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Upgrading The Atlanta Braves Bullpen

This post is basically about why Stephen Marek should be on the team tomorrow.

The Braves bullpen has not been that bad. In fact, it's been pretty good. They have compiled a 2.88 ERA in 75 innings of work, good enough for the sixth best ERA in the National League. In fact they've given up the fewest runs per game (3.19) in the National League. So why then am I talking about upgrading the bullpen?

The answer is, because there are still some soft spots, and on a team that hasn't gotten it's offense going yet, even the smallest hole in a strong overall unit can become a problem. And so within this sixth best bullpen is a hole, a gaping hole: the seventh inning. Chipper Jones laid it out a few days ago:

"I was saying tonight, the most important inning in every single ballgame that we play this year is the seventh. The seventh inning. If we get through the seventh, we’re fine. If we don’t get through the seventh, we’re going to get beat. It changes the whole outlook of the game."

Here is a breakdown of the Braves pitching per inning in 2011:

1st inning 6.58 19 36 .330 .413 .440 .853
2nd inning 3.46 12 27 .270 .315 .320 .635
3rd inning 3.12 9 21 .221 .224 .400 .624
4th inning 2.77 8 21 .226 .301 .366 .667
5th inning 1.38 4 22 .229 .237 .250 .487
6th inning 1.04 3 13 .153 .265 .282 .548
7th inning 5.54 16 30 .291 .371 .427 .798
8th inning 1.38 4 21 .221 .275 .284 .559
9th inning 1.35 4 8 .123 .194 .185 .379

Aside from the troubles our starters have had in the first inning, that seventh inning stands out as the most obvious problem child at the end of games. The presence of Peter Moylan on the disabled list is part of why Atlanta is missing its seventh inning man, but among the other relievers in the bullpen, no one has stepped up and assumed the role of getting the team to Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel in the eighth and ninth.

This is where the Braves could improve. They don't just need a decent bullpen arm, they need a shutdown bullpen arm. If you've been paying attention to the Gwinnett Braves games, you'll know that one exists. Reliever Stephen Marek has appeared in eight games, has given up only five hits, walked none, and struck out 14. There's a guy with good control, an obvious ability to strike batters out, and a proven track record in the minor leagues of being able to handle tough situations late in ballgames.

There are a few candidates for removal from Atlanta's pen. George Sherrill is the most obvious. He's the second left-hander out of the pen, and he simply hasn't been used that much. He's only thrown 4.2 innings in the eight games he's appeared in, and the left-handed batters he enters the game to get out are hitting .333 against him. The lack of work coupled with the lack of effectiveness against lefties leads me to believe that Fredi Gonzalez may have lost confidence in him.

Scott Linebrink has been a weak spot in the bullpen as well, especially since serving as the de facto seventh inning man. He factored heavily in two losses on the just completed road trip, each time giving up key hits which led to runs in the seventh inning.

These are small samples, and maybe we're overreacting to a bullpen that has been quite good overall. But when a guy is putting up the kind of numbers that Marek is putting up at triple-A, I just can't believe the team would let him sit there while needing another shutdown reliever in their pen.

It's time to give Marek a chance. However they manipulate their roster before Friday's game, they need to make a spot on the Major League club for Stephen Marek.

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