Braves 2016 Preview Series: Bullpen

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves bring a multitude of arms to camp this spring in hopes that the bullpen woes of 2015 will not follow them into this season. It was perhaps the most singularly frustrating aspect of last year’s 95-loss team. Among National League clubs, only the Colorado Rockies (32) and Cincinnati Reds (31) bullpens lost more games than Atlanta (29) in 2015. Consider both of those teams don’t exactly operate in pitcher-friendly parks. The Rockies’ 4.70 ERA was a mere percentage point higher than the Braves’ 4.69 ERA for worst in all of baseball, and Colorado relievers logged just over 80 innings more than Atlanta’s relief corps. The Braves also led the NL with 26 blown saves last season, just one behind the major league lead. Those are the kinds of numbers a team can expect after using 27 different relievers – including outfielder Jonny Gomes – in a single season. Needless to say, both general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart were adamant that fixing Atlanta’s bullpen problem was a top priority entering 2016.

Jason Grilli | RHP | Age: 39 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.5 million

On the road back from a torn Achilles tendon which ended his season in July, Jason Grilli is expected to be healthy this spring and will get first crack at closing games according to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Prior to his injury on July 11 in Colorado, Grilli had returned to his all-star form and provided Atlanta with a more than capable replacement for Craig Kimbrel, who was traded just before opening day. Grilli was 3-4 with a 2.94 ERA and 24 saves in 26 chances over 36 appearances.

Grilli, who turned 39 years old back in November, was pitching like a man on a mission in 2015. His 1.2 WAR in roughly half a season was on track to be among the best in the game if he’d been allowed the chance to continue his work. Before he went down, Grilli was enjoying one of his best years in a number of categories. Among MLB relievers with at least 30 IP last season, Grilli’s WAR ranked 30th, his 12.03 K/9 ranked 11th, his strikeout percentage of 32.1% ranked 14th and his 2.12 FIP was eighth best in the game. Another good trend for Grilli in 2015 was his career-high average fastball velocity of 94.0 mph.

After watching Adam Wainwright overcome his Achilles injury in roughly five months to return to the Cardinals last season, Grilli has remained upbeat and positive throughout his rehab. The 13-year veteran has even agreed to chronicle his return in a series of videos for The Players’ Tribune (recommended viewing). His leadership and enthusiasm were notably missing from the Atlanta clubhouse as the team fell on hard times in the second half. A healthy and productive Grilli should be one of the center pieces of a revamped bullpen this season.

Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $897,500

It could be said that Arodys Vizcaino took a somewhat circuitous route to major league success. Oft-traded and oft-injured, the hard-throwing right-hander also had to sit out a performance-enhancing drug suspension before ultimately seizing the closing duties by year’s end. Originally a Yankees farmhand, Vizcaino was traded to the Braves in 2009 and then to the Cubs in 2012, only to be dealt back to the Braves in 2014. He spent years among the Top 100 prospects in baseball, but injuries took the shine off Vizcaino’s stock.

A pair of arm surgeries, including Tommy John in 2012, cost Vizcaino two full seasons on the mound. The Braves reacquired him from Chicago after a good showing in the minors in 2014 and were hoping he’d make an immediate impact last season. Unfortunately, he was wild in spring training and was slapped with an 80-game suspension for PED use (Stanozolol) just before opening day. It was not the start the team nor the reliever envisioned. Despite the setback, Vizcaino emerged as one of the few bright spots in a grueling second half for Atlanta.

Despite his injury history and the PED-cloud hanging over his head, Vizcaino quickly dispelled his doubters in the second half. Among all MLB relievers with at least 30 IP last season, Vizcaino ranked 8th with an average fastball velocity of 97.0 mph – Craig Kimbrel was 6th with a 97.3 mph AFV. It wasn’t just the velocity that was impressive, but what he was able to do with both that and a dynamite slider put Vizcaino on the map as a potential closer. Vizcaino’s 1.60 ERA was ninth best among MLB relievers, his 0.27 HR/9 ranked 11th and his 85.5 LOB% was 23rd best in baseball last season (minimum 30 IP). His 9.9 K/9 over 33.2 IP is a solid number, which could actually improve with refinement. While Jason Grilli may have the first shot at save opportunities, Vizcaino is a nice handcuff for the Braves.

