Braves: Breaking down the minor league lottery ticket relief arms signed thus far

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As Jake reported yesterday, Braves pitchers and catchers report for spring camp next Thursday (February 18), and with another small signing on Friday, GM Alex Anthopoulos is beginning to round out the 2021 roster. The talk of the offseason regarded the lineup and whether or not slugger Marcell Ozuna would return as the team’s power-bat. But with that settled, attention has been pointed elsewhere. 

Exactly how will the Braves bullpen be structured this coming season?… Who will fill in as the team’s new closer? … and will Atlanta bring back one of Shane Greene or Mark Melancon (or both)?

Those questions will almost certainly get answered in the coming days. However, let’s look at each of the minor league lottery tickets the Braves picked up this winter, which feature a trio of arms that may or may not help shore up one of the major’s top relief cores from last season. All three pitchers below will fight for a big-league spot this spring, and given such a bare-minimum investment, all could perhaps provide some extra value as well. Either Chase or Jake has already profiled the relievers listed below at the actual time of their signings. Still, here I’ve broken each pitcher down by examining their biggest strength and weakness, along with my expectation for them this upcoming season. 

 

Victor Arano

A late-January waiver claim — that also included the addition of outfielder Kyle Garlick (who has since been DFA’d to make room for Ozuna) — the 26-year-old Arano is a former top 25 prospect out of the Phillies system, thanks to a filthy mid-80s slider that allows him to rack up a solid amount of strikeouts. Recently more of a fringe major-leaguer, he didn’t pitch at all in 2020 and only logged 8.2 innings two seasons ago because of elbow surgery; however, in 2018, Arano was absolutely dominant for Philadelphia’s big league club, recording a 2.73 ERA (3.36 FIP) in 60 relief appearances (59.1 IP).

Biggest strength — His Slider

Weirdly, Arano’s dominant slider doesn’t appear dominant according to FanGraphs Pitch Values, but don’t let his low rating there fool you. During that 2018 campaign with the Phils, the righty leaned on his slider nearly 62% of the time, allowing just a .200 AVG from opposing batters, including a ridiculous 64% whiff-rate. He has other pitches in his repertoire (a 4-seamer and sinker), but it’s rather evident that Arano’s slider is a legit strength of his on the mound. 

Biggest weakness — Lack of recent work

Essentially any non-major league regular from the last year will enter the 2021 season without much of a recent workload, though Arano’s potential rust could be a bit more dramatic. Thanks to COVID and the aforementioned elbow surgery the year prior, he’s hardly faced any live hitters over the last two seasons, which ultimately could mean nothing. Luckily, Arano seems to be a pitcher that’s always displayed above-average control on the mound (career 2.8 BB/9 as a big leaguer), so it’s not as if he has some underlying control/command issue to work through on top of his lack of innings. 

My expectation for 2021: The upside to Arano is impressive and gives him a shot at earning some type of role in the Braves major league bullpen this coming season (obviously dependent on his performance this spring). Although, on the other hand, Atlanta has a pretty substantial surplus when it comes to fringe-type arms, and I’m not so sure Arano would jump in front of guys like Sean Newcomb, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Tucker Davidson, or Patrick Weigel — all former or current prospect pitchers that the Braves will most likely want to get a good look at in 2021. Let’s call it a cup of coffee for Arano, but I predict that if he remains in the organization, he’ll log 80-90% of his innings with Triple-A Gwinnett this season. 

 

Carl Edwards Jr.

Edwards — who’s entering his age-29 season — has a respectable track record as a big-league reliever over his six-year career, highlighted by the 2.1 fWAR he combined to produce from 2017-18 with the Cubs. Although a strained pitching shoulder in 2019 and a forearm injury in 2020 caused him to tally just 21.2 overall frames over the last couple of seasons, which as an effect, has really damaged his stock recently. The Braves signed the right-handed Edwards to a minor league pact on January 29.

