Braves Mailbag: Jose Bautista, bullpen woes, offensive exploits

The Braves Mailbag is a weekly feature. You can submit your questions to Grant McAuley on Twitter (@grantmcauley).

Let’s check out this week’s edition, where we discuss the bullpen woes, the addition of a longtime American League slugger and what has made Atlanta’s offense so good over the first month of 2018.

If and when Jose Bautista is brought up to start at third and Ryan Flaherty goes to a utility role, what happens with Johan Camargo?

— Josh I (via Twitter)

Bringing in Jose Bautista was done in hopes of providing low-cost power to the Braves lineup. That said, he’s coming in cold after missing all of spring training and looking to get familiar with playing third base on a regular basis again as well. I’d imagine he’ll need 30 or 40 plate appearances before he’s feeling comfortable at the plate and thereby the club would feel comfortable promoting him. If and when that happens, and I have no reason to doubt it will, then Bautista should get the majority of the playing time at third base as you surmised. If he produces, then the signing will have paid off. If he does not, then the Braves still have both Camargo and Flaherty to cover third base for the time being. As the club explores its options, the bench would be fortified by having both men at the ready behind Bautista. Camargo made the most of his opportunity to play regularly in 2017. He was a pleasant surprise, but I still think his long-term role is as a super utility player. That seems to be the general consensus from most I’ve talked to around the club. With Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson both playing well and entrenched up the middle, the at-bats may be a little harder to come by for Camargo this season.

Luiz Gohara will be up soon and take the last rotation spot, I imagine. Who will be the odd-man out when Mike Soroka is ready? Or will the organization bring him up and begin him in a bullpen role like they were saying they would like to do with some young guys?

— Patrick (via Twitter)

I got a few different versions of this question. Each year in spring training, we come to camp and discuss the rotation with club officials and year after year that conversation plays out the same way. Someone is going to get hurt and someone is not going to produce. That’s why you have depth and other options available to cover over the course of the long season. In other words, these things have a way of working themselves out. When Gohara suffered two leg injuries that scuttled his spring training, that opened the door for Anibal Sanchez, who has since landed on the disabled list. Matt Wisler also got two turns in the fifth spot, but if Gohara can get up to speed then there’s no reason to believe he would not supplant both of those men at some point. For the time being, Gohara was activated from the 10-day disabled list and optioned back to Gwinnett in order to continue making up for the time lost in the spring. He should be back at some point in May. The Soroka part of this equation is tricky from a timing perspective. His stock rises seemingly every time he takes the ball, so there is reason to believe Atlanta would like to work him into its plans sooner than later. As of right now, there does not seem to be a definitive timetable or a clear path for him. While I think they would probably consider breaking other young starters in as relievers for a short time, Soroka strikes me as one that they’d want to give a clearly defined starting role upon his promotion. That being said, I’m all for giving opportunities to young arms that are ready to contribute. If the club thinks that is a role that would work for some of them, then it’s worth exploring.

What free-agent relief pitchers can the Braves add? The walks are getting out of hand.

— Jon (via Twitter)

There is no question the Braves bullpen has been undone time and again by walks over the first month of the season. As of this writing, Atlanta’s bullpen had issued a major-league-high 68 free passes in 98.1 innings. That’s a staggering 6.2 BB/9 IP as a group. Lead-off walks are a particularly troubling trend and set up other teams with an opportunity to rally. The ineffectiveness of Jose Ramirez and overreliance on Sam Freeman are two areas I’d point to as the most pronounced struggles. Both men were key pieces in the 2017 bullpen and were obviously big parts of the equation heading into this season. Even Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter and veteran Peter Moylan have been bitten by the walk bug at times. To answer your question, I’m not sure there is much of anything on the free agent market that would make a profound difference on Atlanta’s bullpen. They’re going to have to ride it out with some of these men. They have capable arms, but the adjustments will simply have to be made. It’s a statistically glaring problem, but those rate stats typically normalize over time. Perhaps no game springs to mind faster than the Chicago meltdown, which occurred in terrible weather conditions, but even that game is an outlier of sorts. Bottom line, I still believe the Braves have the arm talent in-house to field a capable bullpen. It all comes down to the current staff righting the ship. If Atlanta is hanging around in a playoff race in June, I’d expect the team to begin exploring all the options outside the organization.

