2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Bullpen

The Braves spent the winter buying arms at a faster pace than a small country with a chip on its shoulder. As a result, a young rotation will be backed by a largely veteran bullpen. A year ago, Atlanta’s 3.31 ERA was sixth best among NL relief corps, while its 54 saves ranked second to only the Cardinals’ 55 in all of baseball.

Bullpen turnover is just part of the game and this off-season has been no different. The Braves are hoping their winter of wholesale changes will revitalize the organization. Prospects aplenty have restocked the farm system, but the influx of relievers was steeped in experience. That could come in handy on a team that will place a premium on each and every run scored.

 

The Closer

Craig Kimbrel is just 26 years old, but over the past four seasons has established himself as the best closer in baseball. His success is unprecedented. Kimbrel is the only pitcher in history to lead the league in saves in each of his first four seasons, and also the only man to open his career with four consecutive 40+ save campaigns. In fact, only three pitchers have ever compiled four straight 40-save seasons.

Fun fact: Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera combined to lead their respective league in saves just five times, an amazing statistic considering the duo combined for 1,253 regular season saves.

Kimbrel has posted a microscopic 1.43 ERA while amassing 186 saves in 205 chances. That 90.7 percent success rate is the third best in baseball history. His 14.8 K/9 and 4.41 K/BB ratios are likewise among the best any reliever has ever compiled. Suffice it to say, Kimbrel possesses every indicator you need to establish his credentials as the best closer in the game. He’s done it all thanks to electric stuff. A fastball in the high 90s lights up radar guns, while Kimbrel’s sharp, breaking curveball causes considerable distress for opposing hitters.

Even though there has been an inordinate amount of change to the Atlanta roster this winter, Kimbrel remains focused on the task at hand. His job is to finish games, and that’s exactly what he’s planning to do. With old teammates gone and a new supporting cast in place, Kimbrel said he’s ready for the challenges of 2015.

“Obviously our expectations are still going to be high. They’re high every year. We don’t play this game to come in second. We play this game to come in first. That’s going to be our expectations and our goal, and it’s going to be fun to get to know the guys we’re going to do it with.”

The theory that Kimbrel won’t be able to reach the 40 save plateau if Atlanta’s win total falls into the low-to-mid-70s is not well-founded. Consider that he saved 47 on a 79 win team in 2014. If the pitching staff does its job, the Braves figure to be in a lot of close games. While having an elite closer does not make much sense for a team that is out of contention, one must also factor in that Atlanta does not plan to set up permanent residence at the bottom of the National League East standings.

With the busy winter now all but wrapped up, the Braves don’t come into the spring with many familiar faces. Kimbrel is one of the few young, marketable stars that the franchise could build around as they seek to produce a winning product sooner than later. On the other side of the coin, he also represents a luxury that a rebuilding team may choose to forgo.

Could be dealt away? Sure. The speculation will likely increase as the July trade deadline approaches. The return would obviously be the determining factor. Kimbrel is in the second season of a four-year, $42 million extension which includes a $13 million option for 2018. That means “Welcome to the Jungle” could still be playing over the PA system in the top of the ninth inning when the Braves move into SunTrust park two years from now.

 

The Righties

Jason Grilli is an experienced late inning arm who seemed to get things back on track with the Angels after some injury woes and early season struggles with the Pirates. The 12-year veteran signed a two-year, $8 million contract with a club option for 2017 in January. Since sticking with Pittsburgh in 2011, Grilli averaged 11.9 K/9 with a 3.09 ERA (2.83 FIP) over 195.1 IP in that four year span.

Grilli, 38, assumed the ninth inning duties for the Pirates in 2013 and held the role into the early stages of last season before he was sidelined with an oblique injury in late April. He returned after missing over a month, but was ineffective and lost the closer’s role to Mark Melancon in late May. Grilli was eventually dealt to the Angels in exchange for another deposed closer, Ernesto Frieri, in June.

He’ll be serving as the primary set-up man for Kimbrel. It’s a role that Grilli said he is eager to fill, given that it allows him to be part of a potentially dynamic group of late inning arms again.

“It’s definitely exciting. I got to be part of one of the best bullpens in the league with Pittsburgh and I hope that we can make the same thing happen here. Pitching is always key, and we saw that this past World Series with the Giants and especially the Royals. I think teams are kind of building around and for that, so to come in and formulate that with the young talent and guys who have experience and the veterans here, backed by a guy like Kimbrel, man, it’s going to be awesome.”

