16. Can Cormier and Villarreal be counted on?

Oscar Villarreal and Lance Cormier both helped the Braves at times in 2006, but as we look forward to 2007, it's hard to tell how they'll fit in. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more as he continues his 35-part series on the top questions facing the Braves this winter.

They were both acquired for catcher Johnny Estrada, and by the time the 2006 season was over, just about everyone was glad Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal were around.

In a season full of injuries and disappointments, Cormier and Villarreal supplied the Braves with quality innings. They were not perfect, and their stats show they still have work to do. But in many ways the Braves would have been lost without them this past season.

Villarreal has perhaps the most interesting season of any Braves' pitcher. He started off as one of the many relievers trying to set up Chris Reitsma. But by the end of May he was 7-0, but he had an ERA of 4.32. It wasn't until late June, however, that Villarreal found his niche.

On Friday, June 23rd in Tampa Bay, John Smoltz had to come out of the game with a strained groin. Villarreal got the call to come into the game in the second inning and pitched 4.1 scoreless innings. From then on, he was the man Bobby Cox called on when he needed a long reliever.

When Villarreal pitched in two or more innings, starting with that game in June in Tampa Bay, he was 1-0 with a 2.23 ERA in 15 such games, with 30 hits allowed in 36.1 innings, 11 runs, 9 earned runs, only 7 walks, and 23 strikeouts.

Villarreal even had to make a few starts, four to be exact, and did okay. He was 1-0 with a 3.50 ERA, 18 hits in 18 innings, 7 earned runs, 3 walks, and 10 strikeouts. But it was obvious that his best role was that of a long reliever, which can often be the most difficult spot to fill in the bullpen.

Now should the Braves be encouraged at Villarreal's success and move him into a larger role? Or should they believe he has truly found his calling as a long reliever? From all accounts, Bobby Cox likes Villarreal a great deal. When talking about his 2007 bullpen, Cox always mentioned Villarreal. And it's likely the Braves believe he can continue having success in that long relief role.

Having a long reliever that can be counted on is almost a luxury, and with Villarreal being only 25 next season, and with him being under the Braves' control for two more years, he could be a valuable member of the pitching staff. Right now, he's heavily penciled in as a member of the 2007 bullpen.

Cormier is a bit more difficult to predict. He had a peculiar season. The right-hander started out as a reliever, but was one of the many that had to fill in the rotation during the season. He made two starts in June before being sent back down to Triple-A, and then when he returned in August, he filled out the rotation and started seven of his last eight games of the season.

Cormier was more effective as a starter, posting a 4.31 ERA in his nine starts. As a reliever, he had a 5.96 ERA in 20 games out of the pen. So where does Cormier fit in for next season?

Considering he was one of the many who filled in for the Braves' injured starters, and considering GM John Schuerholz has said the rotation must be upgraded, you would assume he will not get a legit shot to be a starter. Cormier is not bad as a starter, but with Schuerholz wanting to upgrade, you just can't believe he won't go out and acquire a top-notch starter or two this winter.

If Cormier had been unhittable as a starter, he might get more consideration. But the Braves have six starters for next year as it is, so penciling him in as the seventh starter complicates matters even more. Therefore, you would assume Cormier will either be traded this winter or placed into the very crowded bullpen competition next spring.

Since he did show he can be effective, you would think Cormier would have some trade value on the open market. It's not high enough value that he could be a centerpiece, but he would certainly have enough to be a decent throw-in player in a bigger trade. There should be some teams that would be at least intrigued with his effectiveness late in the season.

But Cormier does have one thing going for him: Bobby Cox likes him. Cox identified Cormier early on in spring training as a curveball pitcher that could be effective. That might give him an edge of some of the other relievers that will head to camp to compete for a job. Plus, with the knowledge that Cormier can step in and start, it's good to have that type of pitcher on your staff, especially after watching most of the Braves' starters struggle with injuries in 2006.

So these are two pitchers that helped the Braves in 2006 and could again in 2007. Villarreal is more assured of a spot than Cormier, but both have significant value to the organization. It's always good to have depth, and it's good to have pitchers that you know can fill different roles on a pitching staff. Villarreal and Cormier fit that definition to a tee.

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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