Improving the Braves bullpen is more important than adding an ace to the rotation

The Atlanta Braves had the best bullpen in baseball in 2013. It was even better than the really good bullpen they had in 2012. But only 6 of the 14 pitchers used as relievers in 2013 were carryovers from 2012, and of those 6 only 3 were in the bullpen at the end of 2013. These two years of very good bullpens were by and large bullpens that consisted of vastly different sets of relievers.

The rotation, on the other hand, stayed fairly similar, with only 17 starts in 2013 coming from pitchers who were not on the team in 2012. This leads to the next area where the Braves should focus on this off-season: the bullpen, and not the rotation.

All of the media outlets and blogs and blah on the internet have been saying that the Braves need an ace pitcher. “They need an ACE.” Let’s salivate that David Price might be available. “We need someone to match up against Kershaw and Greinke in a short series.”

I do not share that opinion.

Unless one falls into the Braves’ lap for a fair offer, the team should not trade away a bundle of prospects for a magical mystical ace starting pitcher. The Braves way of assembling a deep rotation of number-2 and number-3-type pitchers is the right way for the team to continue to craft a rotation. And that collection of 2’s and 3’s is capable of developing into more. Mike Minor is only 25-years-old, and Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are just 22-years-old. These are guys that could develop into an ace. They are also guys who could at any time pitch a game that is ace-worthy.

Putting all your eggs in one basket, a basket made of lots of prospects and lots of money, is not the way to go here. A team like the Braves has to spread their money around, and can’t spend an excessive amount to bring in a guy who pitches once every five days, which could in turn limit the quality of pitchers who can be counted on to pitch the other four days. Even in a short series or a Wild Card game there is no guarantee that the guy you brought in to be the ace will have his spot in the rotation come up on that day when you need him. The Braves strategy is to have two or three guys who can match up against anyone on most days — and that worked two out of four times this postseason. That’s not terrific, but for the young staff the Braves have it was probably what should have been expected. But what should also be expected is that those outcomes will improve with more experience in big game situations.

The Braves system is also quite lean due to big trades the last couple of years (Bourn and JUpton) and because many of their once-prospects have now graduated to the Majors. Expending the prospects to get an ace pitcher would cripple the Braves farm system in much the same way that the Texeira trade did. This is not what the Braves need to do to an already weakened system.

Tim Hudson should be brought back, and early indications are that he will be. After that Atlanta needs to rely on their young core of Minor, Teheran, Beachy, and Wood, then add around them from within the system or with opportunistic and affordable free agent or trade acquisitions. The core of the Braves starting pitching staff will all begin to get more expensive as they move through arbitration, so that limited amount of salary room should be spent to retain them if possible. Kris Medlen can be kept on the swing-man bubble. David Hale could be an interesting choice in spring training considering how well he pitched in two spot-starts at the end of the season. Either Medlen or Hale could be used in trades, as depth beyond them should be emerging in the Braves system in the form of Cody Martin, Sean Gilmartin, J.R. Graham, and Jason Hursh. Among those four young prospects at least one should graduate into the Braves rotation in the next year or two.

This pitching depth within the system — the pipeline of young talent which created the current rotation — should be able to continue, as further down in the system guys like Lucas Sims and Mauricio Cabrera could have an impact in two or three years. But if the Braves were to trade for an ace now they would likely have to give up the best of these young players in the pipeline. While there might be postseason rewards for a couple of years, the bubble would eventually burst when the Braves are unable to re-sign that traded-for ace pitcher in his free agent year, and the pitching pipeline is suddenly dry because it was traded away to get that ace.

The real area where the Braves should seek to be aggressive this winter is in the bullpen. If the handful of guys that fell to Tommy John surgery this year are any indication, a team can never have enough arms in the pen. The modern day theory of relievers seems to state that you throw as hard as you can until your ligament gives out, then go get a new one, rinse and repeat. The Braves put massive workloads on their relievers, and this scenario seems to play out every couple of years. It was O’Flaherty and Venters last year, Moylan and Medlen before that.

The goal of bullpen construction should be to assemble as many setup options as possible, then get some more, and have a few more in the minors if needed (and they will be needed). Atlanta’s pen looked stacked going into the 2013 season with closer Craig Kimbrel being setup by Walden, O’Flaherty, and Venters — it was a phalanx of unbeatableness in need of a new acronym. But by the time the playoffs rolled around none of those setup guys were of any use, and the replacements (Carpenter, Avilan, Ayala) were decent, but not great.

The Braves need to go out and acquire at least one more Jordan Walden. That trade turned out to be a terrific one for Atlanta, as Tommy Hanson regressed as expected, and Walden was vital for most of the year after O’Flaherty and Venters went down. Walden’s injury at the end of the season was limiting and caused him to lose the confidence of his manager, but a healthy Walden should be as good as any setup man in baseball. Now let’s add another. Or two. Again, a team can never have enough arms in the bullpen.

O’Flaherty and Venters should not be counted on to be back next year. Not only are they returning from Tommy John — and we saw the setbacks that delayed Beachy this year — but O’Flaherty is a free agent and Venters will likely be a free agent as Atlanta will almost certainly non-tender him because he will not be ready by the time the season starts, and will cost considerably more than he did last season. The O’Ventbrel era in Atlanta is likely over (at least the O’Vent part).

So there you have it — improving the bullpen will be more important this off-season than adding an “ace.” The turnover the Braves bullpen experienced seems more likely to repeat itself because of the modern day nature of all-or-nothing relieving, while the rotation remains largely intact.

There is of course an uncertainty for both of these vital areas of the team, and we have also witnessed injury decimate both bullpen and rotation in recent years. But those lessons should be used to inform how the Braves spend their money or expend their prospects. Atlanta uses its money best when it signs its own homegrown players. For whatever reason the Braves have a horrible recent track record of handing out contracts to free agents. Follow the model of the Hudson deals, which didn’t break the bank. Follow the model of the Brian McCann contract, which secured a young talent on a cost-controlled basis through his prime years. Save the best prospects for needs that might come up during the season.

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