Monday, February 13, 2017

Spring Roster Battles Preview - The Bullpen

Read previous Spring Roster Battles Previews
Fifth Starter

The bullpen was decent enough in the first half for the Atlanta Braves, but in the second half, it took off. As a team, they had a FIP of 3.48 in 264.2 innings in the second half. Luck may have played a role as their xFIP was nearly a run higher. That is a result, I believe, of less-than-stellar walk totals and an unsustainable 6% HR/FB rate. Regardless, it was an improvement and gives the Braves something to spring into next year with.

Atlanta plans on utilizing an eight-man bullpen to open 2017. I believe that is a mistake and ultimately will be a short-lived experiment that will be scrapped when the team needs an extra bat, but let's assume that the bullpen is eight pitchers deep when the season begins. We have a good idea who four of the names will be: Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino, Ian Krol, and Mauricio Cabrera. Who will be the other half? Let's see who is in the picture.

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Surprise Second-Half Contributors: Jose Ramirez and Chaz Roe

Both are out of options. Both have always interested teams because of their raw talent. Both...sometimes can't find the strike zone. And finally, both had a really nice summer for the Braves bullpen. Will either last into 2017?

Ramirez began the year in the bullpen for the Braves, but after two appearances, he was slipped off the 40-man roster and went down to Gwinnett. He found his way there and was back in the majors for July. At that point, we saw a pitcher who had lowered his arm angle, which appeared to help him get the ball down more. From the point he returned to the Braves to the end of the season, he had a 3.44 FIP to go with a 4.86 xFIP.

Meanwhile, Roe was picked off waivers in early August and joined the Braves immediately. He was superb over 20 games, striking out 33% of the batters he faced while walking just 9%. Like Ramirez, the Braves changed his arm angle slightly and upped his slider usage dramatically to the point that nearly 60% of his pitches were his slider. The results were not only a 64% groundball rate with the Braves, but a 44% outside-the-strike zone swing percentage (PITCHf/x).

Of the two, Roe is more interesting to me. A sinker/slider pitcher, he appeared to land with a perfect pitching coach in Roger McDowell, who preached sinkers as a way to induce weak grounders. Both could be kept to at least start to the season for the same reason Ramirez was kept last year (bubble player, out-of-options).

Finally Healthy? Jesse Biddle and Paco Rodriguez 

A sly pickup by John Coppolella last spring, Biddle is coming back from Tommy John surgery. How far along he is will help decide if he competes for a roster spot this spring. I'm under the impression that he'll head to the minors so the Braves can better monitor his innings, but if that curveball is back, Biddle could be in the mix.

The Braves have been waiting since the southpaw's trade from the Dodgers to add "Paco's Tacos" to the menu. Now, the former 82nd overall pick of the 2012 draft seems ready to finally pitch for the Braves after missing all of the second half of 2015 and 2016 with injuries.

If healthy, there is little question that Paco Rodriguez is a weapon. In 124 games in the majors spanning 85.1 innings, Rodriguez has a 2.98 FIP, 3.00 xFIP, and 2.82 SIERA. Lefties are completely clueless against Rodriguez and have managed a .220 wOBA against him while Rodriguez has sent 35% of them back to the dugout with a K. His numbers against righties aren't nearly as amazing, though he has held his own (.271 wOBA, 3.88 xFIP) to believe he has more potential than just a LOOGY.

Again, we have to preface this with "if healthy," but if he is, the Braves will have a duo of left-handed arms that other teams will envy - and be interested in trading for in Krol and Rodriguez.

The Rule 5 Twins: Armando Rivero and Daniel Winkler

Rivero had a 2.84 FIP and 37.4% strikeout percentage in Triple-A last year. In any other system, he would have received an opportunity to thrive in the majors, but the Cubs were kind of good last year so he was left in the minors. He'll have an opportunity to win a spot on this year's team and I think he has a very good chance of doing just that.

Daniel Winkler seems likely to begin 2017 on the disabled list after his horrific fractured elbow on April 11 last year. At the time, he was off to a wonderful start to his season by striking out half of the eight batters he faced. It looked like the righty with the violent delivery could help the Braves in 2016.

When - and if - he is able to help the Braves this season is a mystery. Even if he's able to, he might not get much of a look considering the depth the Braves have. To keep him, the Braves will have to put him on the 25-man roster for nearly two months once he's healthy to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements or offer him back to the Rockies, who always need pitching.

Chrisjnelson [CC BY 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Taking a Flyer: Blaine Boyer, Sam Freeman, Eric O'Flaherty, Jordan Walden

If you missed the news, Walden's contract was voided this week as we are not seeing the progression in his rehab that had been expected.

Blaine Boyer was added a month ago after failing to secure a major league contract from anyone. This was despite some pretty good traditional numbers since he made it back to the majors in 2014 (171.1 innings, 3.31 ERA, 1.28 WHIP). Sabermetrics are a little less impressed with a 3.73 FIP and 4.39 xFIP. The big reason is while Boyer does a good job limiting walks and keeping the ball in the yard, he doesn't miss many bats (4.6 K/9, 12.4% K% over last three years). Instead, he works off weak contact and inducing enough grounders to be successful. He's the epitome of an older style of pitching where you let your defense do its job and just focus on out-thinking the other hitter. All that matters is that it works. Over the last three years, Boyer has been a 1.1 fWAR reliever, which isn't great but ranks him 99th among 163 qualified relievers. It wasn't enough to get a major league deal, but he'll have a chance to be on the roster when the season begins.

Sam Freeman was an early pickup this offseason. Freeman has been in the majors in each of the last five seasons with his best work coming in 2014 as a member of the Cardinals. That season, he carried a 3.79 FIP and 3.92 xFIP. Unlike many southpaw options, Freeman has reverse splits, which limits his appeal. He's more likely to be a third lefty out of the pen and even then, his limitations against left-handers make that unlikely.

