17. Which minor league relievers have a shot?

Let's look at some of the other pitchers who could battle for a job in the Atlanta bullpen in 2008.

Joey Devine

The sidearmer was definitely on the shuttle this past season, back and forth from the minors to the majors five different times. Devine had an outstanding season in the minor leagues, and when he was able to see action in Atlanta he was once again effective.

Devine has gotten a lot of heat for his early career struggles, but the fact remains when he's been healthy Devine has been solid. And his work in the minor leagues this past season really leads you to believe he has nothing left to prove down on the farm.

His overall numbers in the minor leagues this season, between Mississippi and Richmond: 5-4, 1.89 ERA, 50 games, 20 saves, 41 hits in 57 innings, 14 runs, 12 earned runs, 19 walks, and 78 strikeouts. Devine's opponents hit only .202 against him in the minor leagues. His career ERA in the minor leagues is now 2.72.

With Devine's injuries, he had pitched in 58 career games (43 in the minors, 15 in the majors) coming into this season. Devine pitched in 60 games this season between Atlanta and the minor leagues.

When Devine was called up for good on September 19th, he pitched in five games out of the Atlanta bullpen. Devine did not give up an earned run in those five games, and he seemed to earn Bobby Cox's confidence in tight situations.

Devine continues to get better. He said late in the summer he finally felt like ‘the old Joey Devine,' like he was in college was he was dominant at North Carolina State. He regained his swagger, mainly due to staying healthy and being able to pitch consistently.

Mechanically he stayed off his heel with his front leg and was much more ‘quiet' to the plate. Devine has really cleaned up his delivery in the last two years, making it less stressful on his body considering his sidearm delivery. The Braves also allowed him to go back to the windup with no one on base, which seemed to help as well. Devine has been throwing his changeup a bit more, which might help against right-handed hitters.

If he's not traded this winter, Devine will need to win a job next spring in the Atlanta bullpen. He is out of options now, so the pressure is on for him to stick in the big leagues. Again, there's no much left for him to prove in the minors, so the time is now for Devine to prove he belongs in Atlanta's bullpen.

Manny Acosta

This guy had to be the best surprise late in the season. Acosta was called up from Richmond on August 11th. He would appear in 21 games and had outstanding stats: 1-1, 2.28, 13 hits allowed in 23.2 innings, 6 runs, 14 walks, and 22 strikeouts.

Before his promotion Acosta had been pretty dominant in Triple-A Richmond. He had saved 12 games in 40 appearances and was 9-3 with a 2.26 ERA, 46 hits allowed in 59.2 innings, 15 earned runs, 35 walks, and 56 strikeouts.

Acosta impressed the heck out of Bobby Cox with his fine pitching down the stretch, and you can bet Cox will remember all of that next spring. But the Braves are stretching Acosta out a bit this winter to see if he can even be a candidate for the starting rotation.

Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen believes Acosta is a major league pitcher and that he can either relieve or start. If the Braves improve the rotation this winter, Acosta might not be needed in that role. But it won't hurt to see how Acosta does in case more depth is needed next summer.

But chances are Acosta will simply be a serious candidate for a setup role in the bullpen next spring. He throws gas, even clocked at 100 mph in July by a Reds' scout. He's got a lot of pitches, but as a reliever he really hasn't been able to use his full repertoire. Acosta's changeup can be lethal, especially when he's pumping that fastball into the upper-90s.

So Acosta should be a leading candidate to win a job next March.

Jeff Bennett

If Acosta was a surprise, Jeff Bennett was a shock. This is the same Jeff Bennett who had an effective season in Milwaukee a few years back. The Braves signed him before the 2006 season, but an arm injury forced them to void the contract. Bennett then had Tommy John surgery, but the Braves signed him again last winter to give him another shot.

Bennett started out in Mississippi and pitched six games there. The Braves then sent him to Richmond where he did very well. The right-hander was 3-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 36 games, six starts. Late in the season the Braves allowed him to start, and Bennett did very well. He was 2-1 with a 2.15 ERA, 26 hits allowed in 29.1 innings, eight walks, and 17 strikeouts.

That was so impressive that when Buddy Carlyle got hurt late in the season, the Braves decided to give Bennett a chance to start in the big leagues. His first start was against the Brewers, the team that had released him a few years earlier. Bennett pitched 5.2 innings and allowed only one run on six hits, with one walk, and eight strikeouts to beat the Brewers 3-1 and really hurt their playoff chances.

