Braves Bullpen Building Blocks: The Core

As we head into 2014 spring training there are only a few spots on the Atlanta Braves roster which are not spoken for. Over the next few weeks I’ll take a look at some of the contenders for these spots, beginning with the most intriguing part of team:  the bullpen.

The Braves bullpen had the best ERA of any relief corp in baseball last year — a 2.46 ERA. That Atlanta pen had just 2 relievers who were on both the 2012 Wild Card roster and the 2013 NLDS roster — Craig Kimbrel and Luis Avilan. That’s a lot of turnover from one year to the next, and 2014 will probably see just as much reliever upheaval.

ckimbrelOver the next couple of weeks I will take a look at potential Braves relievers in five categories and examine what they could bring to the Atlanta bullpen:

  1. The 2013 core hold-overs.
  2. Guys who usually start, but could relieve.
  3. Other relievers on the 40-man roster.
  4. Non-roster invitees.
  5. Relievers further down on the farm.

Today it’s the core…

Craig Kimbrel: You know him, you love him… the Braves are about to pay him A LOT. He’s the best closer in baseball, and that probably could have been said even if he was being compared against Mariano Rivera in his prime. Kimbrel is a freak in the ninth inning, but in the final Braves game of 2013 many people wondered if he could extend his freak to the eighth inning. In the past three seasons Kimbrel has thrown to exactly two batters before the 9th inning — one in 2012 and one in 2013. That is an extreme hesitancy by manager Fredi Gonzalez to extend his closer beyond the ninth. Though consider that Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty were getting outs with equal regularity during much of that time, so there was very little reason to extend Kimbrel into the 8th. I guess practice makes permanent, and Gonzalez couldn’t break his habit in a critical situation in a big game.

It will be interesting to see if Kimbrel’s arbitration outcome determines how much he is used this season. If he wins — likely setting the stage for big salaries in 2015 and 2016 that the Braves cannot afford — will Atlanta push his innings to 2011 levels (when he had the second most appearances for a reliever in baseball); essentially getting all they can out of him before they trade him. Conversely if the Braves win in arbitration, then they could continue to coddle Kimbrel, knowing that they can afford him for another year.

jwaldenJordan Walden: Setup man, backup closer… Running Horse (that’s the nickname I gave him because all his legs are off the ground at the same time when he delivers the ball — use it people!). What a great trade that turned out to be, as Tommy Hanson was not good for the Angles. Walden ran out of giddy-up a couple of times during the season and needed some DL stints to rest his arm, but that comes with the territory for these hard-throwing all-or-nothing relievers these days. Every bullpen needs multiple guys like Walden. Adding to his value is his experience as a closer in the Majors. Health will likely be an issue once again this year, as it was for the past two years, but the Braves depth should be able to cover up for him (and that’s what these posts are all about: examining Atlanta’s relief depth). Walden is also in the first year of arbitration, and settled with Atlanta for just under $1.5 million — very affordable for what he could bring to the table. Jordan has a reverse platoon split which showed up last year as it has during his career. He’s more effective against left-handed batters than right-handed batters, negating the need for LOOGY help when he’s on the mound. He should resume his role this season as the primary setup man.

Luis Avilan: The only lefty who is assured of a spot in the pen. Avilan has been awesome since he arrived in the Majors — and possibly the most consistent reliever on the team after Kimbrel. In no month in the Majors has his ERA been above 3.72 — and that was his first month in the big leagues in 2012. Some people feel Avilan is all smoke and mirrors since his strikeout numbers are really low. This led to a high FIP that was twice what his ERA was last year (1.52 ERA and 3.28 FIP). Avilan is just doing his part to help guys like Andrelton Simmons win Gold Gloves.

lavilanWith just about any reliever there’s always a question about whether they can be as good as they were in the past, and because of the low strikeout total those questions will be frequently asked this year about Avilan. But Luis is a guy who comes from a pitch-to-contact starting background, and as he gains more experience in the Majors he’s starting to incorporate those elements back into his repertoire. I read his anomalous ERA-to-FIP 2013 season as a reliever who is using his smarts to let batters get themselves out, but keeping the strikeout as a weapon in his back pocket. He’s throwing fewer pitches and fewer fastballs so that makes him more durable while still being effective. Luis might be on to something. In 2013 Avilan threw less than 25 pitches in all but 5 of his 80 appearances. Some of that is being a lefty and just facing lefties in a game, but Fredi Gonzalez used Avilan to get a lot of right-handed batters out too — while lefties hit a paltry .144, righties hit just .202. Avilan’s efficiency allows him to be used in more games — an important guy to have in the modern game where bullpens play such a frequent role.

David Carpenter: Last year’s Eric O’Flaherty, the Braves struck waiver claim gold with Carpenter. I thought Carpenter might make the team out of spring training last year, but some inconsistency led the Braves to start him at Gwinnett. That seemed to make Carpenter eager to prove himself, and boy did he ever. He posted sub-2.50 ERAs in every month, and his K/9 was nearly as good as Walden… like I said, every bullpen needs multiple guys like this.

There is a big red flag for Carpenter, and that’s getting the first guy he faces out. The other core members of the pen were all good-to-terrific against the first batter they faced in a game, but not Carpenter. He had a .314 batting average against the first batter he faced in games last year; no other Braves reliever in this post had a BAA above .250 in this situation. It got better from there, of course, as Carpenter was terrific in pressure situations. Perhaps he’s just the kind of reliever who needs men on base to get the adrenaline going. If he’s able to solve that problem he might be even better this year. If he can’t solve it, then it might catch up to him.

Anthony Varvaro: Another member of the Waiver Claim All-Stars, Varvaro emerged as a force in 2013. Well, actually, Varvaro emerged as more of a real-life Luis Avilan. Both relievers were strikeout averse, with a nearly identical 5.3 K/9 rate, as well as similar BB/9 rates (~3.0). They also had similar FIP marks with Varvaro posting a 3.47 to Avilan’s 3.28. But Avilan’s batted balls turned into more outs (and a 1.52 ERA), while Varvaro’s didn’t (resulting in a 2.82 ERA). That’s still a great ERA for a reliever, and it’s probably more in line with what we should expect from Avilan (if I hadn’t already declared him brilliant and innovative). Relievers are such a crap shoot from year to year, and Varvaro certainly seems like he could repeat his performance or get blown up — about as reliable as a roll of the dice. Subtly, he seemed to have more success late in the year when he backed off the velocity a notch or two.

jventersVarvaro was a surprise omission from the NLDS roster last year, when the Braves opted to give David Hale a spot instead. The official reason given was that the team only wanted to carry one long reliever, but the subtext was that they were going with the hot hand of Hale. Varvaro had gotten hit in the last week of the season, underlining his potential volitility. It will be interesting to see if he remains thought of as primarily a long reliever this season, or if his role will continue to expand to more critical situations.

Jonny Venters: Jonny-V will start the year on the disabled list, completing his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He is expected back sometime in May, but remember how touch-and-go Brandon Beachy’s return to the mound was last year. The road back from TJ is full of unknowns. Venters made it into 7 spring games last year, but started the year on the disabled list before having the surgery on May 16th.

Venters’ absence from the opening day roster this year creates another opening in the Atlanta bullpen, for a total of two available spots. In the coming days I’ll take a look at the many candidates the Braves have collected… and there are quite a few.

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