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Top-5 Off-Season Questions For The Atlanta Braves: #3

This is the part three of a five-part series of posts that will be on the site throughout the weekend.

Question Three:  Who will be the Braves closer in 2011?

There seems to be no convincing Billy Wagner to stay around for another year (or two), despite his season being an historic season for relievers, especially relievers of his age. That seems to leave the job up to the two heir apparent rookies, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. Both of these kids were pretty ridiculous this year, especially Kimbrel (once he straightened out his control):

2010 - Craig Kimbrel 4-0 21 0 0 0 1 0 20.2 9 2 1 0 16 40 0.44 1.21

2010 - Jonny Venters 4-4 78 0 0 0 1 4 83.0 61 30 18 1 39 93 1.95 1.20

If Bobby Cox was still around I might be tempted to say that he would employ some sort of two headed closer monster much like Atlanta had two years ago when Mike Gonzalez teamed up with Rafael Soriano (before Soriano won the job). Fredi Gonzalez will probably want to give the job to one person.

The odds-on favorite for the job is likely Kimbrel. He has the more dominant stuff, and he's been groomed as a closer for several years. Venters will slot very well as the eighth inning setup guy and primary lefty specialist. The rest of the bullpen after these two is a bit of a mixed bag.

The left side of the pen should be set with Venters leading the way followed by Michael Dunn and Eric O'Flaherty. I expect the team to keep O'Flaherty around, since he is only a first year arbitration case, and very effective against both left-handers and right-handers.

The right side of the pen is actually a bit more barren. Peter Moylan is a second year arbitration case and can expect about a $1 million raise. The question is whether his projected $2.5 million salary will make him too expensive for the Braves. I expect them to keep Moylan around. A reliever like him would cost more than that on the open market (Saito cost $3.2M last year), and Peter is a terrific clubhouse guy, the kind that the Braves often like to keep regardless of the cost. (Of course, that's what I thought about Will Ohman several years ago.)

After Moylan I expect the Braves to let Takashi Saito walk, and I figure that either Kyle Farnsworth will opt out of his option year (something he gained the right to do because he was traded) or the Braves will buy out his $5.25M option -- that is quite a bit more than the team has historically paid middle relievers.

That leaves Scott Proctor, Cristhian Martinez, and possibly Brandon Beachy from the Major League roster. Rookies Stephen Marek and Cory Gearrin could be options, but expect the Braves to use free agency or trades to add a couple of right-handed relievers. Especially watch any waiver claims the Braves make, they seem to use one a year to snag a potential reliever (that's how they landed O'Flaherty and Martinez). Certainly cost will be a component for adding relievers, but with pre-arbitration players like Kimbrel, Venters, and Dunn, they should have extra money that they would typically spend on a closer to go out and sign a couple veteran setup men.

With all of these players in place, the Braves can afford to take their time on the bullpen and be choosey about which relievers they want to use a roster spot on. This is one of those years where we could also see a half dozen or more non-roster relievers in spring training trying to make the club.

Coming up later, Question Four:  Should the Braves shift the focus back to players who are good defenders?

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