In the past couple of days, we have examined the outfield, infield, and starting pitching units for the 2014 Atlanta Braves, and with that, there is one group left to focus on before Monday’s season opener. In 2013, the Braves bullpen was exceptional, but with guys like Eric O’Flaherty (in Oakland) and Scott Downs (in Chicago) gone from last year’s bullpen and Cory Gearrin having injury concerns, there is a “wide open” aspect to the group after the end-of-game options.
Without further ado, let’s get to the players.
Closer – Craig Kimbrel
This may be the easiest passage to write for any member of our staff this Spring. 25-year-old Craig Kimbrel just concluded the most dominant 3-year run by a reliever in the history of baseball. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at his numbers from each season.
- 2011 – 77 innings, 2.10 ERA, 14.84 K/9, 46 saves, 3.1 fWAR
- 2012 – 62.2 innings, 1.01 ERA (!!!!), 16.66 K/9 (!!!!), 42 saves, 3.3 fWAR
- 2013 – 67 innings, 1.21 ERA, 13.16 K/9, 50 saves, 2.2 fWAR
In short, Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball right now, and aside from the built-in concerns about relief pitchers and their short shelf-life in general, there is nothing in the way of worry for the right-handed flamethrower.
High-leverage options – Jordan Walden & David Carpenter
While everyone remembers one member of this group for an unfortunate home run he allowed in April, both guys were extremely effective in 2013. Walden battled injuries throughout the season that only allowed him to throw 47 innings, but he struck out batters at a very nice clip (10.34 K/9) and his peripherals suggest that his 3.45 ERA was a bit unlucky. In the case of Carpenter, it’s easy to forget just how lights-out he was (1.78 ERA, 10.14 K/9), but that would be a flat-out mistake.
Walden has a longer record and a more established pedigree, but both guys can be considered relatively “safe” in the 7th/8th inning, and that is an encouraging sign. It would certainly be beneficial if one of them was left-handed, but beggars can’t be choosers, and both guys should be effective in their roles for this season’s edition of the Atlanta Braves.
The Lefties – Luis Avilan & Ian Thomas
Avilan was the lone left-hander with a “guaranteed” roster spot, but he isn’t void of question marks. Yes, the 24-year-old had a sparkling 1.52 ERA over 65 innings (75 appearances) last season, but with a FIP of 3.28 and an xFIP of 4.02, it is a relatively safe projection to think that the ERA will regress. Avilan’s main issue that the metrics don’t like is his lack of strikeouts, and it is almost rare to see a bullpen guy turn in an effective campaign while striking out 5.26 batters per 9 innings. His minor league stats indicate that is a bit of an aberration, though, and Avilan is a solid option considering the circumstances.
Thomas was battling it out for a bullpen spot from the start of Spring Training, and he emerged as the winner, mostly because of the failings of others. The 26-year-old appeared in 11 games (10.1 innings) and allowed only 3 runs (2.61 ERA) while striking out 13 batters this spring. Combine that with quality numbers in the minor leagues (ERA around 3.00, strikeout rate over 10.00 K/9), and the Braves could have a sleeping giant on the left-handed side of the bullpen.
The Wild Card – Jonny Venters
Venters will start the season on the disabled list, but he is the single biggest Wild Card to the proceedings. The left-hander won’t return to the Major League bullpen until at least June (per various estimates), but Venters is just three seasons removed from being arguably the best set-up man in baseball, and he was actually quite effective in 2012 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery.
No one is expecting that the “old” Venters (ERA’s of 1.95 and 1.84 in 2010 and 2011) is going to reappear, but if he can rediscover the power pitching that made him dominant, the Braves could have an impressive late-inning option from the left side that doesn’t currently exist.
The Long Man – Gus Schlosser
It’s important to note that 25-year-old right-hander Gus Schlosser could have been in the rotation to open the season, but with David Hale having a longer track record, it has been reported that Schlosser will serve as the long man. Despite his relatively advanced age, Schlosser has never pitched above double-A, and while he was quite good there in 2013 (2.39 ERA in 135.1 innings), the upside is relatively low for him given his lack of strikeout potential. Still, Schlosser was quite effective during Spring Training (2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings), and that won him the nod.
The “Others” – Anthony Varvaro & Ryan Buchter
Not everyone in a bullpen is a long man, set-up man or a closer, and the other guys land here. 29-year-old right-hander Anthony Varvaro joined the Atlanta Braves bullpen for his first full season in 2013, and he was quite effective, posting a 2.82 ERA over 73.1 innings. Still, he isn’t terribly dominant in any aspect, has a low strikeout ceiling (career 7.02 K/9), and has peripherals that indicate that the sub-3.00 ERA is likely unsustainable. Varvaro was virtually guaranteed a bullpen spot coming into the year, and he’s gotten one, but there isn’t a ton to be excited about.
Ryan Buchter could fit into the “lefty” category, but considering he is only making the roster because of the recent injury to Cory Gearrin (who could be headed for Tommy John surgery), he lands here. Buchter is a 27-year-old left-hander who spent 2013 in Gwinnett, and he posted a 2.76 ERA and 14.95 K/9 over 62 innings there. However, his control is a major issue, as he walked 7.40 batters per 9 last season (yikes) and 6 batters in 8.2 innings this Spring with the Braves. The final spot could fluctuate wildly over the coming days, but it looks like this will be the starting configuration.
Stay tuned for the final installment of our 2014 Atlanta Braves preview series on Sunday, when we dive into our staff projections.