For a team that used 25 pitchers in this past season, the Atlanta Braves are in need of solid pitching depth as they look forward to 2007. You wouldn't expect another season where the team battles injuries on a daily basis, but they've certainly learned their lesson after 2006 and have to prepare accordingly.
Therefore, it's important to look at the other internal candidates that might be used out of the Atlanta bullpen next season.
Back in spring training last March, the Braves had right-hander Anthony Lerew closing out games. He wasn't only relieving, but closing out games. The Braves gave him an outside shot at being the team's closer, and instead he went backwards. Lerew gave up nine earned runs in his six spring games, and the closing experiment quickly ended.
So instead of keeping Lerew a reliever, the Braves sent Lerew back to Richmond to once again start. He never quite got on track returning to the rotation, and coupled with a back injury, and a stint in AA Mississippi, Lerew had the most disappointing season of his career.
But the Braves know Lerew has decent stuff, including a 97-mph fastball. They could see if he once again can be a candidate for the bullpen in spring training. Could Lerew use more time in the minor leagues? Absolutely. He still needs to figure out what went wrong in 2006. But with his kind of stuff, Lerew's also the type that could go to camp and show he's ready to stick on a big league roster.
The Braves took Kevin Barry off the 40-man roster after the season, but there were several reasons. First, if he passed through waivers, which he did, Barry would still be the Braves property through next season. Sure, he could be taken in the Rule V draft this December, but if some team were going to take him they would have claimed him off waivers when the Braves took him off the 40-man roster. So the Braves could still own him, and yet allow a younger player to have his roster spot – at least for now.
Barry actually did pretty well after his failed start against the Brewers on August 12th. In his final 13 games he allowed only four runs in 11.2 innings, and all of those four runs came in one game in Washington in late September. So in 12 of his last 13 appearances, Barry did not allow a run.
One thing is for certain: Kevin Barry is not a starter. That's not only written because of his poor start against the Brewers, but it's just obvious he's more suited to a relief role. As a reliever, he did not allow a run in 15 of his 18 games. In the three games he did give up runs, it was 11 runs in 2.1 innings, which ruined his ERA.
But the Braves did see that Barry could be effective. Sure, if he were penciled into a bullpen spot next season they would not have taken him off the roster. But at the least, he will go to spring training as a non-roster pitcher with a chance at winning a job. And even if he doesn't win a job in March, the Braves can know that Barry is an option if they need another arm in the big leagues. Do not expect them to be afraid to bring him up.
Phil Stockman was one pitcher that pitched his way onto the Atlanta roster in 2006 with a fantastic minor league performance. He had a 0.67 ERA in his 21 games between Mississippi and Richmond before being called up. Stockman had allowed only 3 runs on 14 hits in 40.2 innings, with 12 walks, and 53 strikeouts. Then in Atlanta, he allowed only one run in four relief appearances in four innings of work.
But Stockman became yet another Atlanta reliever struck by injuries when he strained his hamstring and missed the rest of the season. The Braves tried to get him healthy, even pitching him in three games in Rome, but the injury was too severe to bounce back. The fact that they did not take him off the 40-man roster at the end of the season, as they did with Barry, may speak volumes that the Braves still think Stockman can help them out.
The tall Australian has a terrific fastball, and we all must remember that he just became a reliever late in the 2005 season in the Diamondbacks' organization. Stockman was excited back in spring training that he was finally going to concentrate on being a reliever, and there's no doubt that he was very impressive before he got hurt.
If Stockman's hamstring is healed next March, he's going to have an outside shot at making the team. But even if he is in Richmond, the Braves can't be too upset with having him as a potential backup.
Like Stockman, Jose Ascanio has a high-90s fastball. But an incident with Mississippi Manager Jeff Blauser during the season may have knocked him back in the pecking order a bit. Ascanio is still on the 40-man, so he'll get another look-see in March. Ascanio turns 22 next May, so he's still very young. The Braves like these type of arms, and it's no secret that they can use a hard-thrower in the bullpen.
If Ascanio can get past the incident from last season, he could easily show the Braves that he's close to being ready for the big leagues. Chances are he'll go to AAA Richmond to start next season, but a solid start could easily put him in the picture.
Manny Acosta is another hard thrower, and after the end of the season he was placed on the 40-man roster. Acosta can hit the upper-90s, but he has to improve is control before sticking in the big leagues.
After pitching in the WBC for Panama, Acosta went to AA for the Braves and had some control troubles: 15 walks in 13 games, but a 2.35 ERA. With all the injuries in the organization, Acosta got the call to Richmond. At first he continued to struggle with his control, walking 15 batters in his first 14 games (18.1 innings).
But then after July 1st, Acosta became Richmond's closer and did very well. He had a 3.08 ERA in 24 games, saving 14 of them, with 21 hits allowed in 26.1 innings, 9 earned runs, 17 walks, and 33 strikeouts.
