The Braves bullpen was the best in baseball in 2013 and is poised to continue that dominance in 2014. The ‘pen sported the best ERA in the Majors last season at 2.46, and has most of their core returning this season. Let’s check out who’s back, who left and who will be fighting it out for the last two open spots available.
The Departures: Eric O’Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, Luis Ayala, Scott Downs
Eric O’Flaherty is a huge loss no matter how you look at it. In his 5 seasons with the Braves, he appeared in 295 games with a minuscule ERA of 1.99. He did miss almost the entire 2013 season, though, after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and the Braves still had an excellent bullpen. If Atlanta did it without him last year, there is no reason that they can’t do it again in 2014. None of the other guys will really be missed and should be pretty easily replaced. Martinez was a non-factor due to injuries last year after a couple of good seasons as Atlanta’s long man. Ayala was a decent pickup mid-season as an innings-eater, but the Braves have better waiting in the wings. I really thought Downs would make a big difference after the Braves traded for him last year, but he ended up being pretty ineffective after his hand injury.
The Locks: Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro
All five of these guys were excellent last year, and barring injury or total collapse, each will start the 2014 season in the Atlanta bullpen.
The Candidates: Cory Gearrin, David Hale, Ryan Butcher, Luis Vasquez, Shae Simmons, Jonny Venters
Luis Vasquez and Ryan Butcher are the leaders for the two open bullpen spots at this point. Vasquez is a sidearm fire-baller that was signed by the Braves as a minor league free agent while tearing up the Dominican Winter League. Luis only allowed 5 hits in his 17.1 innings in the DWL while striking out 19 and only walking 3. The biggest knock on him has been his poor control (he walked 28 in 35.2 minor league innings last year), but as you can see, he improved that in his fall league stats. It remains to be seen if he has turned the corner in that aspect, but Vasquez is 27 and is a converted infielder, so his age is a little higher than normal. He did strain a muscle in the DWL playoffs last month, but was recently cleared and is good to go.
If you want to talk strikeouts we can talk about Mr. Strikeout, Ryan Butcher. Butcher pitched in Gwinnett last season and struck-out an amazing 103 batters in only 62 innings. Unfortunately, he also walked 51 in the same time frame. Since Butcher is a lefty, that gives him a bit of an advantage as well, given that the only lefty in the ‘pen to start the season will be Luis Avilan. Butcher also pitched in the Mexican League this fall and continued striking guys out at an incredible rate with 26 strikeouts in 13 innings. While Butcher is outstanding at getting lefties out, he is not a LOOGY by trade, and he also retires right-handers at a pretty good clip.
Jonny Venters would most likely be a lock for the ‘pen coming out of Spring Training, but no one is really sure when he will be available coming off his second Tommy John surgery last season. You hope for the best (May, by all reports), but you just don’t know when Venters will be ready to face major league bats or just how good he will be. If he is anything like he was before his injury, the Braves are in for a great treat. Given Venters past success at the major league level, when he gets healthy, or if he gets healthy, he will get a shot.
Cory Gearrin does have an advantage that none of the other bullpen candidates have in that he is out of minor league options. Basically, that means if the Braves want to keep him he will have to be on the 25-man roster. Gearrin was a pleasant surprise out of the pen at the beginning of the 2013 season, but his velocity dropped and he started getting pounded. He is also only effective against right-handed bats (.604 OPS allowed), as the lefties just wear him out (.889 OPS allowed). I predict that the Braves don’t give a spot to Cory and he will be signed by someone else.
David Hale was very valuable last season as a spot starter down the stretch for the Braves, and I think he could probably be a valuable long man out of the pen, but I think the Braves value his ability as a starter too much. I think Hale will start the season in the Gwinnett rotation and give the Braves some good rotation depth should they need it, but he is also a legitimate option in the bullpen if the rest of the rotation stays upright.
Shae Simmons is more of a long shot, but was so good last season and in the AFL this past off-season to earn him at least a good look. Simmons split time between single-A and double-A last season and was outstanding. Shae struck out 82 batters in his 53.1 innings between the two stops, and he compiled a 1.69 ERA by holding hitters to a .163 batting average against. He continued his quality season in the Arizona Fall League by only allowing a single run and striking out 13 in his 10 innings and was the Braves representative in the AFL All-Star game. I think Simmons will most likely be placed back in the minors, but he is someone to keep an eye on moving forward.
Right now, it appears that Vasquez and Butcher have the best shot at the final two spots in the pen, but anything can happen in Spring Training. It honestly doesn’t matter who wins the bullpen spots, because whoever it is will be strong options for the last two bullpen spots and should help the Braves have another extremely effective bullpen in 2o14.
Stay tuned for the final installment of our series on Thursday, when we dive in to the battle for the 5th starter position.