Three Cuts: Braves bullpen could be lights out, but must answer key questions
Bringing in innings-eaters Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, along with another veteran arm in Jaime Garcia, were additions the Braves made, first and foremost, to keep the prized young starters from being thrown into situations they aren't ready for.
But those moves -- potentially -- come with an added bonus: taking pressure off a bullpen that was taxed in 2016.
Eighty-eight times last season Atlanta pitchers failed to get out of the sixth inning, a number bested by only the Marlins and Pirates (89 each), Brewers (91) and Dodgers (96). That resulted in relievers amassing 567 1/3 innings, the most in franchise history, per Baseball-Reference's Play Index.
If those new rotation pieces can bridge the gap into the late innings, the bullpen could be a major area of strength. But there are a number of questions that will have to be answered in the coming weeks.
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1. Can Jim Johnson hold down the closer role?
Signed to a two-year extension on the final day of last season, Johnson followed that news with his 20th save of the season. It was the fifth in his final six appearances to wrap up a year in which he had a 3.06 ERA over 64 2/3 innings.
That he climbed into the closer role was surprising given that Arodys Vizcaino and Jason Grilli were given the first cracks at the job. Grilli blew two of his first three save opportunities, was moved out of the role and eventually traded to the Blue Jays, and while Vizcaino had the look of an All-Star, he was derailed by a right oblique strain and later right shoulder inflammation. In between those injuries, he posted a 23.63 ERA in four games and had a .429 batting average against.
Meanwhile, Johnson 18 saves and a 1.48 ERA from July 26 and overall had a .236 BAA, his best work in a full season since 2012 when he was an All-Star with the Orioles. The thing with Johnson, though, is while we've seen those highs, he also had a 4.74 ERA before that late-July push and the Braves have some intriguing arms that could challenge him for the closer role immediately -- Vizcaino and Mauricio Cabrera -- and down the line -- A.J. Minter.
If healthy, Vizcaino will be the first to push Johnson, but Cabrera is certainly the most enticing candidate, what with that triple-digit fastball. The 23-year-old is most definitely a work in progress, with just three strikeouts to nine walks over his last 11 appearances.
Then there's Minter, who MLB.com's Mark Bowman called the organization's best relief prospect since Braves' all-time saves leader Craig Kimbrel. So ...
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2. How long until we see A.J. Minter?
The 2015 second-round pick out of Texas A&M posted some eye-opening numbers in stops at Single-A Rome, High-A Carolina and Double-A Mississippi last season.
Minter had a 1.30 ERA and 0.837 WHIP over 34 2/3 innings, racking up 47 strikeouts to 11 walks, all while opponents were hitting just .149 against him.
Those numbers would have looked even more daunting if note for an Aug. 24 outing against Biloxi in which he allowed four earned runs on two hits with a pair of talks in 2/3 of an inning.
With an invitation to spring training, Minter is going to get a long look. But with no less than three-day's rest between his appearances last season, the expectation here is he'll be getting time at Triple-A Gwinnett to prove he can handle a most consistent workload.
That could lead to a mid-to-late-season look that, with the intentions of the Braves rekindling the kind of homegrown bullpen they had with Kimbrel/Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters, may have Minter challenging for time in high-leverage situations.
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3. Who will make up the Opening Day relief corps?
Manager Brian Snitker has alluded to the Braves using an eight-man bullpen again this season, and there are a few spots where things could get interesting in this group's makeup.
The givens here are Johnson, Cabrera and Vizcaino and Chaz Roe -- 0.84 ERA over his last 11 appearances -- and Jose Ramirez -- who had a 2.40 ERA down the stretch and has no more minor-league options -- also have strong cases.
But the Braves have two Rule 5 right-handers who they'll have to consider. Daniel Winkler, who showed promise before his elbow injury, needs to stay on the roster for two months or he'll have to be offered back to the Rockies. Then there's Armando Rivero, who had a 105 strikeouts and a 2.13 ERA in 67 2/3 innings last year for the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate.
It seems unlikely both make it, and with questions surrounding Winkler's progress, Rivero's K numbers could win out.
There’s a new right-hander in former first-round pick Luke Jackson and a familiar veteran righty in Blaine Boyer, who hasn't been with the Braves since 2009, and is coming off three seasons with an average ERA of 3.31. But could the Braves go with him over Josh Collmenter and his 2.37 ERA in three starts, and who gives the team a long man who can make a spot start? Lefty John Danks could also fit that role, but he's never been a reliever before.
If Snitker opts to carry two left-handers, Ian Krol and Paco Rodriguez are the clear favorites, despite the return of O'Flaherty and veterans like Sam Freeman and Adam Kolarek. But if only one make it, Krol did have better numbers against righties (259/.320/.366) in 2016 than lefties (.287/.330/.391), and while Rodriguez hasn't pitched since May 2015 with the Dodgers after undergoing Tommy John surgery, before that he had a .174 BAA in 116 games.
Another name to keep an eye on is Akeel Morris. Acquired last year from the Mets for Kelly Johnson, Morris fanned 86 in all in 2016 over 61 innings, including 50 Ks in 35 2/3 in Mississippi.
There's not a more volatile task than trying to piece together a bullpen head of spring, but the best guess is Johnson, Cabrera, Vizcaino, Roe, Rivero, Rodriguez, Morris, Collmenter ... and that is subject to change multiple times before Opening Day.