Braves: The need for more relievers may be less vital than we think

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After signing Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to begin free agency, the Braves have a clear top priority — re-sign Marcell Ozuna or find someone who can replace his production behind Freddie Freeman in the order. Aside from that, I’ve been pretty adamant that Alex Anthopoulos’s focus should be on strengthening a bullpen that was already one of the best in baseball last season.

The Braves are on the cusp of being an elite team — there aren’t many areas where they can improve significantly. However, as we saw in the NLCS this past season, every single player on the roster is critical if you want to end the year holding up the Commissioner’s Trophy. The Braves bullpen was fantastic last season, but with Mark MelanconShane Greene, and Darren O’Day coming off the books — Anthopoulos has an ideal opportunity to make it even better.

Let’s start with those three guys that are currently testing the open market. All of them were crucial to the Braves success last season. Darren O’Day’s ERA barely eclipsed one; Shane Greene was one of Brian Snitker‘s go-to setup men, and Mark Melancon has been lights out as the closer in Atlanta over the last two years. Brave Country would welcome each of them back with open arms; however, I’m not sure that is the most financially responsible way for Alex Anthopoulos to spend whatever money he has left.

While all three of them were successful in the shortened 2020 campaign, it could very well be the case that they are not worth the next contract they are about to receive. Darren O’Day is very close to hanging it up completely. The Braves just might have squeezed out the last bit of juice he had left. Shane Greene has been an enigma his entire career; he doesn’t have the stuff to be trusted completely in the late innings of a playoff game, which is why we saw Brian Snitker turn to other guys in crucial moments of the NLCS. Mark Melancon has been excellent, and he’s even better on Twitter during the offseason, but he’s also nearing the end of his career, and I always felt the Braves were rolling the dice by trusting him as their closer. His repertoire isn’t filled with your typical dominant, ninth-inning stuff. He is much more suited for a setup role. That’s not to say these guys aren’t good; they are. However, by clearing their money off the books and trusting some of his internal options, Anthopoulos should have enough cash to purchase one of the dominant bullpen arms on the market.

Let’s start with the internal options. The Braves relief core already has a ton of production returning from 2020. Will Smith should be ready to roll after COVID slowed him down this past season. A.J. Minter could still be the next longtime closer for the organization. Tyler Matzek was Atlanta’s unsung hero. Chris Martin is back, and Josh TomlinLuke Jackson, and Grant Dayton have all had success at the major league level. Those seven guys alone isn’t a half-bad bullpen, but the Braves also have a wave of guys that didn’t contribute much last season that could be vital in 2021.

Jacob Webb returned towards the end of last season, and we even saw him in the playoffs. If he looks like his 2019 self in 2021, then the Braves just found another setup man. Jeremy Walker is another young stud returning from injury. He was lights out in the minor leagues two seasons ago, and that continued when the Braves called him up to Atlanta. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury kept him out in 2020, but he should be good to go come Spring Training. Then the Braves have a group of former starters who could be ready to carve out full-time relief roles, beginning with Sean Newcomb, who was dominant out of the ‘pen in 2019. Kyle WrightBryse WilsonTouki ToussaintPatrick WeigelHuascar Ynoa, and even Drew Smyly are also candidates to receive looks out of the bullpen.

The Braves aren’t lacking options. They only need a couple of guys to step up, and it’s very likely a few candidates out of this group can replace the production left by Greene, O’Day, and possibly even Melancon. So when it comes to the relief core, Anthopoulos’s focus shouldn’t be on quantity; it must be on quality. The Braves don’t need to add multiple mid-level relievers. They need to look at the cream of the crop and sign their pick of the litter, finally giving them the elite ninth-inning guy that they have been missing since they traded Kimbrel.

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