Like Ascanio and Stockman, having that great fastball could really help Acosta. If he avoids his control troubles next spring, that fastball could get him a real close look. Obviously, with the Braves placing him on the 40-man, it says a lot about their faith in Acosta's talent. So it's all about his control. If he keeps those walks down, he's got a chance to be a hard-throwing reliever.
Will Startup was almost unhittable in Myrtle Beach (0.00 ERA in one game) and Mississippi (0.72 ERA in 16 games) and got better as the season progressed in Richmond. Overall in 47 games, Startup was 9-2 with a 2.35 ERA, 64 hits allowed in 69 innings, 18 walks, and 70 strikeouts.
The reports on him were outstanding. While he struggled a bit after he got to Richmond, Startup adjusted by working more on his breaking ball. The results were obvious, as he was outstanding in his last 11 games: 4-0, 0.00, 9 hits allowed in 14.1 innings, 1 run, 0 earned run, 1 walk, and 17 strikeouts.
Startup is a lefty that relishes the role of closing the door. He could be another Mike Stanton. Expect Startup to be invited to big league camp as a non-roster player. Some feel he made need a bit more time in Triple-A, but do not be surprised if Startup goes to camp and wins over Bobby Cox. Startup has the ability to impress in a short period of time, and he could be a wildcard in the bullpen race next March.
Matt Wright was outstanding in Mississippi (2.22 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 89 innings), but then struggled in Richmond (5.77 ERA in 10 games, 29 walks and 34 strikeouts in 48.1 innings). The Braves have to make a decision on him this winter, as he could be a six-year free agent.
If he's not placed on the 40-man, Wright could still be brought back. He could be signed to a minor league contract and brought to big league camp as a non-roster pitcher. The Braves need to see how Wright can do without pitching coach Kent Willis, who was his coach this season in AA and a few years ago in Rome when Wright did very well. If he is brought back, Wright will be in Richmond's rotation, one phone call away from the big leagues.
Rich Scalamandre was acquired from the Cardinals for Jorge Sosa on July 31st and impressed the Braves in his 11 games in Richmond. The Braves might bring him to camp as a non-roster invitee. Scalamandre has decent major league stuff, so he could be a guy to watch next summer if he does well in Richmond's bullpen.
There are two guys from AA Mississippi to keep in mind: right-handers Zach Schreiber and Sean White. Schreiber may have been the breakout pitcher in 2006, as he impressed at both Myrtle Beach (1.10 ERA in eight games) and Mississippi (2.50 ERA and 21 saves). But the improvement he made in his control is what catches your eye.
After he got promoted to Mississippi, Schreiber struggled with his control walking 20 in his first 19 games. His production was okay in that time frame, as he saved 9 games and had a 1.99 ERA, but the walks were a bit troubling. Schreiber made some adjustments and really took control of his role as the closer, and with that the walks went down.
From July 1st through the end of the season, Schreiber had 12 saves in 16 games. He allowed only six earned runs on 13 hits in 17 innings, with only 8 walks, and 22 strikeouts. Schreiber made huge strides with his control, and he's definitely on the map now as a potential reliever. The Braves took note of how he cherished the role as a closer. Some relievers do not thrive in that situation, but Schreiber instead showed that's exactly what he wants to do.
Stuff-wise, Schreiber has a pretty decent fastball and a good assortment of breaking pitches. He'll be a 40-man call this winter as well, and it'll be interesting to see what the Braves do. If he's left off, some team might pick him in the Rule V, and the Braves might not be able to afford to lose a potential reliever that had some success last season.
Finally, Sean White was a favorite of Bobby Cox last spring at Disney. He showed Cox several major league pitches, and White almost made the Atlanta roster as a long reliever. White battled a nagging shoulder injury for part of the season in Mississippi, but came back late in the year to show he was healthy.
Cox is big on keeping kids in his mind that make a positive impression on him, so you can expect him to seek out watching White come February. But like many of the pitchers, White must be placed on the 40-man or possibly lost in the Rule V. If he is back, White should get a solid shot simply based on last spring's impression he made on the Atlanta manager. First impressions are everything with Cox, and White is someone he will not forget.
The Braves emphasis on the bullpen in the last few drafts could also show progress next season. Along with Joey Devine and Startup, both from the 2005 draft, the kids from the 2006 draft could also start to knock on the door really soon. Dustin Evans (2nd round), Kevin Gunderson (5th round), and Kris Medlen (10th round) are three names to keep in mind. All three had solid debuts in pro ball this summer, and more good numbers could sneak them up on the others on this list.
That emphasis on improving the bullpen is the simple result of the struggles the big league team has had the last few years. Some of these guys are a bit unknown, but the team is really building some impressive depth. No longer are pitchers thrown into the bullpen when teams think they can't be starters. Now pitchers are groomed to be relievers, and with all the trouble the Braves have had recently, they can't wait to see some of that talent mature and help the big league club.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look at the Braves' traditional front office philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves' Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
20. Who else might help out in the bullpen?
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