Jim Johnson | RHP | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.5 million

Last season was definitely a tale of two halves, or perhaps a tale of two teams for Jim Johnson. The former all-star closer signed with Atlanta last winter in hopes of rebounding from a disastrous 2014 campaign. And that is exactly what Johnson did. Following a July trade to the Dodgers, however, he did not enjoy the same kind of success. Back with Atlanta, where he revived his career, Johnson will try to put a rocky stay in Los Angeles behind him.

Johnson finished his season with a 2-6 record and 4.46 ERA in 72 appearances, but he was 2-3 with nine saves and a 2.25 ERA in 49 outings with Atlanta. He seemed to have refined the command issues that plagued him with the Athletics and Tigers in 2014, but Johnson will have to reestablish himself this season in order to prove his previous success in Atlanta was no mistake. Working with pitching coach Roger McDowell, who helped Johnson make those strides last season, should be beneficial. A hard-thrower (94.3 mph AFV in 2015) who does not rack up strikeouts at a high rate (6.8 K/9 in 2015 – 6.2 K/9 career), Johnson relies on a heavy sinker to put away hitters. That pitch was flat and very hittable in 2014, when he went from a closer who recorded 50 saves in consecutive seasons, to one that lost his role and finished with a 7.09 ERA and 5.9 BB/9. His work with McDowell helped turn his sinker back into a reliable out-pitch, something the Braves would like to see plenty of in 2016.

Shae Simmons | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Atlanta is hoping Shae Simmons can make an impact in the bullpen after losing him to Tommy John surgery last February. The young right-hander impressed the team with a solid rookie campaign in 2014, when he turned in a 2.91 ERA (3.13 FIP) in 26 appearances and drew comparisons to Craig Kimbrel. That may have been an unfair tag to throw on Simmons, but when your fastball sits in the mid-90s and is coupled with an excellent slider, these things happen. Those weapons helped him climb the ladder quickly after being selected by Atlanta in the 20th round of the 2012 out of Southeast Missouri State University.

Simmons blitzed through the minors as a dominant closer. He turned in a 1.76 ERA and 13.1 K/9 in 102 IP while saving 40 games in 88 appearances. Once in Atlanta, Simmons was immediately thrust into pressure situations and seemed to excel in the role of set-up man. He averaged 9.6 K/9 and held opponents to a .197 BAA in 21.2 IP while picking up nine holds in 2014. Simmons’ rookie year ended when he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain on July 29. That injury lingered through the rest of season, including an unsuccessful rehab assignment with Gwinnett in mid-August. The good news for Simmons and the Braves is that he has not dealt with any shoulder flare-ups during his rehab from elbow surgery. A full year removed from his Tommy John procedure, Simmons should have a chance to be ready by opening day, though Atlanta will undoubtedly take a cautious approach.

Chris Withrow | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $610,000

The Braves have taken quite a few risks on injured pitchers, all in hopes that their investment will pay off with good results. Chris Withrow is one of those arms. The hard-throwing right-hander was acquired in a six-player trade with the Dodgers last May. Though the Braves were hoping to see him on the mound in 2015, his recovery from Tommy John surgery was complicated by back surgery to repair a herniated disk. Those two things conspired to keep him out of action last season.

A first round pick (20th overall) by Los Angeles in 2007, baseball has been something of a family affair for Withrow. His father, Mike, spent three seasons pitching in the White Sox organization back in the early 80s. Just this past June, the Braves drafted his younger brother, Matt, in the sixth round (180th overall). The elder Withrow transitioned to the bullpen in 2012, utilizing a fastball that can touch 98 mph to go with a sharp slider. Averaging 5.0 BB/9, command has always been an issue for him, dating back to his minor league days. That said, he averaged 11.4 K/9 and a 2.73 ERA (3.65 FIP) in 56 IP for the Dodgers. Withrow boasted a solid 1.08 WHIP with L.A. because he is extremely hard to hit. Opponents have mustered a meager .157/.277/.267 slash line with just nine XBH in 224 PA. That is the kind of arm that could come in handy as the Braves try to get leads through the middle innings and into the late frames. If Withrow is healthy and pitches like he did for Los Angeles, then Atlanta will have yet another weapon to shorten the game.

