Braves’ bullpen competition is officially wide open

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Heading into Spring Training, there was always going to be some sort of competition for the Braves’ bullpen. However, the expectation was not that it would be as wide open as it is currently.

Coming off a campaign where he tossed a 1.39 ERA in 36 games, many felt it was safe to assume Atlanta would be holding a spot for Jacob Webb. This would not prove to be the case. Webb was optioned to AAA on Friday morning, taking him out of consideration for a bullpen spot. While it was a bit surprising, he just returned from an elbow impingement injury that cost him the last couple of months of 2019, and he struggled in his first two outings. Webb is impressive but is due regression based on his numbers from last year and only has half a season of major league experience. The Braves have opted to keep him in the minors for now, therefore opening the scope of their bullpen competition.

Grant Dayton was far from guaranteed a roster spot but seemed like the incumbent lefty option with Will Smith being the only other southpaw. However, he has not looked fantastic this spring, giving up four earned runs in three innings of work. Dayton is still an option to land one of the two open spots, but the list of competitors has continued to grow.

Let’s start with Dayton’s competition from the left-handed point of view. While he has struggled, two southpaws have impressed mightily this Spring Training.

Chris Rusin was signed to a minor league deal this offseason but is making a push for a bullpen spot. He spent the majority of 2019 in the minor leagues but is just a few years removed from posting a 2.65 ERA in 60 outings… with Coors Field as his home ballpark. The complete body of work is far from impressive, but Rusin has looked sharp this spring, giving up just two earned runs in 6.2 innings, while striking out 10. Rusin, at the very least, can serve as organizational depth but is making a case for himself.

The guy that has looked lights out from the left side is Phil Pfeifer, who Alex Anthopoulos brought over with him from the Dodgers when he came to Atlanta. Pfeifer had an impressive showing in the minor leagues in 2019 and that has carried into Spring Training this season. He is yet to give up a run in five appearances and has flashed devastating strikeout stuff, particularly his curveball. As of now, if things boil down to performance, Pfeifer deserves a spot.

Tucker Davidson is owed some consideration after a few excellent outings as well and has a ton of upside, but since he has only made a handful of appearances at AAA, the Braves will likely seek more development time for him.

But I am just getting warmed up; there are still a ton of candidates to make the bullpen from the right-handed side as well.

Josh Tomlin seems like he should likely be a favorite for one of the two openings after his performance with Atlanta in 2019. Signed to a minor league deal right as camp began, Tomlin offers the Braves a long-relief option. In five innings of work this spring, he has given up just one earned run and struck out four batters. Tomlin is an incumbent of sorts, and with him, the Braves at least have an idea of what they would be getting.

The guy who has blown me away, and I have been a fan of for a long time, is Patrick Weigel. If Atlanta’s usage of him this spring is any indicator, they may have big plans for him in 2020. In 5.1 innings, he is still yet to give up a run and has struck out five. His offspeed stuff is devastating. Weigel would likely have been in Atlanta by now if not for undergoing Tommy John Surgery, and the way his stuff plays in relief, as well as taking a cautious approach with the injury, makes him a prime candidate for the bullpen in 2020.

Another arm who has looked very sharp is Touki Toussaint, but while I am still a big-time believer, after his rough 2019, he is likely best fit to start the season in Gwinnett and work his way up. However, if he can dominate for the duration of Spring Training, he could push for a spot with a larger sample size.

If this were not enough candidates for the bullpen, don’t forget that there is always the possibility that Sean Newcomb could return to it. As of now, he seems favored for a rotation spot, but Kyle Wright has been lights out this Spring Training. It is a tiny sample size, but Wright has tossed five scoreless innings, only allowing two hits and striking out seven. If he can continue to dominate for the rest of March, he could force Atlanta’s hand to give him a shot on the Opening Day roster two years in a row, making Newcomb a lock for a spot.

There is still a ton of uncertainty surrounding what the bullpen will look like on paper on March 26th, but we know one thing: the Braves have options.

 

 

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