Thursday, January 22, 2015

Spring Training Preview: The Bullpen

When the 2014-15 offseason is looked it, we will be mesmerized by the amount of turnover. Of the 39 players who played at least one game with the Braves last season, 19 of them are already gone and that does not include Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy. Outfield stands out as a position in great change and I profiled the starting rotation last week which saw an entire starting staff move on. Let's not ignore how much the pen has changed, though. Of the 440.2 innings thrown by the bullpen last year, 183.1 innings, or 42%, have to be replaced. Of the five most used relievers, three have been traded this offseason. The bullpen will look very different and in my opinion, it is unlikely to be as good.

With that in mind, let's say goodbye to...David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, Jordan Walden, Chasen Shreve, Jonny Venters, Cory Gearrin, Pedro Beato, Ryan Buchter. The last four is just piling on and of course, Venters may never throw another major league pitch. Shreve was a promising young reliever who was used in the Manny Banuelos deal, but the biggest losses in innings is from the first three, who have all been significant parts of the Braves bullpen for the last couple of seasons. Losing all three hurts, though when the team is headed towards a rebuild, having a shutdown crew in front of your closer is often considered an unnecessary luxury.

Five pitchers who are returning logged at least 20 innings last year and an additional ten are in the picture for the 2015 season either as surging minor league prospects, free agent acquisitions, or left-over guys with little chance of sticking. Let's start at the top.

Here's a funny number for you. Craig Kimbrel had his worst WHIP in three years. Of pitchers with at least 50 innings in the bag last year, only 20 had a better WHIP. Kimbrel lost the title of best closer in the game last year to Aroldis Chapman, but you'd have a tough time finding many others that have posted a four year start to their career with much more domination than Kimbrel. Granted, the Braves probably don't need a dominating closer, but Kimbrel is signed long term and is unlikely to bring back a significant return unless a team gets very desperate.

But when he looks around this spring, he will see at least three new faces expected to set the stage for what saves Kimbrel does get. 12-year veteran Jason Grilli and 9-year veteran Jim Johnson both have closing experience. Grilli was an All-Star in 2013 and damn effective as his 1.97 FIP showed. He struggled last year, but was actually pitching good ball down the stretch after being traded to the Angels. He should be pretty good, though the fact that he was signed for both his age-38 and age-39 seasons was a little surprising. Remember when I said Kimbrel was 21st in WHIP last year among pitchers with at least 50 innings? Johnson was last, posting a 1.95 WHIP. That number looks a lot nicer as an ERA. That was coming on the heels of back-to-back 50 save seasons with the Orioles. He was never that dominant, but he kept the ball in the park and didn't walk people. Until last year. Another new face is Josh Outman, a lefty reliever, who does one thing and one thing only. Get lefties out.

That leaves three open spots and we can pencil James Russell in for one of those spots provided he doesn't break camp in the rotation. But I mentioned 15 options and that's without adding fifth starter candidates Michael Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos to the mix as I believe if they aren't in the rotation, they will go to Gwinnett to start games. If Kimbrel, Grilli, Johnson, Outman, and Russell are in the pen already, who gets the remaining two spots among the remaining ten I see as possibilities?

Shae Simmons, if healthy, is a good bet to be one of them. Simmons appeared in 26 games last year and struck out over a batter an inning with a 3.13 FIP. He has the skillset to be at least a very good reliever in the majors if not one getting high leverage innings. But injuries ended his 2014 prematurely. Speaking of a guy who knows about injuries, Arodys Vizcaino is back from a sabbatical with the Cubs of Chicago. The Cubbies graciously rehabbed Vizcaino for us and now he is ready to try and contribute at the major league level. I think he still has at least one option, maybe two, left so the Braves won't be forced to keep or lose him this season, but "if healthy," he still possesses the raw ability that made us sad to see him traded to the Cubs in the first place.

Though he probably doesn't deserve the amount of crap he gets on Twitter, Luis Avilan did himself no favors by stinking up the joint last season. He had a weird 2013 in that he lowered his WHIP, but also lost 3 K/9. That backfired in 2014 as he missed more spots leading to a sharp increase in walks to the point that his BB/K got embarrassingly close, though in his defense, seven of his 21 walks were intentional. With two lefties already in the fold, he's no sure thing. Neither is last year's long guy, David Hale, who is also in on the fifth starter competition. People tell me Hale is better suited to be a starter than a reliever. I find that cute in that people think he's best suited to be a pitcher at all. That sounds mean, but he possibly would make more money on Wall Street if he wants to use that "operations research and financial engineering" degree he got from Princeton to better use.

I'd say Simmons, Vizcaino, Avilan, and Hale have the strongest chance right now to  those two spots in the theoretical bullpen, but the Braves could use other options. From the left-hand side, Ian Thomas makes for a fun story as he he was undrafted and signed out of the Atlantic League, but he impressed enough last spring to make the club and did not look overmatched at all. But questions remain as his season ended a month short. Also still around is Juan Jaime. It might be unfair, but every time I saw Jaime, I thought "cool, the Braves brought back Manny Acosta." Yes, Jaime has great velocity, but it looked far too straight and too often, not in the strikezone. I don't think pitchers who subscribe to the Three True Outcomes really succeed on high amounts of Ks, BBs, and HRs. Signed on a minor league deal, Michael Kohn has 126 games in the majors and provided he doesn't walk nearly 8 per nine like he did last season, he could be in the mix as well.

The rest of the names are waiting for their first callup. Ryne Harper is a 37th rounder who has a 2.18 ERA in 148 minor league games along with a 1.16 WHIP and 10.6 K/9. However, the Braves thought so much of him that despite a 1.79 ERA with Mississippi in 2013, they made Harper repeat the level in 2014. One of Harper's teammates last year was John Cornely, who posted a 1.15 WHIP in nearly 70 innings with seven saves. Yet another Mississippi Brave was Brandon Cunniff, who the Braves protected by placing him on the 40-man roster this winter. Like Ian Thomas, Cunniff was signed out of independent ball. He probably won't strike out a small village, but he has great natural sinking movement.

You could really go on with Donnie Veal, Aaron Kurcz, and others, but I'd rather not write a novel today. The 2015 bullpen will look significantly different from the bullpen that often pitched so well last year. That's not to say the new group can't be good themselves, though. I wouldn't bank on it. Still, stranger things have happened. Like me getting to the point where I complain about getting rid of Varvaro.

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