The Braves are in the final stages of another underwhelming season, and in looking at some potential root causes for their struggles, the bullpen immediately stands out. The Braves once again kept their spending at a minimum last offseason with regards to the bullpen, and once again they got some uninspiring results. Going forward the Braves will need a much better showing, so let’s look at how that may happen.
Atlanta began the season with what looked to be a solid back-end of the bullpen, with returning closer Jim Johnson anchoring the unit while Arodys Vizcaino and Jose Ramirez served as setup men. The middle relief corps included the likes of Sam Freeman, Ian Krol, and Eric O’Flaherty. The rest of the pen was a mixed bag of veterans and young arms, which became a revolving door for much of the season.
The Braves bullpen currently ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every significant statistic, including ERA, losses, strikeouts, and WHIP. When a team struggles so mightily to close out games, it can be hard to pin the blame on any one player, but the Braves have been hampered severely by the struggles of veteran closer Jim Johnson. The right-hander is 22-of-31 in save opportunities this season, and carries a 5.63 ERA along with a 1.44 WHIP. None of those stats is what you hope to see from a returning closer who pitched so well a season ago.
While Johnson has certainly seen his share of struggles, he hardly shoulders the load on his own. Ian Krol has a 5.51 ERA and has allowed eight homers, while Rex Brothers has a 6.95 ERA and 12 walks in just 22 innings. Matt Wisler has a 9.25 ERA in just over 24 innings, with four homers allowed and a 1.73 WHIP. Needless to say, the Braves have employed many unsuccessful relievers this season. Moving forward, who will make up their next successful bullpen, and could we see it in 2018?
The Braves have called up multiple young arms this season, with a number of them making their major league debuts. Among those are several very intriguing names that could have a future in the Atlanta bullpen, starting with AJ Minter. The left-hander currently has a 3.38 ERA in 13 innings, with 21 strikeouts. He has flashed the plus stuff that had many evaluators anticipating his debut for quite some time. In addition to Minter, the Braves have called up Akeel Morris and Daniel Winkler as potential long-term solutions in the pen. There could also be a case for current starting pitchers Lucas Sims, Max Fried, or Sean Newcomb to one day move to the bullpen as more arms make their way to Atlanta.
With Vizcaino, Ramirez, Freeman, and Minter seemingly locked into bullpen spots for next season, the Braves will have some searching to do with regards to the rest of their unit. They could opt to sign an expensive veteran to help add stability to the back-end of the bullpen, or they could continue to stockpile retreads in the hopes that their own young arms will be able to fill bullpen roles. Morris, Winkler, and Sims would seem to be logical choices at this time, though Sims could remain in the starting rotation. That would leave just one or two spots remaining, and the Braves could get creative in filling them. It seems unlikely that they would invest heavily in a free agent reliever, which will make it even more important for young arms to be ready when called upon.
This Braves bullpen has been underwhelming this season, but with all the high-end talent ascending through the system, the Braves could be looking at a number of viable in-house candidates in the very near future. Atlanta has a number of issues that need to be addressed this offseason, but fixing the bullpen may be the easiest as the team prepares to re-enter the playoff picture. The candidates may be young but as we have seen this year, experience is only as good as the talent it puts on display, and the Braves have plenty of talent that could aid the bullpen in 2018.