Guest Writer: Andy Simms of
Can the Braves pen rebound from a less-than-stellar 2018?
In this installment of the positional review we take a look at the most maligned unit from last season’s N.L East Championship team: the Bullpen. While manager Brian Snitker has often come under fire for his usage of the bullpen over the past two seasons, an objective observer would suggest that the options for him to call upon in the 2018 campaign were not playoff caliber. Can they rebound from the disaster that was last season? It may come down to a pitcher who was acquired at the deadline but never pitched an inning for the Braves…
Projecting the Pen
It has been said that the 2019 version of the bullpen might actually be better simply through subtraction. Departing the ranks of the relievers after the 2018 season are Peter Moylan (39 G 0-1 4.45 ERA, 1.76 WHIP), Michael Socolovich (4 G 0-1 10.80 ERA 2.00 WHIP), Jose Ramirez (7 G 0-2 17.05 ERA 2.68 WHIP), and, unfortunately, Brad Brach and his 1.52 ERA in 27 games in a Braves uniform. It is also expected that fan favorite punching bag Luke Jackson (1-2 4.43 ERA 1.52 WHIP in 35 G), who was often not as bad as advertised but still managed to blow up in spectacular fashion, will not begin the season in the bullpen. The fact that these players are not expected to pitch any innings in Atlanta in 2019 automatically gives fans hope that the pen will be improved this season. So who WILL be hanging out in the RF corner of Sun Trust Park when the season kicks off?
Aroydis Vizcaino – 2-2 2.11 ERA 1.17 WHIP 16 SV, 2 BS 40K 15BB in 39 G
Vizcaino was not living his best life last season, but between injuries and DL stints he managed to have a decent campaign in 2018. He will be expected to come out and establish himself early as the primary closing option barring a last minute acquisition of Craig Kimbrel.
A.J. Minter – 4-3 3.23 ERA 1.29 WHIP 15 SV 2 BS 69K 22BB in 65 G
The rookie came out and announced his presence with authority in classic Nuke Laloosh style. Minter started off rather wild but managed to post respectable numbers for his first full season in the major leagues. He tied Dan Winkler for most strikeouts of any Braves reliever and had one fewer save than Vizcaino. He pitched more innings last season than he had in his entire career in the minors, so it will be interesting how his body has recovered from the increased workload. He will be expected to step in for Vizcaino for save opportunities to avoid back to back chances on the older and oft-injured closer.
Darren O’Day – 0-2 3.60 ERA 1.10 WHIP 2 SV 27K 4BB in 20 G
O’Day was having a typical season for the Orioles last year before his hamstring started acting up. It started as a strain but escalated while fielding a ground ball in a game against the Mariners. O’Day’s hamstring detached from the bone with a pop and, after electing surgery to repair it, his season was done. Already a target of the Braves front office prior to the injury, O’Day was included in the deal that brought Kevin Gausman to Atlanta. He spent the final two months rehabbing his hamstring and spending home games working out with his new teammates. He is described as an extremely likable guy who fills a leadership void in the pen, and when healthy he is a very capable setup man. He might be the best addition Anthopoulos makes this offseason for the pen.
Chad Sobotka – 1-0 1.88 ERA 0.98 WHIP 21K 9BB in 14 G
Prior to the 2018 season, Chad Sobotka was a guy with an electric arm and control problems. He was wild both in and out of the strike zone, carrying a 3.00 WHIP in 2016 and a 1.63 WHIP in 2017 plus allowing a 2.81 BA against in 2017. Something seems to have clicked last season, however. He posted a 2.03 ERA, .154 BA against and a 1.02 across 3 levels in the minors and carried that success to Atlanta, actually lowering his numbers in all 3 categories. If he can provide similar results over a full season in the big leagues he will be a tremendous asset for the Braves in 2019.
Jesse Biddle – 6-1 3.11 ERA 1.27 WHIP 67K 31BB in 60G 3 blown saves
Jesse Biddle had a great 1st half. So good, in fact, that there was talk about him being used as a closer. After the All Star Break, however, Biddle started to show some signs of wear. He led the team in appearances in the second half with 30, but his WHIP and ERA inflated as a result. His 63.2 IP last year were a huge increase over his 49.2 the previous season in the minors, and prior to the 2017 season he did most of his work as a starter. Like Minter, it will be interesting to see how he bounces back from the work load, but I fully expect him to regain his pre-ASB form and settle in to a nice LH relief option and set up man role.
