Already this week I have previewed the 2014 Atlanta Braves bullpen by looking at the core members as well as the swing men who could start or relieve. Today I will take a look at the remaining relievers on the 40-man roster. These are players who are generally given the first crack at a Major League 25-man roster during the season, as their presence on the 40-man indicates that the team expects to use them in the big leagues at some point.
Only one member of this group has Major League experience. There are several guys here who are late bloomers, so they have a lot of experience, just not in the Majors. They are listed alphabetically.
Ryan Buchter: Captain K-Man. The Buchter of Batters. He’s the kind of reliever who deserves a good nickname. Buchter’s a lefty who has a really good shot at making the team this spring. He’s a strikeout machine and gets both lefties and righties out, though he’s extra dominant against lefties. With the Atlanta pen in need of another left-handed reliever, Buchter has to go into spring training as the front runner for that spot (pending the outcome of Alex Wood getting a rotation spot or not).
Buchter pitched in Mexico this off-season to continue to hone his craft, and struck out 2 batters per inning. Last season he had a 14.95 K/9 rate, one of the best in the minor leagues. There may be some hesitancy to break camp with him because of his high walk totals, but the value he could add in getting lefties out may trump the free passes. He sports two strikeout pitches, a mid-90s fastball and a sweeping slider.
Cory Gearrin: Remember him? He grew a full fledged Duck Dynasty beard this off-season. Though we’ll have to wait and see whether the mean look translates to more nastiness on the mound. The biggest knock on Gearrin throughout his Major League tenure has been his ineffectiveness against left-handed batters. While he’s great against righties (.212), lefties wear him out (.313). Gearrin was sent down to the minors last year at the beginning of July, but didn’t pitch again the rest of the season. He was apparently working to strengthen his shoulder and tweak his delivery. What that adjustment might be, we will have to wait until spring games to find out.
A big red flag last season was Gearrin’s drop in velocity. He was always a low-90s thrower, albeit with good movement. Last year, however, his velocity dropped into the high-80s, and hardly touched 90. As the season went on it dropped even more. Unfortunately for relievers, if there is no velocity there, then there’s likely no spot in the pen for them. Gearrin’s a great person so a lot of folks are rooting for him to make it back, and hopefully the work he did to strengthen his shoulder will pay off. He’ll have some straight-up side-arm competition this spring in newly signed submariner Luis Vasquez (see below). Gearrin is also out of minor league options, so if he doesn’t make the team the Braves would risk losing him.
Juan Jaime: 100mph. Yep, he can hit. He can hit it repeatedly. Problem is he doesn’t always hit the mitt. But he’s refining his control, and had a decent Arizona Fall League campaign. The Braves seem to believe in him, so he will probably get a long look this spring, but will likely be ticketed for Gwinnett. Good work there and we should see him in Atlanta at some point this season. Guys like this can be so dangerous if they can get their pitches under control.
Aaron Northcraft: He’s been in the system for a long time, having been drafted in 2009 out of high school. He’ll be 24 this year and is slated for triple-A Gwinnett. He’s always been a starter in the minors, but as a starting pitching prospect he’s more of a back-of-the-rotation kind of guy. The Braves will likely keep him in the rotation at Gwinnett, but he could be called on as a reliever if needed, and could have some success as a long reliever. He’s continuing to improve as he moves up the minor league ladder and things could come together for him like they did for David Hale just as he arrived in the Majors. Northcraft has a weird home/road split, where he’s MUCH better at home than on the road (1.73 ERA at home in 2013, 5.72 ERA on the road). This has persisted for several years, and is quite intriguing (2.96/4.77 in 2012, 2.48/4.11 in 2011). There might be nothing to it, but it’s weird to see it so pronounced from year to year.
Wirfin Obispo: Signed prior to 2013 as a minor league free agent for what I assumed was minor league roster filler. He was older, 27 at the time, and had spent a few unimpressive years toiling away in the Japanese leagues. He had a decent campaign for the G-Braves last year, sharing the closing duties with Cory Rasmus then Mark Lamm. He also had an equally decent stint this winter in the Dominican. The Braves thought enough of him to add him to the 40-man roster, so there must be some there there. I would say he’s likely behind many other guys, and will probably serve as emergency depth at Gwinnett this season.
Carlos Perez: A great arm who has taken some time to put it together, and he’s still got a ways to go to be useful to the Major League club. He converted to relieving late in 2012 with much better success than he had been having as a starter, and continued that success into 2013. He’ll probably start this season at double-A Mississippi, looking for a mid-season call up to Gwinnett. He’s among the next wave of good young bullpen arms coming through the system, most of whom are a year or two away.
Luis Vasquez: This kid has a lot of buzz around him. He was signed as a minor league free agent from the Dodgers organization AND was added to the 40-man roster — a rare occurrence. He’s a converted infielder, so that’s why his age (27) is a bit up there. Last year he changed his arm angle, dropping further down to throw sidearm. He can run his fastball into the high-90s, and has no problem racking up the strikeouts. His problem has been walks, but that’s likely to be expected with someone who came late to pitching. Dropping down in his delivery has apparently allowed him to add more control, and it showed up in his work this off-season in the Dominican Winter League, where he issued just three walks in 17.1 innings pitched. He was also quite unhittable, allowing only five hits (a .086 BAA). His presence might make Cory Gearrin expendable, as Vasquez throws harder and is equally effective against lefties and righties.
This is a pretty solid group of last-spot-in-the-pen relief options. Buchter and Vasquez seem to have the best chance to break camp with Atlanta, but most of these guys will represent good depth that can be stashed at triple-A. It also doesn’t hurt that many of these folks have very live arms.
The Braves have gotten extremely lucky the past several years at finding relievers on the “scrap heap” — guys they have claimed off waivers or signed as minor league free agents. It’s a roll-of-the-dice approach to bullpen construction that may eventually catch up with the team, but relievers are such a roll-of-the-dice themselves that it kind of makes sense to assemble a big group of question marks and see which ones answer the challenge.