The Braves had several flaws that cost them in 2018, but there was one that stuck out like a sore thumb – the bullpen. The unit was a walk producing machine, and as a result, Alex Anthopoulos decided to… completely ignore it the following offseason.
Atlanta might not have had a boatload of money to spend last winter, but in the end, they did acquire two marquee stars – Dallas Keuchel and Josh Donaldson. Also, at the trade deadline, they decided to take on the remaining $18+ million left on Mark Melancon’s contract, so clearly there was money to go around. But for some reason, Anthopoulos believed the likes of Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter to be enough, which tuned out to be a complete trainwreck.
Vizcaino was never healthy and was quickly shut down for the season. Anthopoulos would get a pass for that if he wasn’t well aware of Viz’s injury issue before settling with him in arbitration. Minter turned out to be a headcase, which is unfortunate but is expected with young pitchers early in their careers. Immediately, the Braves ‘pen was in shambles, and it might have cost them had it not been for some unexpected saviors.
Luke Jackson, Anthony Swarzak, Sean Newcomb, and Jacob Webb all came out of nowhere to lead Atlanta’s bullpen as they took over first place in the NL East until reinforcements arrived. Those reinforcements came in the form of Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Chris Martin, who were all acquired at the trade deadline. And perhaps the best part about those deals was that both Greene and Melancon were under contract for 2020 as well, fixing a problem that has been plaguing the Braves for multiple seasons.
With that in mind, the bullpen did not seem to be AS big of a need coming into this offseason as it was in the past. When Anthopoulos talked about upgrading his team, he often mentioned re-signing Josh Donaldson, adding a starting pitcher, and finding a more permanent option at catcher. However, like a snake in the grass, he quickly made several moves to shake up the market for relievers.
His first signing was rather small but could end up paying substantial dividends, as Darren O’Day will return for at least one more season. The 37-year-old signed a one-year deal with an option in 2021 to continue his career after finally recovering from injury late last season. O’Day’s 2.55 career ERA over 12 seasons speaks for itself, and if he can stay healthy, he could potentially become a premier set-up option once again.
Anthopoulos’ first splash was Will Smith, who has served as the closer for the Giants for more than a year. He’s a finesse lefty with a low to mid-90s fastball and wicked slider. Smith was the best reliever available on the market, giving the Braves three legit options to turn to in the ninth. A 7th, 8th, and 9th of Greene/Melancon/Smith might become the most menacing end-game trio in the majors next season, but Anthopoulos wasn’t done yet.
Yesterday, the Braves re-signed Chris Martin for two more seasons at a reasonable price of $14 million. That gives Atlanta a marquee option to pitch the sixth inning. He had a 1.63 FIP in 20 appearances for the Braves last season while recording a 0.8 BB/9 and 10.5 K/9 in 58 total appearances for Texas and Atlanta.
If you’re counting.. that leaves the Braves with Smith, Melancon, Martin, Greene, and O’Day all in the bullpen to open the year – none of whom were on the roster to begin last season. Oh, and there are still several of those guys who played savior in 2019 under contract. Luke Jackson will be a contributor. Sean Newcomb could even remain in the ‘pen. Although with all of these additions, it seems likely he will be making a move back to the starting rotation. Jacob Webb should also return healthy from injury, giving the Braves perhaps the most loaded bullpen – on paper – heading into 2020.
Only weeks into free agency, the Braves have spent close to $60 million on three relievers this offseason without addressing any of their other needs. So why the sudden change of heart?
It all starts with Alex Anthopoulos realizing he made a mistake in the first place. He’s well aware that he was very fortunate to make it through three months with the bullpen that he had in 2019, and the Braves could have lost the division because of it. Anthopoulos began by addressing it at the trade deadline, which brings us to reason number two.
Anthopoulos probably did not enjoy the process of giving up quality prospects and taking on bad contracts to bolster the bullpen, which is what he had to do to acquire Martin, Melancon, and Greene. So instead of waiting until he has no other choice but to pull the trigger at the trade deadline, he went out and plucked the guys he wanted on the front-end.
It’s also plausible Anthopoulos saw the improvements made after the moves at the deadline and found a new appreciation for what a dominant bullpen could do. Atlanta’s bullpen was more effective but not dominant at the end of last year. Now, it may be one of the more unstoppable forces in the National League.