A year ago at this time the Atlanta Braves had a completely different bullpen. Well, almost completely different. Of the seven relief pitchers that will start the season Monday, only Oscar Villarreal was in the pen last year to start the 2006 season.
The Braves had Chris Reitsma as the closer, followed by lefty setup man Mike Remlinger. Chuck James and Blaine Boyer were the two young kids in the pen, with Lance Cormier joining his fellow former Diamondback Villarreal after coming over from the Arizona in the Johnny Estrada trade. And John Thomson started the year in the bullpen after the Braves selected Jorge Sosa to be in the starting rotation.
That group of seven did not last long. Thomson would replace Horacio Ramirez in the starting rotation after the lefty got hurt in Los Angeles the first week of the season. Boyer was sent down to Richmond after his first two games, and Joey Devine and Ken Ray, an unknown at the time, were recalled.
Then it was one nightmare after another. Reitsma failed as the closer, Remlinger looked done as a pitcher, and by mid-May Ray was the only dependable reliever in the bullpen. The Braves' bullpen blew half of the forty save opportunities before closer Bob Wickman was acquired in July.
The bullpen catastrophe was the main reason the Braves failed to make the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years.
But General Manager John Schuerholz went out and fixed the bullpen. He brought back Wickman as the team's closer and then acquired Seattle right-hander Rafael Soriano and Pittsburgh lefty Mike Gonzalez in winter trades.
"I've characterized it many times as the fatal flaw in our team last year," Schuerholz said. "If we had saved half of the games we blew we would have won more games than the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. It was just a fatal flaw in the construct of our team. We addressed it, and I think the results will be shown this year."
The results will start at the top of the bullpen with the veteran Wickman, who had a 1.80 ERA in his ten spring training appearances. Wickman is 38 years old, but he's combined for 78 saves in the last two seasons. He will be the closer, but the Braves will not overuse Wickman with Gonzalez and Soriano now around. Expect him to get between 30-40 save opportunities this season.
Count Wickman as one of the many Braves' players excited about the upcoming season.
"I've been excited since the first day of spring training," Wickman said Saturday after his last spring appearance. "I don't mess around. I go out and work on my slider and four-seam fastball and some days it's good and some days it's bad. This spring training it peaked early, then I hit a dead stage there, and hopefully I can take my performance today into Philadelphia."
Wickman is not going to come out and say that the presence of Gonzalez and Soriano is going to necessarily make him better, but there's no doubt in his mind that the bullpen will be improved this year.
"I think it's great," Wickman said. "Hopefully we can all pitch to our capabilities and stay healthy. It brings a lot of arms in here. The one thing it does do is the days that you are more sore and aching and stuff like that you can take the day off."
Gonzalez missed the last five weeks of the 2006 season with some elbow soreness, but he paced himself well in spring training to prepare for Opening Day. His velocity gradually increased over the month of camp. Even though his numbers in March were not outstanding (5.73 in 11 games), Gonzalez feels that he's ready to go.
"I feel really good," Gonzalez said. "I'm excited. The anticipation is here. I can't wait. Obviously the first few games or spring training you're just trying to get all the kinks out. Friday night was obviously the last time I'll be out there before the season starts, so I put a little bit more into it – a little more emotion. Now it's game time and it's time to go all out and 110%."
Gonzalez saved all 24 of his save opportunities last season for the Pirates, but now behind Wickman he'll be the primary setup man and get occasional save chances. He's fine with that and believes the Braves now have one of the best bullpens in the game.
"Definitely if we're not the strongest, we're right there with Detroit," he said. "I think we're right there in the mix."
With the exception of his last appearance, Soriano had an outstanding spring training. He showed the Braves why he was one of the top setup men in the American League last season. It will be interesting to see how Braves' Manager Bobby Cox uses Soriano and Gonzalez to set up Wickman early in the season.
While the big three relievers are getting all the publicity, the Braves are also excited about the bottom four members of the bullpen. Macay McBride will be right behind Gonzalez as the lefty reliever, with right-handers Chad Paronto, Tyler Yates, and Oscar Villarreal rounding out the group.
"They're great," Wickman said. "Paronto's had a great spring. McBride may be the best out of all of us. He's got great stuff. Yates has a chance to pitch up in the setup role, and Oscar is no slouch either."
"Those guys are studs," Gonzalez added.
McBride pitched in 71 games last season and could see a similar workload this year. He could be crucial in getting the starters to the main three relievers. The still-young lefty is thrilled there is now order in the Atlanta bullpen.
"Everybody gets along great," McBride said. "It's kind of nice to have a set thing going now. Obviously Bobby has a lot of options down there to use. So we'll have to battle for some innings. We've got a good back end of that bullpen."
"This bullpen is just going to make everybody better, especially guys like me, and Chad, and Tyler, and Oscar."
Having Wickman, Gonzalez, and Soriano should help the other four, less experienced relievers. But Gonzalez believes those four are equally important.
"It's kind of a trickle-down effect," Gonzalez said. "I think we're all going to feed off each other. Even the last two days we've been doing that. We didn't really know about each other early on, but now that we've got everything set up we're having fun."
And the bullpen talent doesn't stop with those seven. Peter Moylan and Blaine Boyer are both headed to Richmond, and they could be ready to help at any time. Plus, Phil Stockman, whom Cox admitted had a good chance to win a job before visa and back troubles, will be at Richmond within the next two weeks.
"I think the Triple-A staff is going to be excellent, especially in the bullpen," Cox said. "They've got a wealth of arms down there. Moylan has really come on. He's got the best sinker I've seen in a long time. We haven't had any depth at all like that. If somebody happens to go down, we can choose among many."
And a wildcard to keep in mind: right-hander Tanyon Sturtze. The Braves signed him in December knowing he'd miss the first half of this season recovering from his shoulder surgery last May. Sturtze is ahead of schedule and expects to spend this May on rehab assignments in the Braves' minor league system. He could be ready in mid-June at the earliest.
After so many years of looking for pitching help at the end of March and beginning of April, the Braves now have outstanding depth. After last year's bullpen massacre, nothing else would have been accepted. The Braves know the exact thing that kept them out of the playoffs last year might just be the edge this season.
"I think we're pretty confident," McBride said. "We're not cocky, but we believe we can win."
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, 105.5 the Fan in Macon, and the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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