17. How will the bullpen shake out?

Here are the other candidates for the 2009 bullpen.

Manny Acosta - It was a pretty good first full season for Acosta, who had a 3.57 ERA in 46 games. Acosta battled control trouble at times, with 26 walks in 53 innings, and his strikeout total was a little low (31). But the 27-year old showed he could get big league hitters out. Expect Acosta to have a spot in the Atlanta bullpen next season.

Jeff Bennett - The Braves were finally able to enjoy watching Jeff Bennett on the mound. The right-hander had a strong season, with a 3.12 ERA in his 68 games as a reliever, with 68 hits allowed in 80.2 innings pitched. Bennett combined with Buddy Carlyle to give the Braves two solid middle relievers, who could come in and be effective in the second inning or the seventh. That combination will be in place again in 2009.

Blaine Boyer - For the most part, Blaine Boyer had a solid season. But he was way overworked with 76 appearances, 72 of them through the month of August. Boyer had a 3.93 ERA before the All-Star Break, and an 11.17 ERA after the break. The more he got thrown into the action, the more he struggled. Boyer's ERA in his four September games was 21.60. He's still an effective reliever, as long as the Braves control his workload. He's been mentioned in some trade rumors, so we'll see if Boyer returns.

Francisley Bueno - If Bueno never pitches in the big leagues again, he'll have a heck of a story for his grandchildren. He pitched in one game in August against the Cubs. Bueno threw a pitch behind Alfonso Soriano and got thrown out and then suspended for three games. So if and when he comes back up to the big leagues, Bueno will have to serve his suspension. He'll get a chance to be the second lefty in spring training. Bueno has decent stuff, and he has the ability to help at the big league level.

Buddy Carlyle - After a pretty good 2007 season, Carlyle looked shut out for a job to start the 2008 season. But once all the injuries started rolling in it didn't take long to get Caryle on the Atlanta roster. He was simply outstanding, posting a 3.59 ERA in 45 games, with 59 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Carlyle was the epitome of a long reliever. He came in when needed when the starters didn't last, and even later in the games to help out the bullpen. Carlyle is still affordable and will return next season, with a likely job to start the year in the Atlanta pen.

Anthony Lerew - After having Tommy John surgery in 2007 Lerew returned with action in the GCL and in Triple-A. He pitched in nine games in Richmond and had a 4.14 ERA. Lerew had control trouble (20 walks in 37 innings) which can happen when coming back from that surgery. He's still on the 40-man roster and the Braves are going to bring him back for another chance next spring. But Lerew will be out of options, so he'll have something to prove in Florida. It's doubtful he'd be claimed and more likely he'll go to Gwinnett and be ready if needed. Lerew is pitching in Puerto Rico this winter.

Jeff Ridgway - It was kind of tough to see Willy Aybar be such a contributor for Tampa Bay in the postseason, but Jeff Ridgway still has a chance to make that trade look good for Atlanta. Ridgway pitched in ten games in Atlanta and had a 3.72 ERA, with one walk and eight strikeouts in 9.2 innings. Ridgway pitched in 44 games in AAA and had a 5.47 ERA. He'll get a shot to be the second lefty in the bullpen, battling Eric O'Flaherty.

Phil Stockman - The tall Australian had more injury trouble in 2008, which limited him to only 19 games in Triple-A. But his numbers were again stellar, including six scoreless appearances in the big leagues. The Braves must still believe in Stockman, since they kept him on the 40-man roster. Therefore, he'll get his chance to win a job in spring training. At some point this guy is going to need a shot to get significant action, and his past success makes you wonder if he'll be even better when that chance comes.

Luis Valdez - Last spring Valdez was pitching live BP on a minor league field. After throwing five fastballs, one of the Braves minor league pitching coaches said, "Where the hell did this guy come from?" Valdez signed as a minor league free agent from the Pirates organization and promptly saved 28 games in Double-A. Valdez allowed 48 hits in 65.1 innings, with 36 walks, and 77 strikeouts. That got him a spot on the 40-man roster. So he'll get his shot in spring training, and if he needs more time the 24-year old will go to Triple-A and be a backup option for the Braves.

Royce Ring - The lefty made the Atlanta roster out of spring training and was in the majors through July before finishing the season in Richmond. Ring had a 8.46 ERA in 42 games with Atlanta, and lefty hitters hit .264 against him. Ring's inconsistency cost him his big league job, and he would pitch 11 games in Triple-A to finish the season. Even though he's not on the 40-man roster, Ring has been re-signed and will get another shot in spring training to be the second lefty. He'll battle Bueno, Ridgway, and Eric O'Flaherty.

Eric O'Flaherty - The Braves claimed O'Flaherty off waivers from Seattle and placed him on the 40-man roster. The lefty started the 2008 season with Seattle, but his 20.25 ERA in his first seven games got him sent back to Triple-A. Then O'Flaherty struggled in Tacoma, posting a 4.96 ERA in 14 games. A back injury in June ended his season. O'Flahery was once considered a top prospect for Seattle, so the Braves are simply taking a gamble on a lefty reliever.

Kevin Gunderson - He's a wildcard for you. The five-foot-ten Gunderson had another effective season in the minor league system in 2008. In 51 games split between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi Gunderson had a 3.69 ERA, with 59 hits allowed in 59 innings, with 20 walks, and 42 strikeouts. Gunderson is a deceptive lefty who gets people out. He'll probably be in Gwinnett to start the season, and if the Braves need a lefty during the year Gunderson will definitely be an option.

Stephen Marek - Acquired from the Angels in the Mark Teixeira trade, Marek was very impressive in Mississippi in August. He had a 3.21 ERA in ten games, with 11 strikeouts in 14 innings. In the Arizona Fall League, Marek has not allowed an earned run in 12 games, with only two walks and seven strikeouts in 12 innings. The Braves believe Marek is ready to contribute in 2009, and he'll get his shot in spring training after being added to the 40-man roster.

Kris Medlen - The success story of the 2008 season in the minor leagues, Medlen has pitched well in the AFL and will get a shot to show his stuff in spring training. He's now a starter, but obviously if Medlen can get people out in Florida in March he could be an option for the big league bullpen as well. It will be interesting to see if the Braves send him back to the pen or keep him as a starter next season.

Todd Redmond - Acquired from the Pirates for Tyler Yates, Redmond was the Southern League Pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a 3.52 ERA in 28 games. Redmond allowed 164 hits in 166.1 innings, with only 33 walks, and 133 strikeouts. Redmond's stuff is ordinary, but you can't argue against the terrific numbers he posted in Mississippi. Redmond was placed on the 40-man, so he'll get his shot to make an impression in spring training. He'll likely be a starter in Gwinnett, but Redmond could get a shot in 2009.

Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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