Entering last year, the bullpen was expected to be one of, if not the, best in the game, but the driving points were Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Jordan Walden. The three set-up men combined to throw just 65 innings, with the two lefties supplying just 18 total innings before each needed Tommy John surgery.
Enter David Carpenter and Luis Avilan. The two filled in exceptionally and now with O'Flaherty gone and Venters on the mend, the two are expected to have similarly important roles this season. One thing to remember is that reliever performance is volatile. Of late, the Braves have had consistency in the back end with the old "O'Ventbrel" combination, but that is far from the norm. Some of the success of the entire bullpen should be contributed to the work Roger McDowell and Frank Wren have done in finding and developing gems. Even so, it is worth taking a look at what we should expect out of these two next season.
With a 95 mph average fastball and a slider he was able to rely on one out of every four pitches, it is easy to see why Carpenter succeeded last season. It is hard to understand why Carpenter was unable to locate his stuff up until this year, but the improvement in command proved pivotal in his breakout season.
His stuff being as good as it is gives me confidence in him repeating his performance. Much like when Venters first emerged with an incredible sinker and slider combination, it gave you some trust that his performance was not a fluke.
What I like about Carpenter even more going into this season is that there isn't pressure for him to be "The Set-Up Man." The team still employs Jordan Walden who is excellent, so Fredi Gonzalez has the ability to use the two whenever they are ready to be utilized rather than sticking one in the eighth inning when the team is tied or in the lead.
I think it is entirely reasonable to expect Carpenter to come down a bit from last season, but I do expect him to be a solid and reliable reliever this year. He doesn't look like a one year wonder to me.
I have concerns around Luis Avilan entering this year. The main concern is how he will be utilized by Fredi Gonzalez. It is easy to look at his miniscule strikeout-to-walk ratio and his inflated FIP and xFIP and see that his 2013 is a bit of a mirage. But digging deeper you see that his issues really only came against right-handed hitting.
With Jonny Venters out until midseason and the uncertainty of what we will be able to get out of him even when he returns, Avilan may not have the ability to be utilized strictly as a lety specialist. Last year he faced 142 right-handed batters and 114 left-handed batters. Below are his splits.
- LHH: 2.86 K/BB ratio, 2.72 FIP, 3.21 xFIP
- RHH: 1.20 K/BB ratio, 3.77 FIP, 4.73 xFIP
The lefty splits are not quite confidence-inspiring themselves, but the righty numbers are downright worrisome. If Fredi utilizes him only against lefties, which I do not expect, there is reason to think he will be an adequate reliever. If he utilizes him against both as he did last season, we could be in for a big downturn in Avilan's reliability.
What I do like from a scouting perspective is Avilan's stuff. Throwing in the 93 mile per hour range with a two-seam fastball is solid and his curveball was used just enough to keep hitters from simply waiting on fastballs each and every pitch. He does have the stuff to maintain success in the league, but he needs to miss more bats because no matter how good he may be at getting ground balls we cannot bank on him replicating a .204 BABIP this season.
Conclusion: Expect David Carpenter to continue to be a solid reliever. While he might not be the dominant set-up type guy we saw at the tail end of last season, he should continue to be effective and reliable this season. That is, of course, an opinion and not a fact. But he does have the stuff to maintain success and as long as the focus with him is staying in the strike zone he should continue to succeed.
Do not expect Luis Avilan to be the guy he was last year. It is fine to hope he is, but by judging pretty much any number it looks like he is in for a downturn unless he is utilized almost strictly against left-handed pitchers. Hopefully the pitching coaches and statistical analysts point this out to Gonzalez and avoid using him as a set-up man and more as a specialist.