Ian Krol | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves lacked reliable lefty relievers in 2015, just one of the numerous inadequacies which seemed to be on display on a nightly basis last summer. With limited in-house candidates, the Braves acquired southpaw Ian Krol from the Detroit Tigers in the Cameron Maybin trade. Krol has moved around quite a bit in his seven-year career. Originally drafted by the Oakland Athletics, then traded to the Nationals in 2013. He pitched briefly for Washington that season, turning in a 3.95 ERA (4.69 FIP) in 27.1 IP over 32 appearances. Krol was then dealt to the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade, and has spent parts of the last two seasons working out of the Detroit pen.

Krol crept into the A’s Top 10 prospects in 2011, but a forearm injury and a team-mandated suspension for using a homophobic slur on Twitter wiped out that season. Krol told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he had learned from his off-field mistake(s) and was committed to returning to form, but his 2012 was highly unsuccessful (2-9, 5.20 ERA) and saw him transition from the rotation to the bullpen. Since then, he has pitched well enough to see time in the majors with both the Nationals and Tigers, to the tune of a 4.91 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 in 88 IP over 110 career appearances. Krol works in the low 90s and features an inconsistent breaking ball, something Roger McDowell will certainly look to tighten up. Like many of Atlanta’s southpaw relievers the past two seasons, Krol is a reverse-split guy as well. He allowed left-hand hitters to sport a .326/.442/.442 slash line (53 PA) in 2015. Krol will have to improve his success in his primary function in order to be of value this season. If he can’t, Atlanta will continue its search for a reliable lefty reliever.

Matt Marksberry | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Speaking of left-handers getting an opportunity, Matt Marksberry will be given a chance to prove what he can do this spring. Thrust out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire as Atlanta’s bullpen woes reached critical mass in the second half, Marskberry took his lumps but seemed to be putting it together in the final three weeks of the season. While his 5.02 ERA (4.63 FIP) in 31 appearances is not awe-inspiring, Marksberry received plenty of praise for his professional demeanor and work ethic. And why not? He had a 2015 to remember.

Beginning his trek to the big leagues last season in Single-A with the Carolina Mudcats, Marksberry was a passenger on the team’s bus when it crashed in mid-May, rolling over and injuring several of his teammates. He bypassed Double-A and shot straight up to Gwinnett in late June and was called up to Atlanta in late July. Serving as the primary lefty specialist in September, Marksberry allowed just one earned run and held opponents to a .182 BAA in his final 13 appearances. It’s a small sample size, but his work on the whole against left-hand hitters last season was solid – .170/.267/.264 in 60 PA. Those are some encouraging numbers as he looks to carve a niche in the Atlanta bullpen in 2016. However, he’ll need to cut down his walks (6.2 BB/9 last season) if he wants to enjoy sustained success at the big league level.

Andrew McKirahan | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Acquired from the Marlins after being selected from the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft last winter, Andrew McKirahan seemed poised to contribute before being handed a suspension for PED-use (Ipamorelin) just two weeks into the season. Once he returned, the results weren’t exactly pretty. He enjoyed a handful of effective appearances before going on a month-long stretch (August 3 – September 3) during which he turned in a 9.49 ERA in 12.1 IP as opponents batted .390/.471/.542 in 68 PA. Overall, he finished the season with a 5.93 ERA (3.79 FIP) and 1.82 WHIP in 27.1 IP. McKirahan dealt with Tommy John surgery in 2012 then returned to post a decent season in the between High-A and Double-A in the Cubs chain two years later. That earned him a Rule 5 selection by Marlins, who ultimately placed him on waivers and opened the door for a desperate Atlanta team to claim him. Given the lack of lefty options, McKirahan will have another opportunity this spring.