Have you heard any rumblings about turning some of the young (less successful) starting prospects into bullpen help?

— Connor (via Twitter)

We’ve seen the Braves toy with this idea in recent years. Tyrell Jenkins was probably the first of the prospect bunch to be looked at in this light, but Matt Wisler and Lucas Sims were also viewed as possible bullpen pieces at some point over the past two years. Though it could still happen, neither man was able to secure a spot or produce results that warranted a long look in relief. It would be great to see some of these young starters begin to fill those roles, particularly those with the kind of stuff that could work out of the bullpen. Typically, the ability to command two pitches is the minimum requirement, but there is a big difference between the physical and mental aspects of starting and relieving. It changes both the preparation and the mindset of a young arm that is used to the routine of starting, but it is certainly a transition that can be made. The coaching focus has to be there in order to facilitate that change. As I said earlier, it is possible that the Braves could begin to break some of their young pitchers in by giving them a look in the bullpen initially. I don’t expect that to be something that happens incredibly often, but occasionally you see highly valued young arms cut their teeth in relief. It’s something David Price did for Tampa Bay back in 2008. The opportunity for top prospects to pitch out of the bullpen would obviously come with a monitored workload and is unlikely to provide the stability that regular relievers offer.

Why isn’t Kurt Suzuki or Tyler Flowers batting fourth?

— Jack (via Twitter)

The very simple answer to this question is that Flowers has been on the disabled list and Suzuki has settled into the fifth spot in the order behind Nick Markakis. Say what you want about Markakis, but his presence in the clean-up spot has been serviceable to say the least. While the Braves will continue to look for power in the middle of the lineup, whether that be with the Jose Bautista signing, the promotion of Ronald Acuña Jr. or with moves yet to be made, Markakis has capably filled the four-spot over the first few weeks of the season. He is slashing .289/.393/.411 in his 23 starts as the clean-up hitter and has posted an .828 OPS while grounding into just one double play with runners on-base this season. Markakis has also posted a .152 ISO (isolated power) in the early going, which is his highest mark since 2012. All of that said, we’re still discussing a relatively small sample size. I would continue to call Atlanta’s lineup a fluid situation. Though you may not see nightly or regular changes, there will come a time (or times) over the course of the summer where the viability of hitters in certain spots will be reevaluated and adjustments to the lineup will be made. It could happen with the arrival of Bautista, the elevation of Acuña in the order or some other personnel moves.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Kevin Seitzer’s influence on some of these veterans seeing offensive improvements and some of these young guys (like Dansby Swanson) figuring it out at the plate. I don’t think he gets enough credit sometimes.

— Josh II (via Twitter)

I’m glad you brought this up. Kevin Seitzer and assistant José Castro have been working diligently in the background for four seasons now. In the court of public opinion, the hitting coach seemingly never gets the credit while absorbing a fair amount of the blame for hitters’ successes and failures. The truth is, that doesn’t matter. The work is never done. Seitzer has preached an aggressive approach inside the strike zone, which is why you see the Atlanta hitters swinging early and often. By melding analytics, advanced scouting and video, hitters are equipped with a plan of attack against opposing pitchers. Having that plan at the plate is the most important aspect of what Seitzer has instilled in hitters young and old alike. Even though they’re being aggressive early in counts, Braves batters aren’t finding themselves racking up strikeouts. They’re making solid and consistent contact, which is evidenced by the fact that Atlanta is leading the National League in numerous offensive categories. That list includes batting average (.268), slugging percentage (.432), runs scored (137), hits (240), doubles (60), and total bases (387), while the club ranks second in the NL in on-base percentage (.339) and fifth in home runs (27). They’ve done all of this while boasting one of the lowest strikeout totals in all of baseball (205) through 25 games. It’s all about approach and embracing the philosophies that can lead to success at the plate. Swanson is a fine example of work ethic and adjustment. He hasn’t made wholesale mechanical changes to his stance or swing between 2017 and 2018, but he has found improved results through executing his game plan on a more regular basis. Baseball is a constant game of adjustments, and Seitzer has helped Atlanta hitters make some subtle but effective changes.

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