Friday, November 7, 2014

WOW's Offseason Look at: The Bullpen

Like the starting rotation, the bullpen kept the Braves' dismal hopes alive even as the offense sputtered throughout the season. Only three other teams could say they had relief pitching with a better FIP and that's with David Hale sucking (as he tends to do). Nevertheless, this was a bit of a fall in the rankings from the 2013 bullpen that led the lead in FIP. Will that trend continue going into 2015 or will the Braves show some upward mobility? Hard to really tell as relievers are notoriously fragile and subject to inconsistent performances from year-to-year. However, there should be enough to get by, especially with you-know-who in the traditional closer role, even if that limits him in the eyes of his manager.

Who we got?... Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro, Cory Gearrin, David Hale, Gus Schlosser, Ian Thomas, Juan Jaime, Chasen Shreve, Shae Simmons.
Who's getting Arby?... Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, James Russell, Jonny Venters
Who might be going?... Ryan Buchter, Venters probably
Who might be coming?...John Cornely, Alex Wilson, Nate Hyatt

Braves went through a lot of relievers last season (15 of them) and most are already on their way back in 2015 so Atlanta might be intrigued by the idea of dealing an arbitration-eligible guy to save some green, though they will need better performances out of some of the guys who made their debut just last season. Of course, the pen is led by Kimbrel, who is locked up until at least 2017 after inking a contract extension last winter. Kimbrel wasn't as sharp last season as in previous years and too often seemed to struggle to locate his fastball. Still, he K'd 13.9 per nine and posted a FIP of 1.83. If only the rest of the team had guys who could see a little drop off from two years ago and post ridiculously impressive numbers. He's still the best, though the best is limited to the situations Fredi Gonzalez feels comfortable using him in.

Beyond Kimbrel, the rest of the guys will likely be on one-year deals and the majority of them will be playing for the minimum. Varvaro had his most impressive season and barely missed the cutoff for Super Two, which would have started his arbitration pay-days. As is, he'll get near the minimum and if he puts up 2014-like numbers, he'll get paid pretty well. Fredi transitioned Varvaro from long guy to high-leverage guy and he responded with the best FIP and K-BB rate of his career. On the flipside, Avilan tanked. Only Hale posted a fWAR that was worse as a reliever for the Braves and I've read from very trusted sources that Hale sucks. The writing was kind of on the wall for Avilan, though. In his 2012 rookie season, Avilan's K/9 was 8.3. It was 5.3 the next season and around the same last season. His 2013 BABIP was an unsustainable .204. Add in a 2014 walk-rate that ballooned and you have all the makings of an epic fail. Still, Fredi trusted him. Still, Fredi is the manager. Still, I need my ulcer medication.

A bunch of new guys showed up. Some had hype, others came out of nowhere, and one guy was named Gus. Shae Simmons, or Simbrel, looked like he was going to be a top set-up guy for the Braves. Like a clone of Kimbrel, the diminutive Simmons came with heat and was devastating, but shoulder issues limited him to only 26 games. If fully healthy, Simmons could eventually unseat Kimbrel if the Braves decide they are paying too much for a closer. Southpaw Chasen Shreve has a name that doesn't fit for a guy from Las Vegas, but down the stretch, he became the most trusted left-hander the Braves had even if Fredi didn't want to acknowledge that. He allowed just one earned run in 12.1 ING, walked three, and struck out 15. Shreve found control in 2014 and to go with his brief major league run, he walked just 12 in 64 minor league innings after giving the free pass to 22 in 22 fewer innings the previous season. Heading into 2015, like Simbrel, Shreve looks to have a big role provided he continues to perform and stay healthy. The rest of the names are easy to sum up. Gearrin got hurt, would be non-tendered if he was arbitration-eligible, and is unlikely to be kept simply because he's out of options. Hale is a meh long reliever (he sucks). Ian Thomas was in rookie ball two years ago, broke camp with the team, wasn't terrible (or good), got demoted and was done by the end of July due to injury. Juan Jaime is Manny Acosta Jr. Gus Schlosser is JUST a good name.

Arbitration cases are pretty interesting. Walden spent most of the year having fans of the opposite teams complain that his hop was a balk on twitter. Beyond that, he was very good (though he did hit the DL). The Braves could look to move him to invest his money toward the bench and count on Simbrel to take over his role. Or they could move Carpenter, who spent half of 2014 exercising the demons from Juan Uribe's NLDS homer the previous fall. This provided for some MASSIVELY different splits. Except that they didn't. While Carp's first-half ERA was 4.26, his other rates were pretty similar to the second half. So, while most were saying that Carp was a lost cause, they could have looked at his BABIP (which stood at .448 during the first half) and knew things would change. They did and he finished very strong. James Russell looked like a perfect fit for the Braves. The former Cub was a LOOGY who was team-controlled and could answer their season-long issues with that role. Except for whatever weird reason, Russell wasn't getting out lefties. It's not like Russell started to suck...his FIP was the best of his career...he just couldn't do the thing he was being paid to do and had been successful at doing since coming to the majors. The fact that he used his fastball more this year and used his slider a lot less tells me either two things...one, he was trying to move away from the slider or more likely, he was struggling with his release point and thus, location. He should be fine in 2015.

This would seem like bad news for Venters, though he's heard a lot worse. Three Tommy John's. The number of pitchers who have made a return to the majors from three TJS's is incredibly small. So small that I fit it into the next two words: Jason Isringhausen. No other pitcher is known to have undergone three of the surgeries and make it back to the majors. Venters, who made $1.625M for the second consecutive season with arbitration, will not be given the opportunity to make it for a third straight season and likely won't pitch again until 2016, if ever. He has just one more year of arbitration. The Braves, if they are feeling charitable, could non-tender him and offer him a creative minor league deal. Doubt it, though. The Braves have bigger concerns. Also likely out is another lefty, Ryan Buchter. He was designated for assignment in late September and outrighted to the minors, where I believe he'll become a minor league free agent. His career walk rate...6.1 BB/9.

Braves don't have much coming either. John Cornely was briefly placed on the 40 man roster last year and is back off. The righty did post his best season with Mississippi last year, though, and the Braves liked him enough to send him to the AFL after 2013. Wilson and Hyatt both pitched in Lynchburg last season with Wilson shutting down 16 games to lead the Hillcats in saves. Both would be major stretches especially with so many young guys already in Atlanta.

Depth Chart
1. Kimbrel
2. Carpenter
3. Walden
4. Russell
5. Varvaro

The Braves will likely bring in a veteran or two to fight for jobs, but the bullpen seems like a position the front office probably feels comfortable with. In addition to the five I point out in the depth chart, there are young guys like Shreve and Simmons plus holdovers like Avilan and Hale who would appear to have a good shot to at least add depth to the bullpen heading into 2015. Of course, beyond an injury or two that is bound to occur, a trade might take away at least one from the depth, but the Braves have the ability to make a deal here and feel comfortable enough with what they still have.

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