Danny Burawa | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Another former Yankees farmhand – which is a running theme given several high-ranking Atlanta executives have spent time in the Bronx – Danny Burawa got a shot last season as the Braves looked high and low and everywhere in between for capable relievers. He made his big league debut in 2o15 with the Yankees, but landed on waivers after allowing four earned runs in just two thirds of an inning. He put together a strong season, mostly at Triple-A (2.64 ERA in 39 appearances) and found his way into 12 games for Atlanta, in which he posted a 3.65 ERA (3.78 FIP) in 12.1 IP. Aside from his mid-90s fastball, Burawa’s secondary pitches – a splitter and a slider – have been shaky at times. While last season represented a big step forward, he will have to continue that trend in order to remain in the mix and on the staff in 2016.

Daniel Winkler | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

While Daniel Winkler has been a starting pitcher throughout his young career, he finds himself in a unique position in 2016. When Atlanta selected him from the Colorado Rockies during the Rule 5 draft in December of 2014, Winkler was already on the mend from Tommy John surgery the previous June. Prior to his injury, he was leading the minors with a 1.41 ERA – this just one season after leading the minors with 175 strikeouts in 2013. Given that he was going to spend a significant portion of 2015 on the disabled list, the standard Rule 5 parameters (a Rule 5 draftee must spend the entire season on the major league roster) were augmented. Winkler must instead accumulate 90 days of service time, which began with a brief cameo in September, or he will have to be offered back to Colorado. Winkler made his major league debut with a pair of appearances out of the bullpen, where he is likely to stay unless or until Atlanta is able to option him back to the minors. With an unorthodox delivery that causes problems for righty and lefty hitters alike, he has enjoyed success despite less than overpowering stuff. Winkler was an interesting flyer when the Braves drafted him, but he is well down Atlanta’s list of arms given his current circumstances. Still, he is an intriguing story line to follow this spring.

Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Here we have yet another former Yankees farmhand imported this winter. Jose Ramirez was dealt from the Yankees to the Mariners in a trade deadline deal that sent Dustin Ackley to New York. Along with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can hit 98 mph, Ramirez features an excellent changeup and a slider. He was rated the Yankees No. 13 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2014, when he made his major league debut. Ramirez was on the list again last season at No. 26. The major league results aren’t anything special thus far – an 8.66 ERA in 17.2 IP with 17 BB and 15 K. An assortment of injuries, though none requiring major surgery, have conspired against him. Atlanta plucked Ramirez away from Seattle in an early December trade. While he comes with exciting potential, a track record of command issues and injuries have kept him from cashing in thus far. The Braves have gone to great lengths to bring in plenty of candidates with upside to compete for jobs in the bullpen this season. Ramirez is out of options, so he may get a longer look. If he finds a way to put it all together, Atlanta could be very happy with the results.

Evan Rutckyj | LHP | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

This left-hander represents the best of both worlds. Evan Rutckyj is not only another Rule 5 pick seeking a place in the Braves bullpen, but he was also selected from the Yankees. Given Atlanta’s propensity for taking a shot on lesser-known New York prospects and the team’s need for as many lefty options as possible, Rutckyj will get a fair shot to make the 25-man roster. He took a major step forward in his development during his second season pitching in relief. Rutckyj split 2015 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, finishing with a 2.63 ERA while posting 12.0 K/9 and 3.9 K/BB in 61.2 IP. A lanky lefty at 6-5, 213 pounds, he has a fastball that sits in the low-90s and pairs it with an improving slider. Worth monitoring with every Braves lefty in recent years is his ability to neutralize left-handed hitters. Rutckyj did a fair job in two minor league stops, limiting them to a .231/.329/.323 line in 76 PA last season. Given that he has just 11 appearances above A-ball, Rutckyj will be put the test if he is to remain in Atlanta in 2016.

Paco Rodriguez | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, Paco Rodriguez will be a non-factor this year, but could stand to be a nice arm in the future. This was not originally supposed to be one of the risk/reward arms that Atlanta has been stockpiling over the past two years. However, Rodriguez was forced to go under the knife just before the end of last season. He was a quality lefty for the Dodgers, posting a 2.53 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 85.1 IP prior to the trade and subsequent injury. Atlanta will monitor his progress and hope he can be ready for 2017.

