Braves bullpen banking on internal growth

The Braves are returning familiar faces in the bullpen, hoping continuity leads to more success.

Out are most of the placeholders of recent years, such as closer Jim Johnson, who was traded to the Angels. The bullpen will be filled with players trying to establish their roles on the next contending Braves team.

Braves relievers combined for the fifth-highest ERA in baseball a year ago (4.58). Collectively the unit was worth 1.1 WAR, fourth-worst in the bigs.

While the bullpen showed progress down the stretch, the Braves were interested in adding external help. The market didn’t help that cause, with the most notable addition being Chase Whitley from the Rays. Whitley is a capable starter and reliever.

The Braves will attend Tim Lincecum’s workout Thursday, and if they pursue him, it likely would be as a reliever rather than starter (at least initially).

But they have a surplus in-house to fill an eight-man bullpen.

Arodys Vizcaino took over Johnson’s closer duties to success. He saved 14 games last season and produced 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

He isn’t a lock to finish games because of A.J. Minter. Minter was excellent in his debut season after his Aug. 23 call-up, not issuing a walk in his first 13 games and showcasing the true swing-and-miss stuff that makes a dominant closer.

While the Braves haven’t commented on the matter, they likely will give Minter a chance to earn the closer role. If Vizcaino is supplanted, he’s said in the past he’s willing to pitch in any situation.

“Obviously, I’d love to continue with this opportunity to be the closer, but those decisions aren’t up to me,” Vizcaino said in August. “To be honest, I’ll pitch where they need me, whatever inning they need me. I can go out there and I’ll do it.”

Vizcaino could also hold value on the trade market with his experience and contract. Teams have called on him before, and if a team needs to quickly improve its back end or suffers an injury, perhaps that’s considered. 

That could be in play in spring or summer. Vizcaino has one more year of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency.

Sam Freeman excelled at standing runners and became an unsung hero out of the pen. Barring a surprise, he’s lock No. 3 on the unit. At one point, the 30-year-old allowed one run in 20 appearances late in the year. Freeman credited his breakout year to Dom Chidi.

Since he was selected in the Rule 5 draft, Dan Winkler has battled elbow injuries. After pitching in five games combined over 2015-16, Winkler made 16 appearances a year ago, posting a 2.51 ERA. He’ll be another solid candidate, assuming he has a healthy spring.

Jose Ramirez has pitched 94 2/3 innings for the Braves across the past two seasons. He posted a 3.19 ERA over 68 games in 2017, and remains a familiar face to plug in the middle innings. But Ramirez did see his home runs per nine innings rate more than double (0.6 to 1.3) in a season.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos added two ex-Dodgers to the bullpen in Grant Dayton and Josh Ravin. He knows them well from his past two seasons in the Los Angeles front office.

“It’s just normal human nature,” Anthopoulos said. “You know, having familiar faces is always nice. That’s selfish, that’s a comfort level. It doesn’t impact winning or losing. Yeah of course, we’ve got a connection there.”

Ravin was up-and-down for L.A. He’s logged 33 innings in the past three seasons, but posted a 6.48 ERA in 16 2/3 innings last season. Ravin is out of minor league options.

Dayton, 29, once was considered a key cog in the Dodgers’ bullpen as a left-handed groundball specialist. But he’s expected to miss most of if not all the 2018 season following Tommy John surgery in late August, so his addition is a future play.

The Braves brought back Rex Brothers, who will compete against Ravin as a specialist against left-handed batters. Brothers limited lefties to a .216 average, while Ravin held them to .065.

The team also will have to balance right-handers and left-handers. It already would have two lefties in Minter and Freeman.

Akeel Morris, Jacob Lindgren, Adam McCreery, Anyelo Gomez, Jesse Biddle, Mauricio Cabrera, Shane Carle, Jason Hursh and Ricardo Sanchez are all on the 40-man roster, meaning you could see each in 2018. None are expected to make the initial cut.

Gomez, however, was a Rule 5 pick who must be offered back to the Yankees if he isn’t on the 25-man roster.

In long relief, there’s Whitley, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and whoever loses the starter competitions. Fans have probably punted on Wisler and Blair, and neither gave much reason for optimism in 2017, but the team should and will give them another look.

Scott Kazmir is a complete unknown heading into spring training. He was included in the Matt Kemp trade to make the finances work, so anything he gives the Braves on the field would be a bonus.

Max Fried debuted from the bullpen, but the team sees him as a starter long-term. It may be better served to let him develop as such in Triple-A Gwinnett than using him as a reliever. Injuries will happen, and Fried would be up soon enough.

Lucas Sims was moved to the bullpen a year ago, but finished strong as a starter. Some see Sims as an eventual reliever, so perhaps the Braves decide to use him in long-relief from the get-go. But he’ll be given a chance to win a rotation spot first.

If one considers Vizcaino, Minter, Freeman and Ramirez secure, the Braves have extensive options for the other four spots. And it’s entirely possible the unit completely consists of pitchers who were on the 2017 team.


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