February 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
For the past few seasons, the Braves have maintained one of the best bullpens in baseball, and over the past two seasons, they’ve been a truly elite bullpen thanks to Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, and the merry band of other very capable relievers. The Braves return all the key cogs from those bullpens (and added Jordan Walden), and they’ll do it for just a little over $8 million. Bullpens don’t pitch enough innings to accumulate large amounts of positive value – Kimbrel was the best reliever in baseball and accumulated about 3-4 wins of value – but they can crush a team. Keeping the cost of a bullpen down is essential as the money can go to other areas of the team with higher ceilings of contribution and less volatility, but if the bullpen is terrible, it can cripple a team.
It’s hard not to love the Braves bullpen heading into 2013. Kimbrel is the best reliever in baseball. O’Flaherty, Venters, and Walden are all very good relievers, though EOF is the most stable of the three. Cristhian Martinez (multiple innings, excellent peripherals) and Luis Avilan (very impressive debut, tough on lefties, can throw multiple innings) add significant value, though they may not be quite as good as the others. All of these relievers, with the notable exception of EOF, are under control for at least the next three seasons. And their combined age is under 27.
One of the battles in Spring Training will be for the last spot in this vaunted bullpen. As of right now, I have Anthony Varvaro penciled in because he’s out of options, but Cory Gearrin, David Carpenter, David Hale (and I suppose Cory Rasmus) are other possibilities already on the 40-man roster. I’ll get into specifics about this battle later in the week, but for now, just know that the Braves have solid options and don’t need to spend money on another Chad Durbin-type.
Joining the losers of this battle in the minors will be several solid potential bullpen pieces. Hale may start the year in the rotation, but he’s probably a reliever long-term. Mark Lamm, Billy Bullock, and Cory Rasmus all have strong arms, but they all have serious to extreme control problems. Chris Jones (LOOGY), Andrew Russell (ROOGY), and Jose Lugo (multiple innings) all have their uses as well. A little farther down, Juan Jaime gets the headlines because of a triple-digit fastball, but he’ll need to refine his curveball and control to reach his closer-high ceiling. The rest of the bolded prospects are likely to be middle relievers at best, but those are still valuable, if for nothing else than to prevent the team from having to spend significant cash on stabilizing this part of the team. My favorites of the bunch are Nathan Hyatt, Carlos Perez, and Patrick Scoggin.
There are two players I’d like to discuss a little further – Daniel Rodriguez and JR Graham. I should have mentioned Daniel Rodriguez in the piece on the rotation, but I chose not to because I’d be surprised if that’s where he ended up long-term. He’s already 28, and if he was so good, he probably would have been signed before he won three straight strikeout titles in the Mexican League. Now, I don’t mean this to say Rodriguez can’t pitch. He can throw in the low-90s with some sink and also has a slider and change-up, but if he’s in the rotation at some point in the year, it’s because Julio Teheran busted and/or someone else got hurt. There’s some Jorge Campillo-surprise possibility here because the Braves always seemingly find those guys, but it’s not something I’d bet on. If he pitches out of the bullpen, he’s a nice lefty option that will make letting EOF go a little easier.
Moving on to Graham, this might not be a popular thing to say, but there’s still a significant chance he ends up in the bullpen. His fastball and slider are electric, but his change-up still lags behind. Graham is still young, and there’s reason to believe the change can improve. But it’s not there yet, and Graham and his high-90s fastball have a closer-type ceiling out of the bullpen. Consider this (though this is admittedly not very likely) – Graham’s appearance as a late-inning option could allow the Braves to trade Kimbrel before he begins making big money and while he retains a ton of value (enough to grab a 3B and/or SP prospect). For 2013, Graham will likely pitch out of the rotation in Gwinnett, and by the end of the year, we’ll have a better idea of what Graham’s role will be.
The Braves continue to have one of the best bullpens in baseball, and the addition of Jordan Walden should only improve the situation. With the Braves recent success of finding arms in the later rounds of the draft and on the waiver wire, there’s no reason to believe that the immediate future of that bullpen is in jeopardy. Then again, relievers (and thus bullpens) are fickle beings and victims of attrition, injury, and volatility in performance.