After series of moves, what will Braves’ bullpen look like?
There’s one certainty surrounding the Braves’ bullpen this season: nothing is certain.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Craig Kimbrel, who has won four straight National League saves titles, remains the anchor. But it’s what route manager Fredi Gonzalez takes to get to the game’s best closer that is much more clouded than it was mere days ago after Atlanta’s latest roster move.
Gone are three of the team’s top four in relief innings last season in David Carpenter (61), Anthony Varvaro (54) and Jordan Walden (50).
Last week, Carpenter was traded, along with Chasen Shreve to the Yankees for starting pitching prospect Manny Banuelos. That comes after Varvaro was sent to the Red Sox for minor league reliever Aaron Kurcz, while Walden was part of the swap that landed Jason Heyward with the Cardinals.
All of those arms were key to group that is a season removed from equaling the majors’ lowest bullpen ERA since 1990 and last year was 11th at 3.31.
That leaves David Hale (87 1/3), Kimbrel (61 2/3) and Luis Avilan (43 1/3) as the only players who threw more than 25 innings in ’14, meaning Atlanta’s bullpen is going to have a very different look.
There are still some other familiar faces as James Russell (24 1/3) and Shae Simmons (21 2/3) return, along with Gus Schlosser (17 2/3), Juan Jaime (12 1/3) and Ian Thomas (10 2/3), but it’s clear now the Braves are going to be banking on a group with concerns, including with the two newest additions, Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson.
Grilli, 38, was an All-Star in saving 33 games for the Pirates in 2013, however, the right-hander lost that job last season and was traded to the Angels. He finished with a 4.00 ERA and saw his strikeout rate drop from 36.6 to 24.3.
Among the biggest drop offs in Grilli’s ’14 was how much more ineffective his best pitches became. He had a wFB (fastball runs above average) of 4.9 in ’13, with that number dropping to minus-0.6. Likewise with his wSL (slider runs above average) with fell to 0.8 after sitting at 3.5 the year before.
Like Grilli, Johhnson is a former All-Star closer, who saved a whopping 101 games in ’12 and ’13 combined and got a one-year, $10 million contract for ’14. The righty proceeded to have a 7.09 ERA last year with the A’s and Tigers.
As drastic as Grilli’s discrepancies in pitch values were from ’13 to ’14, Johnson’s were even more glaring. He had a 10.1 wFB in ’12 and 7.0 in the following year, then went to minus-12.5 last season.
But if Grilli and Johnson can bounce back with the tutelage of pitching coach Roger McDowell, the Braves may have bought low to collect a trio of power arms similar to what they had when Kimbrel had Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters behind him.
But as of now there are just question marks, which extend to the left-handers.
Avilan held lefties to a .144 average in ’13, but he struggled last season as that number jumped to .264 and in July was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. Likewise, Russell had issues in that department with a lefty split that sat at .284.
Were those flukes? Venters is no longer an option after being released and if neither Avilan or Russell can seize the lefty-specialist role — or if the team doesn’t bring in another option — there is hope in Simmons.
In 50 plate appearances vs. lefties, the righty had an impressive reverse split, with a .122 batting average against and 11 strikeouts. Outside of Kimbrel (.147), he is the current member of the Braves’ bullpen with a BA below .250 in that department. Jaime, Johnson and Schlosser are the highest at .333 each, followed by Thomas (.318) — who himself is a lefty — Hale (.289) and Grilli (.256).
The past two seasons the Braves had a more defined bridge to Kimbrel, typically going from Walden to Carpenter before lighting the flames on the Turner Field scoreboard.
Grilli and Johnson could return to form and fill those roles, but the difference was Walden, despite being right-handed, was better in an Atlanta uniform against lefties (.216 vs. .189).
The main options — at least how they look more than a month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training — are all righties.
None of that may matter considering Grilli and Johnson, like Kimbrel, are used to pitching in high leverage situations with their vast closing experience. The thought here is that Simmons becomes an even bigger part of this unit going forward.
But there are questions with this group, something the Braves haven’t had to deal with of late with their relievers.
There is Kimbrel and then there are options. How this group takes shape this spring and whether anyone else joins the mix figures to be a major point of focus.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney