Braves Spring Training Roster Battles: The Bullpen

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We made it, everyone. Baseball is back.

We’re looking down the bottleneck of a potential full season this year after seeing the 60-game shortened 2020 campaign due to COVID-19. I’d like to tell you things are moving in the right direction regarding COVID, but I’m not particularly eager to lie. We’ve got a long way to go before we are anywhere close to “normal.”

On the bright side, at least we’ve got our sports back.

Like Christmas, But Colder

I don’t know if any of our readers reside in Texas or Arkansas, but crazy things are happening in middle America this week. We substituted our annual February tornados for the most snow the states have seen in a decade. My city in Arkansas is nothing but white right now, from front lawns to the major roads.

We’ve been snowed in since Thursday of last week, and my car is stuck in the middle of my parking lot. I’ve never seen this much white powder in my entire life, and honestly, it’s been my favorite week since the pandemic first started. I know many of you from up north are probably laughing at me for just a little bit of snow on the ground. Well, this doesn’t happen in Atlanta so let me be happy.

All of the snow on the ground, the stillness outside, and the smell of fire in the air makes it feel like Christmas again.

Except for this time, “Christmas” brought baseball along with it.

Getting Down To It

The Braves, while filling the significant gaps they needed this offseason, remained quiet for the majority of the winter. We welcomed the likes of Smyly and Morton and gave Ozuna his spot in the outfield back. On paper, the Braves look poised to take home the east again, unless you’re the national media.

I feel like we see something similar every year. Fangraphs has the Braves with a 68% chance of making the postseason, even with a newly-signed Ozuna, a healthy Soroka, and Freeman (do I need to say more about him?)

It looks like another year of being counted short. That’s okay, though. The Braves thrive when they’re disrespected. 

Anyway, looking at the odds brought up a question: why IS the percentage lower than anticipated?

The Bullpen

With the loss of Mark Melancon and the indecisiveness of Shane Greene, the Braves are back to their problem from two seasons ago: a less-than-loaded bullpen. Right now, their projected relief core, with the subtraction of Greene and Melancon’s spots, will probably look something like this:

Sean Newcomb (LRP)

Grant Dayton (LRP)

A.J Minter (MRP)

Jacob Webb (MRP)

Tyler Matzek (SU)

Chris Martin (SU)

Will Smith (C)

I know the obvious move to improve things would be signing Greene back or giving Rosenthal a chance to shine in Marietta. While spring training IS underway, both of these guys don’t have jobs. Inking one of them would add another powerful arm to the bottom third of the ‘pen; late-inning work is where the Braves need to thrive. The current setup/closer spots honestly could hold water throughout the season. We saw Matzek come alive last season while Chris Martin keeps proving himself every time he goes out on the mound.

If the Braves don’t end up with either Greene or Rosenthal, they will have to look within, and why not? Atlanta’s farm system is loaded with pitchers looking to prove themselves on the big stage. This next month will help decide who stays in the ‘pen and who goes back to Gwinnett. Notable “wild cards” eyeing a spot include:

Luke Jackson

Everybody’s favorite long-haired fireballer finds himself on the wrong side of the mound following a rough 2020. Jackson posted a 6.84 ERA in his 19 games, even though he had a 2-0 record. It seemed that he was in his head a lot this past season; his confidence definitely wasn’t there. For him to reclaim a spot back in the bullpen, he’ll have to work hard to try and mimic the Luke Jackson of 2019 (9-2, 3.84 ERA, 106 K’s, 121 ERA+). 

Josh Tomlin

Upon joining the Braves, Tomlin put together the second-best season of his career, from a statistical standpoint (3.74 ERA, 1.6 HR/9, 124 ERA+) in 2019. Sadly, he saw his 3.74 ERA jump to a 4.76 in the shortened season, with only 36 K’s and a 2-2 record. However, most of his poor outings came as a starter. Tomlin was usually lights out when entering the game in relief.

Carl Edwards Jr.

One of AA’s newest additions finds himself primed for a redemption show. Edwards saw success early in his career with the world champion Cubs, not falling below a 3.75 ERA outside of his rookie season. But once 2019 hit, so did the yips. Between Chicago and San Diego, he posted an 8.47 ERA in 22 games with an abysmal 53 ERA+. Anthopoulos signed him this offseason to a minor league contract and, while he’s a non-roster invite, he’ll have extra eyes and ears on him, given his experience on the big stage. If Edwards can forget about the Edwards of 2019 and work towards the success he had in earlier seasons, then we very well may see him in the bullpen this season.

Touki Toussaint

One of the most promising young arms in the Braves’ farm system has lost his shine over the last few seasons, not to say he doesn’t have loads of potential and a filthy arsenal of off-speed pitches. Toussaint is an example of how the over-hyping of prospects can essentially set them up to fail. In Touki’s case, he got the short end of the stick.

A once revered top prospect and a first-round pick, he saw his command fall and his stats fall even harder. Since debuting with the Braves, he’s compiled a 5.97 ERA with an 8.4 H/9 and 76 ERA+. From the look of things, it seems his stuff just hasn’t been there the last few seasons, but it’s important to remember my earlier mention of his off-speed work.

https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/1124646991110266881

As you can see, he’s got the ability to make hitters look foolish. The problem isn’t necessarily his pitches, but the location he’s been framing them over the last couple of seasons. His control has regressed, and he’ll need to work through that very diligently if he wants to find himself cemented in the bullpen.

Nate Jones

Jones had a rough go of it in 2020, but he’s been a fantastic reliever for his entire career outside of that. From 2012-2019 with the White Sox, he posted a more than respectable 3.12 ERA with a 9.8 K/9 over 291.1 innings. Jones was even used as a closer at times, racking up nine saves. Of all the lottery tickets Anthopoulos brought in this offseason, Jones has the best chance of sticking in Atlanta over the entire season.

What About the Others?

I haven’t forgotten, don’t worry.

The Braves are filled to the brim with young, promising pitchers. Unfortunately, there are not that many spots left in the bullpen. Spring Training, in a way, will be like an audition. Notable arms we could see in the ‘pen at some point, or “dark horses” include:

 

Victor Arano: 3-2, 2.65 ERA, 1.138 WHIP

Phillip Pfeifer: 13-17, 3.58 ERA, 305 K’s (MiLB)

Patrick Weigel: 23-13, 3.15 ERA, 0.7 HR/9 (MiLB)

Jasseel De La Cruz: 16-17, 3.63 ERA, 260 K’s (MiLB)

Tucker Davidson: 20-24, 2.86 ERA, 366 K’s, 0.4 H4/9 (MiLB)

Chad Sobotka: 1-0, 5.36 ERA, 85 ERA+ (has some work to do)

Huascar Ynoa: 7.30 ERA, 1.1 HR/9, 1.743 WHIP (also needs some work)

 

The battle for the bullpen has begun, as pitchers and catchers reported today. Over the next month, we will get a feel for who belongs and who doesn’t. So now, we can sit back, relax and rejoice that baseball has finally returned.

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