Jonny Venters – 4-1 3.54 ERA 1.23 WHIP 16K 10BB in 28G and 2 SV
Venters coming back to Atlanta was a huge story at the trade deadline, and his performance after 3 (and a half) Tommy John surgeries led to a much-deserved Comeback Player of the Year Award last season. There was not much difference in his performance between Tampa and Atlanta, but the 50 appearances in 2018 were the only ones he has had since he left the Braves after the 2012 season. At age 34 when the 2019 season starts, it’s fair to have concerns about his ability to improve on those numbers from last season, but if all he does is repeat them he will still be a solid part of the bullpen and a viable LH specialist.
Daniel Winkler – 4-0 3.43 ERA 1.19 WHIP 69K and 20BB in 69G 3 blown SV
The most gruesome injury I have ever witnessed live was the broken elbow Daniel Winkler suffered in 2016 pitching in relief against the Cardinals. It was a huge blow to a young man who had shown some promise in limited action in ’15 and ’16, but he rebounded in 2017 to show he still had the stuff to be successful, and in 2018 the Braves turned to him 69 times, the most of any reliever. The crazy-high workload for Winkler, Biddle and Minter showed up in the bullpen numbers, and assuming O’Day and Vizcaino can provide some help this year Winkler might actually return to a dominant RH option for Snitker this year.
Shane Carle – 4-1 2.86 ERA 1.22 WHIP 43K and 27BB in 53G, 1 for 2 SV
The Pirates claimed Shane Carle off waivers from Colorado prior to the 2018 season and promptly traded him to Atlanta for cash 3 days later. Carle had really not shown much in AAA for the Rockies, posting a 5.37 or higher ERA in each of his two seasons in Albuquerque and proving to be hitable while allowing a +.300 BA in 2016 and 2017. Anthopoulos had no fear putting him in the pen in Atlanta, however, and the gamble paid off. Carle was one of the Braves most consistent middle relief options, coming up big in high leverage situations and stabilizing the pen when walks got out of control. Though the track record at the big league level isn’t long, the hope is that he will continue to pitch significant innings for the Braves in 2019 and help bridge the gap from the starters to the back end of the pen.
Next man up?
Bullpen arms are particularly volatile, so even if the relief corps looks solid heading into Opening Day a GM has to have a plan for when things inevitably go south. Here is a look at some internal options the Braves have to augment what is shaping up to be a fairly competent reliever grouping:
Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard
There is a good chance that all 5 of these pitchers will spend significant time in the bullpen just so they can make spot starts during long strings of games with no days off or in case of injury. The decision on whether or not to roll back the disabled list to a 15-day DL will be key in how Anthopoulos and Snitker construct the bullpen. The 10-day version of the DL allowed the Braves to park relievers in the pen for spot work until a rotation spot opened up due to “injury,” leading to a subsequent option once the “injured” pitcher returned to the big league club. If the league reverts to a 15-day DL the Braves may consider making a long reliever a permanent spot and simply cycle through their AAA starters in that role. T
Here are the players in the organization who have experience in relief but are not listed elsewhere:
Luke Jackson, Evan Phillips, Bryce Wilson, Adam McCreery, Wes Parsons
Based on the 2018 performance of these pitchers only Luke Jackson might be a viable option in the pen, but with his lack of options and the fact that he was designated for assignment twice last season he will likely be a “break in case of emergency” candidate. There will be times when a reliever is needed for depth and one of the 5 starters listed above are not available, so I do expect some innings to be tossed to Phillips, Wilson, McCreery and Parsons. They had better maximize their exposure in those appearances, however, because the options available to the GM are numerous.
Well, that does it for the bullpen. The outlook for me is pretty positive. I believe that Vizcaino and Minter are going to be a fairly effective tandem at the back end of games, and provided O’Day is injury free he will bolster the bullpen and lessen the strain on guys like Biddle and Winkler. I won’t rule out an addition of an arm prior to opening day, but if we break camp with this unit I don’t think we are going to see the lackluster results we experienced in 2018. Next up for review is the Braves infield, a unit that could be the class of the N.L East in 2019. Go Braves!