2018 Braves Positional Preview: Bullpen
The Atlanta Braves will bring a host of arms to camp to compete for jobs in the bullpen this spring and the team is no doubt hoping for more stability than the 2017 version. That group posted a 4.58 ERA which ranked 26th in the major leagues while blowing 23 save opportunities. Atlanta has some quality holdovers and audition a wide range of other men in hopes of getting the job done this season. It will be integral to the club’s success, especially if the Braves opt to go with an eight-man bullpen in 2018.
Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.4 million
The Braves will hand the closer’s role back to hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino in 2018, hoping he can provide a full season’s worth of late-inning stability. Unfortunately, Atlanta did not get that from veteran Jim Johnson in 2017. He eventually lost the job to Vizcaino and was shipped to the Angels in an off-season trade that helped the Braves offload some salary. Vizcaino has shown himself to be more than capable of handling the ninth inning when healthy, but injuries have derailed him throughout his career. Vizcaino made a career-high 62 appearances in 2017 and posted a respectable 2.83 ERA over 57.1 IP while punching out 10 batters per nine innings. His fastball velocity was once again among the best in the National League, averaging 97.8 mph, which was good for third best in the NL and ninth best in MLB. That top-shelf velocity gives him excellent change of speed and eye level for his sharp-breaking slider. That pitch netted Vizcaino 49 of his 64 strikeouts last season according to Statcast. With teams relying more and more on the bullpen night in and night out, Vizcaino is a good guy to have around when the Braves need a strikeout. He’s also under team control for the next two seasons.
Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Gleaned from the Mariners in a 2015 trade, Jose Ramirez has steadily developed into a quality relief option for Atlanta. He’s certainly been busy. Ramirez made a team-high 68 appearances last season and posted a solid 3.19 ERA, though his 4.88 fielding independent pitching illustrates the difficulty he had at times with keeping the ball in the park. Of course, most pitchers found that to be problematic in 2017. Ramirez will be counted on to bridge the middle innings to Vizcaino and has the stuff to get the job done. Right-handed hitters managed just a .220 batting average against Ramirez last season, while lefties hit just .180 against him. While his walk-rate improved over 2016, Ramirez still issued 4.2 BB/9 last year. That’s a number that will need to see continued improvement. Ramirez throws hard and has an excellent changeup that he relies on as a strikeout pitch. His fastball touches the high-90s, while the change sits in the upper 80s and could make Ramirez a formidable piece in the Atlanta pen in 2018.
Sam Freeman | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.08 million
Atlanta found a bargain when it scooped Sam Freeman off the scrapheap last winter. Pitching for his fourth club in as many years, Freeman enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. He posted a career-best 2.55 ERA and 3.34 FIP while averaging 8.9 K/9 in a career-high 60 innings of work. The Braves allowed Freeman to be more than simply a situational lefty, a role that didn’t really fit him all that well to begin with. He responded by upping his work across the board. Lefty hitters batted just .189 in 105 plate appearances against him, while righties batted just .236 in 149 PA. Freeman carved out a role as a dependable reliever and was given more responsibility as the year wore on. He mixes his mid-90s fastball with a slider and changeup. Like Jose Ramirez, finding a way to cut down the walks would only make Freeman that much more effective.
A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
No relief prospect in the Braves system since Craig Kimbrel has brought as much potential to the back end of the Atlanta bullpen as A.J. Minter. Drafted out of Texas A&M in 2015, Minter was on the mend from Tommy John surgery. That may have slowed his development, but Minter has been making up for lost time and blazed his way to the majors last summer. He possesses a fastball that can reach the upper 90s and a slider that may be the best in the organization, at least among relievers. In his big league debut for the Braves last season, Minter struck out 26 men in just 15 innings of work, an average of 15.6 K/9. He posted a 3.00 ERA and 0.96 FIP, allowing just 13 hits and two walks to the 60 big league batters he faced. Health has been the only question when it comes to Minter. He pitched on consecutive days just once in his 57 minor league appearances and has yet to do so in his limited time with Atlanta. Obviously, his availability will be a big factor in the impact he can make in 2018.
Rex Brothers | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.1 million
The former Rockies closer joined Atlanta’s bullpen mix last season, but the results were in fact mixed for Rex Brothers. Yet another strong-armed reliever, Brothers looks the part. His sometimes erratic command and a bout with shoulder problems derailed his career for a couple of years. Back in the big leagues with Atlanta last season, Brothers was routinely hitting 97 mph again and struck out 33 of the 105 batters he faced, good for a 12.5 K/9 clip. While his 7.23 ERA is uninspiring, Brothers posted a 3.67 FIP that was more in line with the numbers he put up while closing games for Colorado in 2013. The Braves signed Brothers to a split contract, meaning he will get $1.1 million if he makes the big club or be paid $450,000 if he opens the season in the minor leagues. Bottom line, Brothers is a hard-throwing lefty with options, clubs like those.