Bennett then had a relief appearance in Philadelphia, but then got one more start in the last weekend of the season in Houston. Bennett lost the game, but he again pitched well by allowing three runs in six innings, with one walk, and five strikeouts.

The success got the attention of Bobby Cox, who was extremely impressed with Bennett's aggressiveness and pitchability. Bennett really attacks hitters, and even though his stuff is not as good as it was before his surgery, it's still decent. His fastball can still get up to 95, 96 mph, but the Braves really like it when he uses his two-seamer and stays in the 91-92 mph range.

Bennett is developing his slider and it's not bad, but he's going to need a changeup if there's any chance of him staying in a rotation. Again, with the Braves likely to add one or maybe even two starters this winter, the likelihood of Bennett starting for the Braves is not high. But he at least will get a legit shot at being apart of the bullpen with his solid showing in September.

Blaine Boyer

After missing most of the 2006 season with shoulder surgery, Blaine Boyer was ready to come back and contribute this past year. But again, injuries got in the way of his comeback and Boyer instead spent most of the season in Triple-A Richmond.

But like many of these candidates, Boyer is out of options so he has to be on the roster leaving spring training next March. The Braves believe he's ready, but like with Bennett and Acosta, it remains to be seen what role Boyer might have in 2008.

It's always been believed Boyer would be a reliever, as he was in Atlanta in 2005. But to give him more work this season the Braves put him in the rotation, and in turn that gave Boyer the chance to show the team he might also be a candidate for the rotation as well.

He battled a few injuries, like the oblique early in the season and then a knot in his forearm later in the year. But when he did get a chance to start, Boyer was pretty impressive. Yes, his numbers were better as a reliever (3.10 ERA) than as a starter (4.75). But it was the stuff he showed in those starts that gives the Braves reason to wonder if Boyer should instead go back and start.

Here's what Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen said about Boyer in August: "From the get-go for me he's been a starting pitcher. He's either a starter or a closer. He has to get in a very important role. I don't know whether his body can handle four to five days either in or up in a game a week in an extended period of time. I question that; I think his body would be much better and I think he'd be much better if he pitched every fifth day and went 95 to 115 pitches. That's what I see of Boyer. His mechanics are outstanding right now. His pitches are there. There have been questions about his stamina. Does he have the stamina to do it? Well, he's a racehorse. I think if he gets himself in the best condition of his life he'll surprise everybody as a starting pitcher."

But again, with the Braves expected to bring in one and probably two starters this winter, the chances of putting Boyer and Acosta and Bennett in a competition with Chuck James and Jo Jo Reyes for the final two spots in the rotation are probably slim. And, if Mike Hampton returns, it'll make it even more crowded.

Boyer, like any pitcher, prefers to know one way or the other so he can prepare himself for the season. But there is no doubt he has the stuff to do either. Taking a year off did nothing to hurt Boyer's stuff, and the fastball was solid in the low-mid 90s. And his changeup is coming along giving him a better secondary pitch.

Expect the Braves to really give Boyer a solid chance to make the staff next spring. Boyer showed back in 2005 that he has outstanding talent, and the Braves aren't going to risk losing that talent.

Zach Schreiber

Here's a guy that is going to pitch in Atlanta at some point next season. That is, unless he's left off the 40-man roster and taken by another team in the Rule V Draft.

Zach Schreiber has gone from a fringe pitcher to a serious prospect in the last two years. He followed up an impressive 2006 season, in which he became a closer for the first time in pro ball, with an equally solid season this past year.

The right-hander started off back in Double-A Mississippi, where he was 3-5 in 22 games with a 2.22 ERA. He allowed only 26 hits in 44.2 innings, with 22 walks, and 38 strikeouts. Then Schreiber was sent to Richmond, where he was even better: 1-1, 2.43 ERA in 24 games, 25 hits in 33.1 innings pitched, 11 walks, and 38 strikeouts.

Schreiber really took a step forward with his stuff. He's more consistent with his velocity, now in the low-mid 90s. Schreiber's changeup improved working with Guy Hansen, and his slider continues to get a bit better.