Eric O'Flaherty was brought back on a minor-league deal after being a last-minute addition to the roster last spring. Knee and elbow injuries limited him to 39 games last year and he wasn't particularly effective either. He had surgery on his left elbow last September to help with the tension and should be good-to-go as camp opens. His pitches last year lacked that typical O'Flaherty sink. We'll see if the surgery helped to fix that this spring.

Starting Candidates Left Over: Josh Collmenter, John Danks, Joel De La Cruz

Of this trio, Collmenter seems like the good bet to be part of the final mix. He was brought back on a $2M contract rather than being non-tendered and the Braves like his experience as a swingman who throws strikes. In an eight-man bullpen, there's certainly room for the long guy.

Depth for Gwinnett's starting staff, De La Cruz will get some innings - especially early in camp - but seems destined for a reassignment at some point. Danks could be an intriguing option, though. He's had major league success and is a bit tougher on lefties. With that said, he's going to need a tremendous spring to get in the mix for a spot out of the pen.

By StatsMP76 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Prospects: Caleb Dirks, Jason Hursh, Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter, Akeel Morris, Lucas Sims

This is a fun group and a mini-bullpen in its own right. While Dirks flies under the radar, the results are clearly there. In 110 games and 143.1 innings, Dirks has a 1.32 ERA, a 28% strikeout rate, and a 8% walk rate (intentional passes not included). He's allowed just six homeruns as well. Dirks lacks the big stuff or high velocity of other prospects, but in a results-driven business, he's got the resume. I imagine he'll be given a chance to produce at Gwinnett first, though.

A converted starter and former first-round pick, Hursh spent most of 2016 at Mississippi, which was the third consecutive season he did that. Hursh did pitch twice in the majors and also eight times with Gwinnett. If Bobby Cox was still the manager, he might look at Hursh as the next Kevin Gryboski and utilize him in as a "rally killer" who induces double plays. Hursh has never really lived up to his billing and probably won't start in 2017.

Speaking of haven't lived up to his billing, Luke Jackson was picked up in the Tyrell Jenkins trade. He quickly climbed to Triple-A, but has not been able to gain much momentum there. In two brief trips to the majors, he has struggled to find the strike zone and keep hitters from finding the seats when he does. The appeal is still there with Jackson hitting triple digits on the gun with an inconsistent, but devastating at times curveball. If the Braves can get him to locate his pitches and find consistency with his mechanics, he could be a high-leverage arm for them as soon as this year.

In A.J. Minter, the Braves have their "best relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel." They also have a potential x-factor for their bullpen if they feel he's ready to unleash on the National League in 2017. With a 97 mph heater that has amazing movement and a unique slider that darts into lefties and away from righties, Minter has two major-league quality offerings. If he can stay healthy, he can give the Braves yet another power arm that other teams have to game plan around in late innings. He has yet to throw in back-to-back games, but if he can cross that hurdle, the sky is the limit for his 2017 campaign.

Akeel Morris has been quietly effective for a few years now and while he doesn't have the ceiling of a Minter, he still has potential to work himself into high-leverage situations with his three-pitch mix of a mid 90's heater, solid changeup, and a slider that could make-or-break his career depending on how well he develops it. His delivery appears to come out of whack from time-to-time and I really worry about his long-term health considering how much his arm drags behind him before the ball is released. I believe his likely destination will be Gwinnett, but being already on the 40-man only helps his chances.

Finally, there is Lucas Sims. I am only including him on the chance the Braves get enamored with his potential as a reliever this spring. My belief is that he heads to Gwinnett and battles to climb the starting pitching depth chart, but many feel he is destined for a relief role at some point. Will that be 2017? It's possible.

To Sum Up...

I just gave you 18 options for four spots. Some of them are better bets than others, of course. It's hard to really nail down just what the Braves will do with the bullpen, though my bet is conservative to start the season. I think the six prospects I named are all destined for Gwinnett - though one or two could be pushed to Mississippi because of numbers. That brings us down to a dozen options. Winkler is likely to begin the year on the DL while Biddle probably needs to be brought back slowly. Now, we have ten options and I believe you can further lower that by removing De La Cruz and Danks from the discussion.

Four spots, eight names. My bet is that the Braves go with Collmenter and the two out-of-options guys in Ramirez and Roe. In that scenario, the final spot will be a three-way battle between Boyer, Freeman, and O'Flaherty - one likely to be won by Boyer. That would give us a bullpen of Johnson, Vizcaino, Krol, Cabrera, Ramirez, Roe, Boyer, and Collmenter to start the year.

If you don't like that bullpen, don't despair. The chances of the bullpen lasting even a month without injury or poor play forcing a move is minimal. At that point, we might see guys like Dirks, Jackson, Minter, and Morris start to work their way onto the team in a potentially permanent way. We could also see the Braves scrap the eight-man idea for a more conventional seven-man bullpen - which I definitely would prefer.

What does your bullpen look like? Think the Braves will go younger or do you agree that they will be more conservative to start the year? Let me know in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice in-depth assessment. The article highlights how much coaching the Braves do with young pitchers, and what projects these guys (aside from Johnson and Krol) are. And nursing Vizcaino, Rodriguez, Winkler, Minter and Biddle back to health is an enormous challenge in itself. Can they possibly get Winkler and Morris to pitch successfully without the scary arm mechanics? Is there any chance that arm speed alone will allow Cabrera, Jackson, or Rivero to work effectively as 7th or 8th inning relievers? Can they remake Sims or Biddle into useful arms before other younger prospects make them superfluous? It will be very interesting to see what the Braves can do with what is essentially a high risk group of other team's castoffs plus a handful of home grown guys with recent command and control issues.

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