Dan Winkler | RHP | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year. $610,000
You’d be hard=pressed to find a better comeback story than that of Dan Winkler, but the young right-hander is hoping there are quite a few more chapters still to write. Taken from the Colorado Rockies in the Rule 5 draft way back in the winter of 2014, Winkler still has big league time to serve in order for the Braves to fulfill that obligation. Injuries have sidetracked the former starter, beginning with Tommy John surgery which he underwent just a few months before joining the Atlanta organization. Once recovered, he made his major league debut in September of 2015 and seemed primed to get an opportunity to earn a place in the Atlanta pen the following spring. That’s exactly what Winkler did. He made the Braves’ opening day roster that season, but his dreams came crashing down on April 10, 2016. Winkler fractured his right elbow while throwing a pitch in a game against the Cardinals. What followed was another grueling year of rehab. Winkler worked his way back to Atlanta last season and pitched well in his 16 appearances, posting a 2.51 ERA (2.81 FIP) with 18 strikeouts and just six walks in 14.1 innings of work. He utilizes a deceptive delivery to go along with a three-pitch mix that should keep hitters off balance. Perhaps 2018 is the year that Winkler finally gets a chance to show what he can do over a full season.
Mauricio Cabrera | RHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
To say that 2017 was a lost season for Mauricio Cabrera would be a bit of an understatement. He went from closer candidate in the spring to afterthought in September. Though he avoided the kind of major injury that typically derails a pitcher’s career, Cabrera found himself struggling to replicate the success of his rookie season and struggling to find the strike zone in the minor leagues. Let’s flashback to 2016 first, because that’s when Cabrera ascended to the major leagues and made a favorable first impression. That came thanks in large part to his triple-digit fastball, a pitch that routinely registered 100 mph. In fact, only Aroldis Chapman did so more frequently in that 2016 season. Cabrera was an effective arm in the late innings for Atlanta during his rookie season, with a 2.82 ERA and six saves in 41 appearances. Though he possessed that dynamite fastball, Cabrera averaged just 7.5 K/9, which was just below his minor league career rate. Fast forward to last spring and his conditioning was questionable, his elbow started barking and Cabrera found himself on the disabled list to open the season. He’d never appear in a big league game in 2017. Cabrera was activated from the DL in May and optioned to Gwinnett, where his control problems really got out of hand. Demoted to Double-A Mississippi after another stint on the disabled list, Cabrera finished last season with a 6.49 ERA and 45 walks in 43 IP. Obviously, that 9.4 BB/9 is not going to get the job done. He’ll have to find a way to harness his control in order to regain a spot in the Atlanta bullpen this season.
Josh Ravin | RHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Josh Ravin is one of two relievers that new general manager Alex Anthopoulos plucked from the Los Angeles Dodgers this winter. He has shown the ability to miss bats, but never carved out a full-time spot in the big leagues. Originally a fifth round pick by the Cincinnati Reds way back in 2006, Ravin has spent parts of the last three seasons with L.A. and posted a 5.05 ERA with 11.1 K/9 in 33 appearances. Along with a fastball that can reach the high-90s, Ravin throws an adequate slider. The Braves are hoping to have plenty of depth to call upon in the bullpen should they need it and a live arm like Ravin certainly helps with that.
Shane Carle | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
A recent addition to this spring’s bullpen competition is Shane Carle, who came over in a January trade with the Pirates in exchange for a player to be named later. Carle spent most of 2017 pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but found his way up to Colorado and got his first taste of the big leagues. After serving as a starter for the first four seasons of his minor league career, Carle switched the bullpen full-time in 2017. He went 3-5 with a 5.37 ERA across 62 innings with 22 walks and 50 strikeouts. The Rockies cut him loose earlier this winter in order to make room on the 40-man roster for newly-signed closer Wade Davis. That allowed Pittsburgh to reclaim Carle, who was drafted by the Pirates as a 10th rounder out of Long Beach State in 2013. He was then shipped to Atlanta to clear roster space following the Gerrit Cole trade less than two weeks later. Along with a low-mid 90s fastball, Carle has a slider, curve and a change. He’s a fringe pitcher who is most likely to be spending time at Gwinnett, but could be called upon to cover some innings at some point in 2018.
Jason Hursh | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
There was a time not too long ago when Jason Hursh was among Atlanta’s top prospects, However, following an extensive rebuild and the stockpiling of arms, those times have changed dramatically. The Braves drafted Hursh out of Oklahoma State with the No. 31 selection in the 2013 draft, just one pick ahead of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. After beginning his career as a starter, Hursh shifted to the bullpen in 2015 and has enjoyed some success thanks to a sinking fastball that can sit in the mid-90s. Hursh has a chance to carve out a role as a useful middle reliever, but will have plenty of competition this spring.
Grant Dayton | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The other former Dodgers reliever who was scooped up by new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was lefty Grant Dayton. He was a bit of a late bloomer who made it to the majors at age 28 and immediately became a valuable piece of the Dodgers bullpen. Dayton turned in a 2.09 ERA and punched out 39 batters in just 26.1 IP as a rookie, but a slew of injuries which culminated in Tommy John surgery derailed his 2017 season. Dayton had the elbow surgery in August, which means he’ll be shelved for 12-18 months and may not appear for Atlanta this season. When he’s right, Dayton is capable of shutting down lefty bats, but he may not get that chance in 2018.
