The bullpen was the Braves area of strength last season, and have a returning cast of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Christian Martinez, and Craig Kimbrel. This off-season saw them add a couple of players who have had cups of coffee with the big club (Cory Gearrin and Louis Avilan), and former Angel Jordan Walden came over in the Tommy Hanson trade (not to say Walden isn’t an angel now, just not a LAA Angel). You already know what O’Ventebel can do, which is reminiscent of the old Red’s trio of the “Nasty Boys”, but what should we expect from the new guys?
With pitchers and catchers reporting on Monday, and with my concerns for the starting rotation of the Braves already written (they can be found here), the only area left to analyze is the bullpen.
Cory Gearrin posted good numbers coming up through the minors, and posted an unbelievable 1.80 ERA in AAA Gwinnett in 2011 before making a stop with the Braves for a bit where he got shelled. He started 2012 back with the AAA squad where he continued to pitch well, posting a 2.30 ERA, and being named to the International League’s All-Star team before getting called up to Atlanta again. This time he was lights out. He posted a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings across 22 games, averaged a 9.0 K/9 rating, and had a very low 1.10 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). The righty slings it side-armed a la Peter Moylan, hits around 90 on the gun, and his ball dips and runs like a Tim Hudson sinker. Name of the game with this guy is ground balls. He gets them, and gets them in bunches. He’s deadly on right handed hitters, and while no one is expecting him to post a sub-two ERA this season (he’s projected around 3.50 ERA), his usefulness against righties will go well with the abundance of lefties the Braves possess coming out of the bullpen.
Luis Avilan is one of the lefties coming out of the ‘pen. The 23 year old Venezuelan pitched with the Braves for 31 games last year, and did quite well. He posted a 2.00 ERA with 33 strike outs in 36 innings, and held left handed batters to a batting average below .200. His numbers coming up were never quite as good as he showed with the Braves last year, but his BABIP (batting average of balls hit in play) was similar to his minor league career numbers, so hopefully the increase in movement and improved pitch location will keep translating to outs in the majors. Either way, he gives Freddi Gonzalez another lefty to use in situational matchups, allowing him to use O’Flaherty and Venters in more typical setup roles.
In case there are a bunch of righties due up in the seventh or eighth, the Braves come equipped with a brand new righty, courtesy of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Jordan Walden spent the 2011 season as the Angels’ closer, before stumbling (as most of the Angels did) through the first month of season, and ultimately losing the job. The reasons were said to be because of control problems, but given the decrease in walks per nine as the season went along, as well as contact rates and pitches outside of the zone, all good signs that he figured it back out by the end of the year. He throws hard, averaging 96.3 on his fastball (compared to Kimbrel who averaged 96.8) and topping off in the hundreds. While he had reverse splits last season (righties hit him better than lefties), his career shows he is just as tough on either, so Freddi won’t have to pull him when the opposition pinch hits a lefty. This could possibly be the most underrated deal the Braves made this offseason, and one that sures up their bullpen as the best in baseball.
If the rotation can get them into the sixth with a chance, with the improved line-up, and this bullpen, it could be a fun season to be a Braves fan.