While Grilli signed a multi-year deal with the Braves, he could become a valuable trade piece if he pitches well and the club is out of the playoff picture this summer. That’s when the beauty of Atlanta’s plan to grab a seemingly endless supply of veteran arms may actually bear fruit. It may be less about what they do in a Braves uniform and more about the prospects they could fetch from a contender on the trade market. That’s worth noting for several of the men on this list. For the immediate future, however, it’s all about getting outs.

Jim Johnson, 31, is the other veteran addition who brings plenty of late inning experience. An All-Star fireman with the Orioles, Johnson used his power-sinker to turn in consecutive 50-save seasons in 2012 and 2013. He fell on hard times after being traded to Oakland in what amounted to a salary dump by Baltimore last winter. Johnson was shelled early and often with the A’s and lost his closer’s job almost immediately.

Johnson was peddled to Detroit later in the summer and finished 2014 with just two saves, a 7.09 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP in 53.1 IP. This is a reclamation project for pitching coach Roger McDowell if ever there was one. Johnson signed a one-year, $1.6 million deal with Atlanta. The team is hoping he can become an effective part of the bridge to get the ball to Kimbrel with a lead.

Perhaps it was a confidence issue that compounded Johnson’s woes, but his command was lacking and his sinker was not as effective. His walk rate sky-rocketed from 2.3 BB/9 in 2013 to 5.9 BB/9 last season between Oakland and Detroit. When coupled with a three-year rise in opponents batting average — from .220 BAA in 2012, up to .272 BAA in 2013, before topping out at .318 BAA in 2014 — the amount of base runners was simply untenable.

The key to his turnaround will be generating lots of ground balls. Every team needs a reliever who fits that description. Johnson has a 2.37 career GB/FB (ground ball to fly ball ratio). Never a big strike out pitcher, he will need to get that sinker working again in order to elicit bad contact from hitters. Combine that with solid defense from the infield and Johnson could be successful again.

Jose Veras, 34, is a well-traveled righty who signed a minor league deal with a spring training invitation earlier this month. It’s somewhat surprising that the Astros did not opt to keep him around. Veras enjoyed a good run as their closer in 2013 before being traded to the Tigers. His brief time with the Cubs was an unmitigated disaster, but Veras found his form upon returning to Houston in the final months of 2014.

Atlanta is Veras’ 11th organization. He mixes a low 90s fastball with a split-finger and a curveball. Veras owns a 3.91 ERA in 440 career relief appearances, but if he can replicate the success from his Astros days — 2.97 ERA and 1.11 WHIP with 9.6 K/9 in 75.2 IP — then he should be a welcome addition in the middle frames.

Arodys Vizcaino, 24, begins his second stint with the Braves, but he may have a better opportunity to stick this time around. Like so many of Atlanta’s off-season additions, he battled arm troubles and has undergone “Tommy John” surgery. Vizcaino’s rehab was well-documented in Braves circles, since he was already on the disabled list when the team dealt him to Chicago as part of the Paul Maholm/Reed Johnson trade in 2012. It took him two full seasons to get back into game action, but Vizcaino’s velocity returned to its pre-surgery levels as he rehabbed in the Cubs system last year. He even made it back to Chicago for a five-game cameo in September.

Vizcaino posted a 3.51 ERA with 9.2 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9 in 41 minor league innings in 2014. He was hitting 97 mph on the gun to go with a slider and occasional change. Still relatively young, the Braves feel like a healthy Vizcaino can slot into the middle inning mix and perhaps grow into something more. His days as a starter are likely behind him, but Vizcaino has a bright future in relief.

Michael Kohn, 28, may not be a well-known commodity, but he brings yet another power arm for Atlanta to trot out of the pen. It’s this kind of low-key signing that just might pay off in a big way as the Braves construct a bullpen of largely new faces. Kohn comes from the Angels, where he pitched parts of four big league seasons and spent time with Grilli to close out 2014.

He has a fastball in the mid-90s which has helped him post a 3.67 ERA and  8.7 K/9 in 110.1 IP with Los Angeles.  However, that strikeout rate comes with a walk rate of 6.0 BB/9, so command will be an obvious point of emphasis for Kohn as he works with McDowell this spring and beyond. Kohn is another veteran of “Tommy John” surgery (2012), but came back to regain his velocity and make 88 appearances for the Angels over the past two years.

Kohn walked 20 batters in 23.2 IP last season, including 10 in his final 5.1 IP before being demoted. He made a couple of stops this winter after being designated for assignment by the Angels. Kohn initially signed with the Rays but refused assignment upon being outrighted to Triple-A in November. His path eventually led him to sign a minor league deal with Atlanta in December. It included an invitation to spring training, where he figures to battle for a middle relief role.