Key Prospects on the 40-man roster:
RHP Akeel Morris, 25, got a brief taste of the big leagues with Atlanta in 2017 and made the most of his opportunity. The former Mets farmhand allowed just one run in eight appearances, posting a 1.23 ERA to go along with nine strikeouts and four walks in 7.1 IP. He’s been a strikeout machine in the minors, averaging 11.8 K/9 in nearly 400 innings. Morris is a dark horse candidate to crack Atlanta’s opening day roster.
LHP Jacob Lindgren turns 25 years old this season and was a reclamation project started by the previous regime. He was cut loose by the Yankees and signed with Atlanta last winter while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That elbow injury kept him on the shelf in 2017, but Lindgren should be ready to join the Atlanta bullpen at some point this season. New York selected Lindgren out of Mississippi State with the 55th overall pick in the 2014 draft and he made his major league debut the following year. In seven appearances, Lindgren allowed four runs in seven innings, walked four and struck out eight. Strikeouts are a theme for Lindgren, who posted a 1.72 ERA and punched out 77 men over 47 innings for an average of 14.7 K/9 in the minors before running into elbow problems. His fastball-slider combo may yield a few walks (4.4 BB/9 before his injury), but Lindgren has the makings of a quality bullpen arm if he can return to his pre-surgery form.
RHP Anyelo Gomez comes to camp hoping to stick as a Rule 5 draft selection. He is just 11 days older than Lindgren and was a Yankees farmhand as well. Gomez made four minor league stops last season, compiling a 1.92 ERA with 11.1 K/9 and just 2.7 BB/9 in his 70.1 IP. If the Braves want to hold onto Gomez, they’ll have to keep him on the big league roster for the entire season or they must offer him back to the Yankees.
LHP Jesse Biddle, 26, is yet another rehabbing prospect who was added to the system in recent years. A first round pick by the Phillies in 2010, he dealt with Tommy John surgery in 2015. Atlanta claimed Biddle off waivers from the Pirates in 2016, knowing that he’d miss the entire season. Originally a starter in his early career, Biddle moved to the bullpen and was an effective reliever for Double-A Mississippi last year. He turned in a 2.90 ERA with with 53 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 49.2 IP. That good work could get him an extended look this spring. Being left-handed certainly doesn’t hurt either.
LHP Adam McCreery was acquired in the Jhoulys Chacin trade with the Angels back in 2016 and is coming off a very capable season as late-inning reliever at two A-ball stops last season. A towering presence on the mound at 6-foot-8, McCreery posted a 2.74 ERA and fanned 90 batters in 62.1 innings while holding opponents to a .205 batting average. The one obvious downside was 38 walks, an average of nearly 5.5 BB/9. That said, he’s 25 years old and has a live arm, so the Braves are intrigued enough to challenge him in 2018. If all goes well, he could make his way to Atlanta at some point this summer.
RHP Josh Graham, 24, has been an intriguing minor league reliever in the Atlanta the system. The converted catcher was drafted out of the University of Oregon in 2015 and has flashed good stuff in his three seasons of professional baseball. Graham has a mid-90s fastball which he pairs with an above-average changeup. He has used that combo to strike out 137 batters across 120.1 IP in the minors. Graham split last year between High-A Florida and Double-A Mississippi, finishing with a 3.98 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 in 60.1 IP. He’ll likely return to Double-A, but could see Atlanta before the season is out.
RHP Luke Jackson, 26, is no stranger to the Braves bullpen. That’s where he spent most of 2017 as the de facto long reliever. Jackson came over from the Rangers organization and owns a 5.64 ERA in parts of three big league seasons. He cleared waivers in December and was outrighted to Triple-A Gwinnett, where figures to see time in 2018.
LHP Phil Pfeifer, 25, came to Atlanta from the Dodgers in the Bud Norris trade in 2016. He pitched his college ball at Vanderbilt and was a teammate of Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson before being selected in the third round of the 2015 draft by Los Angeles. Pfeifer has put up solid minor league numbers and reached Triple-A Gwinnett last season. He owns a 3.23 ERA in 76 appearances with 139 strikeouts in 108.1 career innings. Like many young relievers, free passes are a bit of a red flag. He’s averaged 6.0 BB/9 in is career, but has limited the damage by holding opponents to a .214 batting average and allowing just three home runs. He spins a nice breaking ball and has a change that backs up his low-90s fastball. Pfeifer battled substance abuse issues that ultimately led to a suspension during his college years at Vandy. Overcoming those demons ultimately opened the door for his professional career. He’ll have a chance to impress the big league club this spring and could get the call he’s be waiting for this summer.
RHP Miguel Socolovich, 31, is a well-traveled veteran from Venezuela. He had some success with the Cardinals in 2015, going 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 29 appearances. More recently, Socolovich has bounced between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis for the past two seasons and will try to latch on with Atlanta this spring. This signing is more of an organizational depth move and Socolovich will probably see time with Gwinnett if he remains in the organization after spring training.