The Braves bullpen has not been good this year. They rank 26th in bullpen ERA, and it has been ugly at times. Mauricio Cabrera seemingly never found his control in 2017 and has been struggling down in the minors. Jim Johnson has been an absolute nightmare. Ian Krol was terrible before hitting the disabled list. With the lack of help from the bullpen incumbents, the Braves have been trying to pick up the slack all year. For the third straight year, the Braves have put together a makeshift bullpen in the rebuild years. They traded Craig Kimbrel, have not paid a reliever since, and are now reaping the consequences.
Most of the guys in the ‘pen are not long-term options. Max Fried is viewed as a starter long-term, but he is bouncing back from injuries and the Braves have desperately needed a quality lefty arm. Luke Jackson and Rex Brothers are both guys the team has team control over for a while but have not proven to be long-term options. Jason Motte has been a nice surprise, but he is in the last year of his deal.
However, the Braves do have some mainstays that serve as a nice foundation to build an elite bullpen. It all starts with Arodys Vizcaino, who has reclaimed his closer role and has not looked back. Though he had his struggles last season, he has for the most part been dominant since being re-acquired by the Braves. He is under control under 2020. Jose Ramirez has also emerged as a top option out of the bullpen this season. He was one of the better fireballers the Braves had last season but is now in the midst of a breakout year. He is under team control through 2023.
Sam Freeman and Matt Wisler also have the chance to become long-term contributors in the pen. Freeman has been a nice surprise this season and the Braves need to hold onto any lefty production they can get. Wisler has made the move to the bullpen, and frankly, it suits his arsenal better. It is a small sample size, but his best outing this season have come since being called back up since making the change. It was not too long ago he was a top pitching prospect, and a lot of relievers are failed experiments as starters.
The good news is that Braves farm system is deep in pitching talent, but not all of them are starters. Relievers are not usually highly touted prospects, but the Braves are rich in guys with late-inning potential. Much like the Braves rotation, talent is coming and it is only a matter of time.
Frankly, Jason Hursh and Akeel Morris should already be in Atlanta’s bullpen. Both have flashed potential and have outperformed current guys with bullpen spots. Hursh is another starter turned releiver, and has responded well. Morris was acquired for Kelly Johnson and has looked great at the big league level.
However, it is Caleb Dirks and AJ Minter who project to be the late-inning future for Atlanta. Dirks was drafted by the Braves but was traded to the Dodgers. The team thought so much of him that they opted to reacquire him. Dirks has a career 1.91 minor league ERA, and will likely join the Atlanta bullpen some time early next season. AJ Minter is one of the most feared lefty reliever prospects in baseball. He could very well be the future closer for the Braves. He has dominated the minors as well, as he has posted a 2.17 ERA. There is no doubting Minter has the talent but he must focus on remaining healthy. He could earn a September call-up.
Down in Mississippi, the Braves have a trio of relievers with serious potential. Mauricio Cabrera, however, is a serious question mark. Cabrera garnered attention because of his incredible velocity that rivals that of Aroldis Chapman. However, he is known to have extreme control issues. He was sent to the minors on a rehab assignment early in the season and has struggled so much that he is still yet to be called up. However, the 2.82 ERA he posted and his rare stuff make him a guy to continue monitoring. The Braves also have two guys at that level that the common Braves fans has probably never heard of. Corbin Clouse and Devan Watts have absolutely dominated the minor leagues and provide the Braves with another wave of bullpen help.
One last guy to keep a serious eye on is former University of Alabama closer Thomas Burrows, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners this offseason. He has some of the best strikeout stuff in the system and has dominated hitters in A ball.
The Braves have always been known for their pitching, but it has not always been starting pitching. Sure, the franchise is known for the days of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine, but most recently the Braves were known for its dominant bullpen. The combination of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty headlined one of the best bullpens baseball fans have ever seen. The Braves now have multiple waves of relief prospects heading up the pipeline, and money to spend. While it has been frustrating to watch the Braves in late inning situations, it is still better than sacrificing long-term assets to patch short-term holes that don’t meet the team’s window.
The Braves have the ammunition to build an elite bullpen. Assuming the Red Sox pick up Craig Kimbrel’s team option for next season, the Braves could also be serious contenders to sign Kimbrel after next season, when they are ready to take the next step. He may hold a grudge against the new Braves regime, but he could also want to return home to the fans of Braves Country.
Next time you watch Jim Johnson blow another game, just remember Braves fans. There are brighter days ahead and the dark ages will soon be over.