yates, of all people, would pitch in 56 games for the Braves in 2006. But with all the injuries, it opened up an opportunity for the former Mets' farmhand.
Yates has had serious arm surgeries, but after he proved he was healthy in an April workout, the Braves signed him to Triple-A Richmond. Then it didn't take long before he was brought up to Atlanta. At first, Bobby Cox was leery of using Yates. It was obvious he had decent stuff, with a blazing mid-90s fastball, but it was also obvious that he was coming back from missing a lot of time and was rusty.
Yates was inconsistent in his time with the Braves, but he did have enough quality outings and show enough impressive stuff to be considered the favorite right now to setup Wickman. The presence of a reliever with a fastball like Yates has is appealing, especially since Wickman doesn't throw that hard anymore. Yates' bread and butter pitch is that fastball, and it would be nice to have someone in the seventh or eighth inning you can bring in to get a punch out if you need it in a crucial situation.
The Braves are hopeful that now that Yates has proved he is healthy, he's only scratched the surface of his potential. He's still only 29 years old, and with only 77 career appearances and a rebuilt shoulder, Yates may have a fresh arm that can develop into a solid reliever.
Cox thought enough of Yates to really tout him late in the season, and it was obvious that Yates' strong September may have been what convinced the Braves' skipper that he had a strong option for next season. While it's dangerous to say anyone is locked into a bullpen role, you got the strong feeling from Cox that Yates will definitely get a strong look in Spring Training.
If Yates can compliment his fastball with more consistent breaking stuff, he will be effective. At times last summer he was wild, and he walked 12 batters in his 14 games in the month of August (when his ERA was 9.00). But he was much better in September, posting a 2.70 ERA in 15 games with only five walks and 12 strikeouts in his 13.1 innings. So perhaps the Braves saw more of what Yates is capable of with that strong finish.
The Braves envisioned Blaine Boyer setting up Chris Reitsma last season, but then Boyer got hurt and missed most of the season. Boyer's rehab from his shoulder surgery has gone well, and the team believes he'll be ready to go in spring training to compete for a bullpen job.
But will Boyer need time in middle relief or even in Triple-A to avoid being rusty early on in an important role? He's got the stuff to be a setup man, with a mid-90s fastball and consistent breaking stuff. Plus, the team still believes he could develop into a major league closer one day. So if Boyer's healthy, he could be a candidate as well.
The same could be said about Joey Devine, drafted two years ago with the hope that he could eventually be a closer candidate. But with Wickman on board, it's better for Devine to get his time in as a setup man first. Devine battled back trouble for most of the 2006 season, but he worked hard on tightening is mechanics to put less stress on his back.
When Devine has been healthy, he's been really impressive. And the Braves had to take note of his performance in September after he was recalled from the minor leagues. Devine did not allow an earned run in his eight games after his return, with only three hits allowed in 5.1 innings, four walks, and eight strikeouts.
Devine is getting a little more action in the Arizona Fall League, and if he continues to build on that strong September, he could be a strong candidate for an important role in the bullpen.
Chad Paronto is more likely to be the next Kevin Gryboski, brought in to get the ground ball in a double play situation. And while Macay McBride may also have closer's stuff, he's looked at more as the lefty specialist - at least right now.
Oscar Villarreal found his niche late in the season as the team's long relief man, so it's unlikely he'll be pushed into the setup role. However, you can assume that along with Wickman, Yates, and McBride, Villarreal is one of four pitchers that have locked up a spot in the seven man bullpen for 2007.
Of course, there is a strong possibility the team could improve the bullpen and find a setup man through free agency or the trade market. With the possibility of a Marcus Giles trade, the Braves could use their starting second baseman to further strengthen the bullpen.
One possibility to keep in mind is Oakland, who had considerable interest in Giles two years ago when the Braves acquired Tim Hudson. The A's need a second baseman, and they have a deep bullpen that could possibly lead to a deal. Would the A's deal Justin Duchscherer, a young reliever that could be one of the top setup men in the game, for Giles?
The Padres are always mentioned in connection with Giles, and you wonder with the development and success of Cla Meredith as a reliever if San Diego would consider dealing Scott Linebrink, one of the best setup men in the game.
Free agency is another avenue the Braves could explore to find someone to set up Wickman. There are several candidates that could be signed to deals under $3 million dollars that may help the bullpen depth: Russ Springer, Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin, David Riske (whom the Braves reportedly had interest in last December), David Weathers, Latroy Hawkins, and Arthur Lee Rhodes. Plus, there are several lefties that will be tempting: Jamie Walker, J.C. Romero, Darren Oliver, Trever Miller, and Alan Embree.
So don't be surprised if the Braves bring in possibly two veterans to help set up Wickman. They have enough flexibility to where they could sign one from free agency (maybe for a $2 million dollar deal) and one from a trade.
The Braves found out how lethal a lack of depth in the bullpen can be, so with Wickman now firmly in place as the team's closer, which will be the best situation since John Smoltz returned to the rotation, it's very crucial for the team to build a deep and dependable bullpen. That area of the team must be a strength in order to return to the playoffs.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
14. Who will be Wickman's setup man?
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