Kimbrel again the constant as Braves’ bullpen takes on different look

The Braves surrounded four-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel (center) with new additions Jason Grilli (left), Jim Johnson (right) and Josh Outman this offseason.

ATLANTA — Craig Kimbrel has been a fixture atop the game’s saves leaders, with his 185 over the past four seasons a stunning 48 more than the next closest player.

The Braves’ closer is also a fixture in a bullpen that, for the second time in his career, has undergone a drastic makeover.

With that four-time All-Star of an anchor in place, Atlanta not only withstood the last set of changes, but got even better. Will history repeat itself with the additions of Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson and Josh Outman?

"I think if we all show up and worry about what I need to do personally to help the team and not try to be the guy to completely change the team, you’re going to do OK," Kimbrel said.

In September 2011, ‘Sports Illustrated’ ran a feature on Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters with the headline ‘Good And Nasty’ and a photo of the trio gathered around dugout steps. The article said, in part, "They are nasty, in a manner similar to that of the famous Nasty Boys — the Reds’ relief trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers."

But less than two years later, only Kimbrel remained.

Tommy John surgery in 2013, and again in ’14, derailed two comeback attempts by Venters; O’Flaherty underwent the procedure after pitching 19 games in ’13 and would later sign with the A’s.

Gone were two lefties that has combined for a 1.98 ERA in 447 appearances over four seasons, but the Braves relievers weathered those losses by posting a collective 2.46 ERA — which tied for the lowest since 1990 — as Kimbrel teamed with a group spearheaded by Luis Avilan, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro and a rejuvenated Jordan Walden.

That collective took a step back last season despite Kimbrel finishing second in MLB with 47 saves. The biggest culprits were Carpenter’s ERA skyrocketing from 1.78 to 3.54, Avilan, the left-hand specialist, allowed lefties to hit .264/.350/.379 (those numbers sat at .144/.219/.163 in ’13) and long reliever (and sometime starter) David Hale had a 3.81 ERA over 54 1/3 innings , Gus Schlosser was at 7.64 in 15 games and in 16 game’s Juan Jaime’s ERA sat at 5.84 and Ian Thomas’ was 4.22.

Now, like ’13 all over again, only Kimbrel is guaranteed to be returning to the bullpen.

During a busy offseason the Braves traded Carpenter, Varvaro (2.63 ERA in 54 2/3 innings) Jordan Walden (2.88 ERA over 50 innings) and Chasen Sheve (0.73 ERA in 15 games).

Of those who return, Avilan, who was demoted to Triple-A, returned in mid-August and allowed batters to hit a .271 with a 3.95 ERA in hi last 15 games; Hale is planning on making a run at the fifth starter spot, though he could stay in the bullpen; Schlosser was released then re-signed as a free agent, but doesn’t currently appear on the 40-man roster and Jaime and Thomas haven’t shown enough to be penciled in yet as consistent contributors.

The same could be said, though, for 24-year-old Shae Simmons, who had a 2.91 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with 23 strikeouts and 11 walks in an injury-plagued season that saw him sidelined for the final two months. Before he started dealing with a shoulder issue, Simmons had a 0.96 ERA over his first 20 appearances.

If healthy, he could be an intriguing option as the Braves also look to new pieces Grilli and Johnson to find a primary setup man for Kimbrel.

There remain questions about Grilli and Johnson, who come to Atlanta off down seasons.

Grilli, 38, who was an All-Star in 2013 with the Pirates when the right-hander saved 33 games, had a 4.00 ERA last season in 54 innings in Pittsburgh and the Angels.

Likewise, the right-handed Johnson, 31, went from an All-Star with 101 saves in ’12 and ’13 to released by the A’s in a year in which he posted a 7.09 ERA in 40 1/3 innings.

Kimbrel, at least, believes they can turn it around, especially Johnson.

"I know Johnson, the last two seasons he’s had up and down seasons, but he’s definitely a guy that can turn it around on this team and be a big asset to our bullpen," Kimbrel said. "He’s got that power sinker and in back-to-back seasons had 50 saves.

"So it’s not the fact that he may not be in the closer role, but he’s going to be a pitcher that’s going to go out and he’s going to eat some innings and he’s going to do it successfully and that’s what we’re going to need to do if we’re going to be a winning ball team."

It’s a group that manager Fredi Gonzalez is high on, especially for the mere fact that they added two players who are used to working in high-leverage situations as closer.

McCARTNEY: Roster changed, but focus the same

"The back end of the bullpen, you’ve got Kimbrel — that’s pretty solid," he said. "Then adding Grilli and adding Johnson … any time you have a chance to add those veteran-type guys, especially in the bullpen, two guys that have closed … two years ago, Johnson had 50 saves. We feel like he can get back into that mode again."

While he doesn’t have the same resume as the bullpen’s other acquisitions, it’s Josh Outman that could be the savviest move.

In ’14 with the Indians and Yankees, he limited lefties to .169/.269/.339 in 59 at-bats. Duplicate those numbers this year and it would be the best for a Braves lefty reliever vs. left-handed batters since O’Flaherty held them to a .113 average in 2012 and could seriously impact how much usage Avilan gets.

Speaking of usage, that figures to be something to monitor when it comes to Kimbrel.

Last September, when Atlanta won just seven of its final 25 games, he made eight appearances, which was the lowest usage Kimbrel had since getting his first save on Sept. 19, 2010.

With the losses on offense — the Braves dealt over 50 percent of last year’s home run total — we could see a drop in opportunities after Kimbrel averaged 51 save opportunities over the last four seasons.

But those chances, like again seeing the faces around him in the bullpen change, aren’t something the now longest-tenured Braves player is concerned with.

"No, not really. I think I’m still going to have my opportunities," Kimbrel said. "We’re still going to have tie ball games and extra-inning ball games and we’re still going to win, so I’m not really worried about that at all."