Also of note:

RHP Mauricio Cabrera is on the 40-man and thus will get a look this spring as well. He will be profiled in the upcoming Prospect Preview on Feb 8th.

Non-Roster Invitees

The Braves have a handful of veterans and young arms also vying for spots in the bullpen, chief among them is RHP David Carpenter. Yes, that David Carpenter – Version 1.0. Carpenter, 30, was dealt to the Yankees last winter and split the 2015 season between New York and the Washington Nationals. He made just 30 appearances (4.01 ERA and 5.5 K/9 in 24.2 IP) thanks to shoulder issues that impacted his season. Carpenter was at his best with the Braves from 2013-2014, turning in 2.63 ERA with 10.0 K/9 in 126.2 IP across 121 appearances. He will have to prove himself both healthy and effective to earn a spot this spring.

RHP Alexi Ogando will try to recapture the form that made him an all-star with the Rangers in 2011. The hard-throwing righty has put together a decent career in Texas between the rotation and the bullpen – 3.44 career ERA in 471.1 IP over 247 games. Now 32 years old, Ogando is coming off a 3.99 ERA (5.32 FIP) season in 64 relief appearances for the Red Sox in 2015. Once one of the most electric arms in the game, shoulder injuries derailed his career in 2013. However, Ogando’s fastball velocity (94.4 mph AFV) last year was the highest it’s been since 2012. That said, both his walk (3.9 BB/9) and hit rates (8.1 H/9) were above career norms, while his home run rate (1.7 HR/9) was the highest it’s ever been.

LHP Alex Torres, 28, would have a better chance of making the big league club if he were more effective against same-handed hitters. Yes, Torres is yet another reverse-split southpaw. He’s allowed lefties to post a .228/.352/.299 line in 292 PA, while right hand hitters have just a .180/.285/.281 line in 368 PA over the course of four seasons in the majors. That trend was very much the case last year, as  lefty hitters batted .268/.406/.393 against him in 39 appearances. A starter throughout his minor league career, who switched the bullpen when he debuted in the majors with Tampa Bay in 20013, Torres can pick up his fair share of strikeouts – 9.2 K/9 career in 154.1 innings. Like many other candidates the Braves have in camp, he also issues his fair share of walks – 5.0 BB/9 career. The Braves would be his fourth different major league club, should he make it up at any point in 2016. He profiles as more of a one-inning reliever than a lefty specialist.

RHP Ryan Kelly is a journeyman reliever who got a shot in the Braves bullpen last season. He made his big league debut after nine seasons in the minors and was greeted somewhat rudely. Kelly, 28, turned in a 7.02 ERA in 17 appearances. His success in both Mississippi and Gwinnett – 0.77 ERA with 9.2 K/9 and just 4.8 H/9 in 47 IP to go with 23 saves in 41 appearances – earned him a call-up, but he has much to prove if he wants to make it back to Atlanta in 2016.

LHP Hunter Cervenka, 26, went to big league spring training with the Cubs last season, but found himself pitching in independent ball by mid-summer. The Braves signed him on July 7 and he proceeded to pitch well at two levels (0.00 ERA in 20.2 IP with 9 BB and 33 K in Mississippi and Gwinnett) to earn an invite to spring training this season. Cervenka has demonstrated the ability to retire lefty hitters, but control problems have hindered him throughout his career (6.0 BB/9 in 380.2 IP). Given the lack of viable lefty options that Atlanta has dealt with in recent years, the team will explore all options.

RHP Madison Younginer, 25, is a long-time Red Sox farmhand who has made just two appearances above Double-A. With a 4.69 ERA in 370.2 IP over six seasons, Younginer may have finally been turning the corner last season. He cut down the baserunners and posted personal bests across the board – 3.05 ERA and 1.18 WHIP among them in 77.1 IP. The Red Sox always liked Younginer’s arm, which fires a fastball that can stick in the mid-90s, but his secondary pitches and command were both a career-long work in progress. Though he may be a long shot to make the big club, Younginer could put himself on the map with some good work in the spring and a strong showing with Gwinnett.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher). All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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