 

The Lefties

Atlanta never found a reliable lefty to use in match-up situations last season. Though several men tried to fill the role, it was a sore spot in an otherwise effective bullpen. The Braves need a pitcher who can neutralize lefty bats, and they may have found one in time for 2015.

Josh Outman, 30, bounced around a little over the last two seasons, but the one-time starter has transitioned into a situational lefty. Yes, Outman is yet another in an increasingly long line of pitchers to have his career impacted by “Tommy John” surgery. He underwent the procedure in 2009 and lost the entire 2010 season as well.

Originally a Phillies farmhand, Outman has been traded four times in his 10-year career. He moved to the bullpen with the Rockies in 2012 and has proven effective against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .186/.254/.283 career slash line in 413 PA. Outman’s extreme platoon splits have dictated his use, given the fact that righty hitters have a .303/.378/.473 line against him in 778 PA.

Despite those numbers, Outman has said he’d like to be more than just a LOOGY for Atlanta:

“For me, I’ve kind of fallen into a niche role the last couple of seasons. Hopefully I can prove I can do more and be a larger role in the bullpen than just getting left-handers out. I think that I’m capable of that, but also with a bullpen and pitching staff that has a history of being dominant, I’d like to be able to grow myself and maybe figure out how to reach my full potential. [I’d like to] do that here and help win.”

Outman has a tremendous name for a relief pitcher. Additionally, he sports the traditional stirrup socks, making him an increasingly rare breed. Outman figures to wear his trademark uniform No. 88, which he donned in 2011 in order to let Hideki Matsui have No. 55 with the Athletics.

James Russell, 29, was picked up from Chicago via trade last season. The son of former Rangers and Red Sox closer Jeff Russell, he’s 10-16 with a 3.74 ERA in 338 career appearances (six starts) over five seasons. After being home run prone during his first two seasons, Russell turned himself into a solid one inning reliever. He put together a solid 2014 between the Cubs and Braves, posting a 2.97 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 66 appearances.

The knock on Russell was his reverse platoon split. He limited RHH to a minuscule .165/.239/.182 slash line, while LHH had a more comfortable .284/.351/.455 line with all three of the home runs he surrendered.

Russell’s career splits do not follow last year’s trends, but he needs to get things turned around to better serve the Braves out of the pen this season. He was given a spot start at the end of 2014, but any plans to stretch him out this spring went out the window with so many fifth starter candidates in camp.

Luis Avilan, 25, took a big step back from a sparkling 2013 campaign. His walk rate shot up nearly 50 percent in 2014 (from 3.0 BB/9 in 2013 to 4.4 BB/9). At the same time, he was getting hit at much higher rate (up from 5.5 H/9 in 2013 to 9.8 H/9). Apply those numbers to his season line and you get a pitcher who went from a 1.52 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 75 appearances in 2013, to one who turned in a 4.57 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 62 games last season.

Avilan found himself back in Triple-A in mid-July, but a lack of left-handed depth contributed to his eventual return. That and the fact it would be hard to believe that the Braves would completely give up on him so quickly.

Given his struggles, there is no guarantee Avilan will make the 25-man roster out of spring training. He’ll need to make the most of his Grapefruit League innings and demonstrate the ability to get outs on a regular basis in order to head north with the big league club in April.

The Others

A slew of other arms are in camp, hoping to impress the Braves brass. Most are likely end up finding work out of the Gwinnett bullpen. Atlanta signed Matt Capps, 31, earlier this month. The former All-Star closer has been limited to just 10 minor league appearances in the Indians organization the last two seasons. Capps has dealt with shoulder problems and has not appeared in the majors since 2012 with the Twins. Reports about his velocity this winter varied between 80-92 mph according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com. That’s extremely odd,  and it should be fascinating to see what end of the spectrum he clocks in at during the spring. Capps has a 3.52 ERA and 138 career saves in 444 appearances.

Donnie Veal, 30, is another lefty candidate for Atlanta. A non-roster invitee who spent the last four years with the White Sox organization, Veal is just 3-3 with a 4.87 ERA in 100 career appearances. He’s struck out 70 while walking 47 in 64.2 IP, holding LHH to a paltry .205/.321/.311 line in 156 PA. The walks are obviously his problem area, but Veal provides an option at Triple-A if nothing else. Having an extra LOOGY never hurt anybody.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant onTwitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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