Burning questions facing Braves relievers

The 2012 season was a banner campaign for Atlanta Braves pitchers, especially after the sixth inning.

Among National League clubs last year, the Braves claimed high honors in five major categories for innings 7-9 (and beyond) — ranking first in walks allowed (152), second in ERA (2.93), second in WHIP (1.18), third in opponents’ batting average (.232) and sixth in strikeouts (462).

And all that occurred before Jordan Walden joined Atlanta’s deep corps of back-end dynamos.

Here are three burning questions focusing on the state of the Braves’ bullpen, as we draw closer to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training.

1. Is Craig Kimbrel the National League’s premier closer?

With the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman (1.51 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 122 Ks last year) making the big leap to full-time starter, Kimbrel (1.01 ERA, 116/14 K-BB ratio, 0.65 WHIP, 16.7 K/9 rate) suddenly doesn’t have a classic rival among closers — at least in the Senior Circuit.

Yes, Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies), Jason Motte (Cardinals), Rafael Soriano (Nationals) and J.J. Putz (Diamondbacks) are formidable relievers, proven stars with the capacity for superb numbers in long stretches, but none can match Kimbrel’s season-long flair for microscopic ERA and WHIP tallies, 110-plus strikeouts and less than 20 walks.

Speaking of free passes, Kimbrel enjoyed four full months of two or less walks each last year; and from May 18-July 28, spanning 19 saves and 26 appearances, he didn’t allow a single walk. Think about that for a second.

From a real-world and fantasy perspective, the 24-year-old Kimbrel has no peers among National League stoppers. These are the perks that accompany one phenomenal talent whose best years, incredibly, might be ahead of him.

That’s not to say Kimbrel will improve upon the 0.65 WHIP — but 50 saves, 130 strikeouts and a sub-0.90 ERA are (shockingly) attainable marks for the foreseeable future.

2. How do Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Jordan Walden stack up, among baseball’s best set-up relievers?

O’Flaherty (3-0, 1.73 ERA in 2012) has decimated all comers over the past two seasons, notching a 1.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 113/40 K-BB ratio in that time frame.

Regarding Venters, he was virtually unhittable for the 2010 and ’11 seasons, posting back-to-back campaigns of a sub-2.00 ERA and 90 strikeouts — amazing tallies for a one-inning asset.

And then there’s Jordan Walden, the Braves’ stealth acquisition over the winter (Tommy Hanson trade). Walden posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2010-11 and rang up 32 saves for the Angels in 2011. Within the context of Kimbrel, O’Flaherty and Venters, Walden might rank as baseball’s best No. 4 reliever.

Which begs the question: Was it wise for the Braves to trade a potential front-line starter (Hanson) for a non-closing reliever who currently sits no higher than third or fourth in the Atlanta bullpen?

In this luxury-tax age, in which top-flight starters with three full seasons before free agency are prized commodities, could the Braves have squeezed a greater haul for Hanson (free agency in 2016) than Walden — tangible talent notwithstanding?

One could make that argument.

In his first three seasons with the Braves (2009-11), Hanson had a 32-22 record, 3.28 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and sterling 431/148 K-BB ratio. And then last year, the 25-year-old righty notched a career high in victories.

In December 2011, the Padres executed a 4-for-1 swap in the Mat Latos trade, collecting Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Brad Boxberger and Edinson Volquez for the ace-like Latos. And a few months ago, the Mets landed high-end prospects Travis d’Arnaud (catcher) and Noah Syndergaard (starting pitcher) in a seven-player megadeal featuring National League Cy Young R.A. Dickey — now headlining the Blue Jays’ vastly improved rotation.

Historical musings aside, the addition of Walden fortifies a bullpen that already was among the best in baseball. Seriously, if the Braves theoretically wanted their starters to log only five innings four or five times a week — one could see the benefits of Walden, O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel stifling opponents in the final four innings.

But at some point, the question may arise: How much bullpen depth is enough, if O’Flaherty, Venters and Walden are consigned to specialized roles (righty vs. righty/lefty vs. lefty), given the talent and stamina of the Braves’ starters?

3. In terms of long relief, what would be the Braves’ best-case scenario?

Let’s fast-forward to after the All-Star break:

If Paul Maholm (probable No. 4 or No. 5 starter coming out of spring training) occupies the primary long-relief slot in July and August, it’ll likely mean that Julio Teheran (Atlanta’s top pitching prospect) and Brandon Beachy (baseball’s ERA leader before getting hurt last season) are flourishing in the back end of the Braves’ rotation.

In that instance, Maholm could be a luxury item in long relief and special situations. And Luis Avilan (2/1 K-BB ratio and 3.80 ERA in minors/majors since 2009) would get a less pressurized chance to develop in his eighth professional season — including stints in the Dominican Summer League (2006, ’07) — at the tender age of 23.