Biggest strength — Home run suppression

Edwards currently owns a career home run rate of 0.75 allowed per nine innings, a mark that could be even lower if not for a disastrous 2019 campaign in which he surrendered three homers in just 17 innings (1.59 HR/9). This isn’t to say he’s necessarily better than everyone else at keeping the ball in the yard (granted, Edwards does rank just outside the top 30 in all of baseball in homer rate since 2016). Still, for him, it’s certainly one of his better strengths and a skill-set that should be much-appreciated in Atlanta. 

Biggest weakness — Walks

Going back to the 2016 season (his first full year in the majors), Edwards currently ties four other qualified relievers with the major’s fifth-highest walk rate (13.7%). His five walks per nine over his career is far from ideal, and despite a small sample in 2020 — in which he posted 1.9 BB/9 — Edwards really hasn’t shown any improvements in that area. To put it in perspective, save for last year, Edwards has finished a season with less than five walks per nine innings only once, when he logged 3.5 BB/9 in 2016. 

My expectation for 2021: Steamer and Depth Charts project just eight major league innings for Edwards in 2021, and both peg him to run a walk rate higher than 4.7 per nine. If that’s the type of performance he gives this spring, then — barring multiple injuries to the Braves bullpen — I don’t see Edwards even cracking the big league team at all. However, I really don’t believe Anthopoulos would take a chance on Edwards — even if it is just a minor league deal — if he really thought the righty wasn’t capable of wielding some sort of control on the mound. So I’m at least optimistic relative to the projections. Assuming he keeps his walks under control while in Northport this spring, I could see Edwards assuming a role similar to that of former Braves righty Darren O’Day (in his career, Edwards has 13.6 K/9 versus right-handed batters). 

 

Nate Jones

Atlanta’s most recent reliever signed on a minor league deal (Tuesday); 35-year-old Nate Jones was a failed-starter in the White Sox system after being drafted in the 5th round back in 2007. Of the relievers mentioned in this post, it’s Jones that appears most likely to earn a regular role in the Braves bullpen this coming season. But like Edwards and Arano above, he too has his own strengths and weaknesses. 

Biggest strength — Velocity 

Jones is primarily a two-pitch pitcher (sinker & slider), but he occasionally uses a 4-seamer and changeup (though less than 2% combined in 2020). The sinker is a hard one, averaging 96 MPH last season, to go along with a spin-rate (2,457 RPM) — that ranked in the 87th-percentile a season ago. Jones has been one of the game’s hardest throwers ever since he cracked the majors in 2012, as he’s sixth in sinker/2-seamer velocity among all relievers with at least 300 innings in that span, according to FanGraphs (97.4 MPH). High-90s heat isn’t as big a deal as it once was, but it’s still a rather effective way to get opposing batters out, nonetheless. 

Biggest weakness — Age & durability 

While I think Jones could serve Atlanta’s bullpen well in 2021, a lot of his success ultimately comes down to whether or not he can remain healthy, which is something he hasn’t been able to consistently do over the last four years. A stint on the paternity list caused him to miss some time last season, but Jones was a question mark all spring leading up to the regular season with forearm issues that stemmed from the 2019 campaign. Two seasons ago, his season was cut short after just 10.1 frames due to that mentioned forearm injury, which resulted in surgery. At the time (May of 2019), that was Jones’ third procedure in four years, and from 2017-20 he’s totaled just 70.1 innings altogether, though still producing a respectable 3.82 ERA (4.86 FIP) in that span. 

My expectation for 2021: If his body holds up, I believe Jones will win himself a low-leverage role in the Braves bullpen this season, as a guy that can go up against both righty and lefty batters. Over his career, the right-handed Jones has actually been a bit better versus lefties, holding opposing left-handed batters to just a .206 AVG (as opposed to a .260 AVG vs. RHB). With a career-worst season with the sinker in 2020 (.421 AVG allowed), I think Atlanta’s staff can get Jones to lean on his filthy slider a bit more, which hopefully will enable him to miss more barrels in 2021. Look for Jones to open the season as a Braves reliever. 

 

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