What’s up, Braves country? It’s been a while.
A lot has happened in the last little bit. The Braves signed Marcell Ozuna to man a vacant spot in the outfield. Aspiring weather man and former third baseman Josh Donaldson moved up north to Minnesota. I found a venue for my wedding in October (that’s not baseball related, but it happened.) Felix Hernandez left his kingdom up north, trading his Starbucks and chowder for sweet tea and Chick-Fil-A; a good trade, if you ask me.
Oh; and the Braves are playing baseball again.
Spring Training is finally here and baseball is back. It’s been a long few months of waiting and boredom amidst the cold months of winter and a second Shanahan loss in the Super Bowl.
The Braves have done the work, added where they needed and, barring any surprise blockbusters, the lineup is set to take on 2020. One of the most important projects of AA’s offseason was the bane of many fan’s existence the last couple of years; the bullpen.
The 2019 Braves saw one of the worst bullpens they’ve seen in years, up until the tail end of the All-Star Break. The entire pitching staff posted a forgettable 4.19 ERA on the season, with the only light from the bullpen coming from rising star Jacob Webb, who posted a 1.39 ERA through 36 games with a 4-0 record. Deadline acquisitions Mark Melancon and Shane Greene saw more than their fair share of successes late into the season, but notably started off rockier than most would have wanted, especially AA.
Going in to this offseason off the heels of an embarrassing series loss to St. Louis, it was clear a lot needed to be done; especially in the bullpen.
Theory vs. Practice
From Newnan, Georgia, born and raised, one of the more notable adds this offseason finds himself in a bullpen that, this time last year, would raise more questions than tomahawks.
Will Smith joins a powerhouse ‘pen of Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, Chris Martin and budding stars like Jacob Webb, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. A staff that, prior to 2019, would worry anyone following the 6th inning, now inspires confidence and pride in a fan base known for its extravagant pitching.
But, for now, that’s all just conjecture. The season hasn’t started yet; we haven’t seen anyone in action.
"I think on paper we can compete with anybody, but we've still got to go out there and get guys out." pic.twitter.com/xCF3jxiWY9
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) February 20, 2020
Greene says it perfectly right here; while the newly-formed bullpen looks outstanding, they’ve still got to actually get the work done. It’s easy to rave about a good-looking staff before anyone’s even thrown a baseball. Late-inning jams and stressful situation can re-write any positive story about any player.
Still, it’s easy to agree that the bullpen moving into 2020 looks phenomenal. Comparing 2020’s starting ‘pen to those from the last two years is night and day.
So…what does this bundle of budding superstars look like, exactly?
1. Stars on the Rise: Jacob Webb, Touki Toussaint, Chad Sobotka, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa
What’s one thing your average baseball fan thinks of when they see the Atlanta Braves? Well, besides the chop and poorly-timed playoff losses, the answer is usually “young stars.” The Braves have that in strides, especially in the back end of their bullpen.
Atlanta has been home to many great young arms, the strongest of which we’ve seen in the Big 3 from the 90’s. While former Big 3 John Smoltz likes to say every other team’s rotation is better than our acclaimed trio, the fact remains that there’s enough talent and potential to someday produce a staff close to par with that of the 90’s.
That Smoltz thing wasn’t a turn of phrase, by the way. Look.
This is a recurring theme for John Smoltz
— Dayton from Nebraska (@BravesAmerica) February 12, 2020
Credit to @BravesAmerica on Twitter for pointing this out. Was Smoltz using the Big Three as an example of greatness for each rotation? Or was he showing a lack of faith, perhaps? I like to believe the former, but you decide.
Anyway, this plethora of young guns are well suited to carry this team into potential 90’s level success. The command in the zone is improving, as well as their patience and ability to remain composed on the mound. The group posted a 7.85 combined ERA in 2019, so we’ll hopefully see a vast improvement from them this coming season. While they’re looking better as a unit and show much more promise from what we’ve seen this spring so far, it’s important to remember that there’s still a season to be played.
I, for one, like to look on the positive side; that the front end of our bullpen is in VERY good hands.
2. Tried and True: Luke Jackson, Chris Martin, A.J Minter, Chris Rusin, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb
You know that old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? I like to think that applies to these guys
A perfect mix of proven youngsters and seasoned veterans makes up the middle of our newly tuned bullpen, adding a little extra support to the younger arms at the top.
Of course, things have to get worse before they can get better, though.
We saw Luke Jackson struggle to keep bases clear and nail down those productive outs more than a few times in 2019, A.J Minter get demoted after his fair share of rocky innings and, of course, only heard the legend of the mustachioed submariner named Darren. Early 2019 sights proved unfortunate, leaving many fans uneasy and the front office with more questions than solutions.
As the season went on, we saw Jackson gain more command in the zone, velo in his fastballs and, of course, his hilarious twitter fandom. If we see the Luke Jackson we’re seeing this spring so far, I have no doubt in my mind he’ll not only be a good arm in 2020, but an elite one.
This band of misfits in the middle come equipped with a 3.96 ERA off the 2019 season with 234 Ks and a combined 19-10 record.
Oh yeah; and one of these.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) September 12, 2019
I don’t know if you know this, but that’s hard to do.
Anyway, if Newcomb lands a role back in the rotation with the absence of Cole Hamels, we could see a younger guys like Jackson and a seasoned vet like the newly acquired Chris Rusin step up in a big way. The middle of a ballgame can easily set the tone of the final line score, so it’s important that we have ideal protection where it matters.
3. Closing the Doors: Shane Greene, Will Smith, Mark Melancon
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be up to bat again after the sixth inning.
The biggest worry about the bullpen, dating back to the big trade of star closer Craig Kimbrel, remained this: who would be Atlanta’s closer?
This question remained unanswered well into the 2019 season, shifting from names like Arodys Vizcaino, A.J Minter and just about everyone in between.
Following the trade of A.V last May, Atlanta played the pitcher equivalent of musical chairs to the closer spot, never landing a solidified option to shut down the door, leading to more than a few blown saves and heartbreaking losses.
August hits and we have not one, but two solid options to close out the game. Yes, they got off to rocky starts, but proved themselves to be stone walls late into the season leading up to October.
August 10th. That’s the day the dust settled and we were off. The Adventures of Mark and Shane were in full swing, seeing a combined 12 saves, 9 holds and an impressively low 4 losses in games they pitched in.
That’s right. FOUR losses.
As the season wound down, it looked like the bullpen was well set. We were more than ready to take on all comers and leave no survivors. 2020 already looked like our year.
Then, one day and $39M later, we got even better.
#Braves have built an impressive bullpen, adding Will Smith while re-signing Chris Martin and Darren O'Day to go with Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. There are other pieces returning to round out the relief corps. The bullpen has transformed from Achilles heel to a strength.
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) November 20, 2019
I don’t need to tell you just how scary the back end of our bullpen is. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to go to bat against any one of these guys.
Now that our bullpen is solidified, it’s safe to assume we’ll see similar success to the last two years. Limiting the heartbreaking, late inning losses will go a long way as the Braves look to push past the NLDS and bring a long-awaited Commissioner’s Trophy back to the A.
Spring Training continues throughout the next few weeks and we’re set to make our debut against almost-Brave Madison Bumgarner and the Diamondbacks in Arizona in about a month. Next, we’ll take a look behind the plate, but in the meantime, stay keyed in to SportsTalkATL for all of your Braves news, highlights and analysis.