When the season began, many Braves players were quoted as saying that they believed the 2017 roster was set up for success and that the rebuilding phase was over. Now three weeks into the season, those sentiments are not necessarily false, but we can look upon them with considerable skepticism. The most evident causes for that skepticism, to this point, are neither the aging members of the rotation nor the cast-offs occupying everyday jobs in the lineup, but rather the questionable bodies that currently reside on the bench and in the bullpen.
On Tuesday the Braves announced that they had designated utility IF/OF Chase d’Arnaud for assignment in favor of Lane Adams, an outfielder who has been highly productive thus far in Gwinnett. Maybe Adams is an upgrade over d’Arnaud, but any marginal upgrade that may represent still does not address the fact that Emilio Bonifacio is on the roster as the apparent go-to pinch-hitter and the Braves are carrying three underwhelming catchers for the purposes of... well I don’t know the purpose honestly. The only current bench player (aside from Adams, who has not played a game yet) that represents a truly useful piece both offensively and defensively is Jace Peterson. His contributions were limited during his time in the lineup for the injured Matt Kemp, but Peterson is a legitimate major league player, which makes him unique among the non-catcher contingent that has occupied bench space this season.
How can the Braves upgrade their bench and more importantly, do they want to? Towards the end of the offseason much of the fanbase began clamoring for the Braves to sign free agent outfielder Angel Pagan, who looked plenty capable in the World Baseball Classic and would have added a veteran piece to a bench in need of experience. Pagan did not sign with anyone as it turned out, but he certainly was a player that could have been an asset while relegating Emilio Bonifacio to a less prominent role. Now that the Pagan ship has sailed, the answers may have to come from internal candidates like Adams or Xavier Avery or maybe Ryan Howard in the coming weeks. The bench issue is not one that is surprising given the makeup of the Opening Day roster, but it frustrating nonetheless.
The Braves were never seriously going for it this year as evidenced by their lack of interest in frontline starting pitching and significant lineup additions, which makes it fair to wonder if they even care that the bench is this bad. That possibility exists, but there is also the possibility that the Braves already have their bench pieces, only they currently occupy starting roles. With all the fanfare around guys like Ozzie Albies and Rio Ruiz, once those two are deemed ready the Braves could potentially relegate Adonis Garcia and Brandon Phillips to the bench or to platoon roles. Garcia and Phillips may be somewhat redundant in that they are both right-handed hitting infielders, but they would easily represent the most compelling bench pieces on the roster if they were indeed given a reduced role.
Whatever plan of action the Braves choose with regards to the bench is not likely to make or break their World Series hopes, but that makes it no less frustrating to watch as endless rallies are doused with the first sign of a pinch-hitter. Having Bonifacio as the team’s first option is a disaster, yet Brian Snitker seems more than willing to perpetuate his use in nearly every late-game, run-scoring situation. What the addition of Adams means in terms of of the Braves’ pinch-hitting success remains to be seen, but the team really needs either he or Howard to become a legitimate threat off the bench before they fall too far behind in the standings early on.
In addition to their considerable bench issues, the Braves bullpen has been wildly inconsistent in the early going. This issue was always a possibility, but it would have been hard to predict this level of ineffectiveness from a group that includes Arodys Vizcaino, Ian Krol, and Eric O’Flaherty, all of whom have struggled mightily. Vizcaino was the closer for a significant portion of the 2016 season, but this year has already allowed three home runs in his first nine innings of work. Krol pitched well down the stretch a season ago and was being counted on to repeat some of that good work this year, but he currently sports an ERA of 11.57 in seven innings with two home runs allowed. O’Flaherty has been less hittable than the other two, but he has walked three and allowed five hits in five innings while compiling a 5.40 ERA thus far. Obviously these three will need to improve if the Braves are to have any hope of righting the ship.
In addition to the Braves’ move to promote Adams, they also recalled reliever Jason Motte, a right-hander who owns a career 3.28 ERA and 8.8 K/9 in eight seasons. This move certainly is not splashy, but it gives the Braves another veteran arm to add to the mix. Overall this group should improve, given that Jim Johnson has blown two saves and several others mentioned above are currently in the midst of the worst stretches of their careers. Those anomalous stat lines would indicate that a major move is not necessary, but even if a move was necessary would the Braves make one?
The bullpen has seemingly been treated much like the bench in that the front office did not make it a priority this offseason, and are not likely to jump through any hoops to upgrade it right now. That lack of urgency could stem from the fact that the Braves have a number of veteran in-house candidates who could fill bullpen roles, or from the fact that relief prospects are getting close enough that a move would be detrimental to their chances of continuing up the ladder. A.J. Minter is the first name that comes to mind with regards to relief pitching prospects, and though he has battled some early injuries, if healthy he will become a key member of the bullpen in the near future. His presence along with young starters like Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler make it easy to see why the Braves might be reluctant to make any significant additions to the bullpen at the moment.
The issues that reside on the bench and in the bullpen are frustrating, and it can make the games difficult to watch when taking into consideration how little urgency the Braves have in remedying either of their major weaknesses. The external options can sometimes make it hard to understand why we are left with middling options, but the fact remains that this team is committed to developing its young players and aggressively pushing them toward Atlanta. Sure the bench could easily be upgraded by adding one or two veterans who have experience in a pinch-hitting role, but the depth will be greatly improved once Ozzie Albies and Rio Ruiz reach the major leagues and productive veterans who currently reside on the roster are given those roles.
The Braves may not take major action to fix these issues in the short-term, but help is likely to reach Atlanta before too long. The current makeup of the roster leaves much to be desired, but when the timing is right the Braves can remedy the few trouble areas that currently haunt them at the major league level and hopefully we will never have to see any of the current bench players hitting in a decisive situation again. When that day comes we can all rejoice, but for now we are likely to be stuck with underwhelming production from the weakest spots on the roster.