There's a chance Schreiber could be placed on the 40-man roster next month, but if not still expect him to get an invite to big league camp next March. The Braves know Zach is a pitcher that could help them at some point next season.

Dan Smith

The lefty put up solid numbers again this season, splitting time between Mississippi, Richmond, with even two games in the GCL rehabbing from injury. Smith was 7-8 overall with a 3.71 ERA in 25 games, 22 starts, 98 hits allowed in 114 innings, 59 walks, and 85 strikeouts.

The Braves believe Smith has the ability to really take a step forward next year, which really could be his year. He had a bit of a shoulder issue last season, so if Smith proves he's healthy and pitches well again in Triple-A Richmond, Smith is going to be an option.

Buddy Hernandez

Poor ole' Buddy. What more does he have to do to show he deserves a shot? Well, he's a free agent again, so the Braves will have to sign him to bring him back.

Hernandez came back after miss most of the last two seasons and did well. The 5'9" right-hander was 9-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 47 games, 76 hits allowed in 74.2 innings, 18 walks, and 71 strikeouts.

He doesn't have any real tools that make a scout take notice, except for the fact that he gets people out. If the Braves bring him back, they really need to see what he could do in another big league camp. If not, the team probably needs to go in another direction and allow Hernandez to move on.

Ryan Basner

Currently pitching in Venezuela, Basner is trying to prove to scouts that he deserves to be in this conversation. The right-hander had a decent season between Mississippi and Richmond: 4-5, 3.74 ERA, 94 hits in 91.1 innings, 38 earned runs, 30 walks, and 79 walks.

Basner has gotten some looks in big league camp the last two years, so there's a chance he'll get another audition next spring. Expect him to begin next season in Richmond, but if he's doing well Basner could be a candidate next season in Atlanta.

Phil Stockman

This is a pitcher that should still be on the radar for the Atlanta Braves. Phil Stockman had a few setbacks in his recovery from a peculiar leg injury, so he pitched in only 24 games total this past season.

Stockman pitched three games in the Gulf Coast League, 12 games in Double-A, and nine games in Triple-A. He was 2-0 with an ERA of 2.00, 20 hits allowed in 36 innings, eight earned runs, 14 walks, and 41 strikeouts.

The Braves believe Stockman's health issues are now over, so the hope is he can go to spring training and compete for a job in the bullpen. He was a favorite of Manager Bobby Cox before he got hurt, so another solid showing next March might get him right in the spotlight again.

Jose Ascanio

Speaking of pitchers that caught Cox's attention in 2007, Ascanio is at the top of the list. The Braves had to bring him up to the majors a couple of different times, and the hard-throwing right-hander did very, very well.

Ascanio pitched 13 games for Atlanta and was 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA, 17 hits allowed in 16 innings, nine earned runs, six walks, and 13 strikeouts. But aside from the numbers, Ascanio showed Cox some outstanding stuff.

The Braves believe Ascanio still has some work to do, so he'll probably go back to either AA Mississippi or even up to Triple-A Richmond to start next season. But the Braves are not going to be afraid to bring him up if needed next season.

Ascanio is a hard-thrower (mid 90s consistently) who has good control (18 walks in 78 minor league innings this season). So he's another name to keep in mind for 2008.

Francisley Bueno

With Dan Smith and Royce Ring the only lefty relievers not named Mike Gonzalez, Francisley Bueno also has to be in this discussion. The Cuban defector stayed healthy for most of the season and put up some solid numbers.

Bueno was 4-6 in AA Mississippi in 22 games (19 starts). The lefty posted a 3.67 ERA, with 26 walks and 77 strikeouts in 112.2 innings. Then when Bueno was sent to AAA Richmond late in the season, he did even better. Bueno was 1-0 in three starts with a 2.79 ERA, 19 hits in 19.1 innings, with three walks and 19 strikeouts.

The Braves were thrilled that the longer the season went, the better Bueno got. And he also passed the test of pitching in the higher classification with three good starts in Richmond.

The soon-to-be 27-year-old lefty will probably be invited to big league camp as a non-roster pitcher next spring and be given a look-see. Even though he's started in his two professional seasons, Bueno is thought of as more of a situational lefty if he makes the major leagues. And with the Braves having only a couple of guys as options until Gonzalez returns, Bueno is now an option.

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 and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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