It is no secret that the greatest source of turmoil for the Braves during the 2019 season was the bullpen. The group was among the worst in baseball before the trade deadline thanks to loads of inconsistency and the only thing they were consistent at was giving up walks which is less than ideal. The trade deadline did provide some reinforcements as the Braves acquired Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene who did provide some stability at the end of games with a couple of notable hiccups.
Melancon and Greene will in all likelihood return for the 2019 season (more on Martin’s free agency in a moment) and the Braves do have a couple of other pieces on the roster like Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb (assuming he doesn’t end up back in the rotation) that should provide some value.
However, beyond that, the picture becomes much less clear. After a strong 2018 season and being seen as an important piece in the bullpen, AJ Minter had a truly bad season in 2019 which started off with him missing a bunch of time in Spring Training due to a injury he suffered in a car accident and he never got on track. Arodys Vizcaino got hurt and ended up getting shipped out, Jesse Biddle forgot how to get guys out and left with Viz, and the rest of the bullpen arms that the Braves had hoped to get production out of were either hurt or couldn’t get the job done.
As a result, the Braves have a lot of work to do to get their bullpen sorted out before the 2020 season. Chris Martin, Jerry Blevins, and Josh Tomlin are all free agents and all could feasibly be back in Atlanta with Martin being the most valuable of the three. The Braves did sign Darren O’Day back on a one year deal with an option for a second year. If he can even begin to approach his production earlier his career before the injury bug bit him, that is a big plus for the Braves as well. Below are some guys that are free agents that could be reasonable targets for the Braves this offseason.
The Go For Broke Option: Will Smith
We are going to assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that Smith doesn’t sign his qualifying offer that he received from the Giants even though it is entirely possible that he will and probably should. Smith is the best reliever on the market now that Aroldis Chapman signed an extension with the Yankees. While signing Smith would require the Braves to give up a draft pick (something that they have been resistant to under Alex Anthopoulos), Smith has been one of the better relievers in all of baseball the last couple of seasons as he has struck out north of 12 batters per nine innings the last couple of seasons while accumulating 3.2 fWAR in total. This option doesn’t seem likely given how much money the Braves already have tied up in their bullpen, but a move for him would almost instantly give the Braves one of the more formidable cores of relievers in the league.
(Update: This was written a few days before the Braves did, in fact, sign Smith to a three year deal with a club option for a fourth year. I am taking full credit and responsibility for that signing happening by speaking it into being and you cannot convince me otherwise)
Keep him in the fold: Chris Martin
Other than several of the Braves’ more important bats going completely cold (you know you are), the injury to Chris Martin in Game One of the NLDS was probably the biggest reason why the Braves saw themselves exit the playoffs in the first round. Assuming he is healthy, he is both a guy that you can run out there in the later innings against a tough lineup as well as a guy who you can bring in to important spots to get tough lefties out (he is a reverse splits guy) if need be. He will likely have plenty of suitors this offseason and won’t be the cheapest option on the free agent market, but if he is healthy, the Braves should absolutely see if they can lock him down for a couple of years.
The Other Top Candidates
Will Harris - Any pitcher who has found success and who has been cultivated in the Astros organization should warrant consideration. Harris has post around 1 fWAR for each of the past three seasons and he has the spin rate to make one think that his success over that time is sustainable. Again, he is another older guy that a lot of teams will be looking to sign, but the Braves should be in on him.
Drew Pomeranz - It is weird to talk about him here as most remember him as a starter from his days with the Red Sox and elsewhere, but he is now a really interesting bullpen candidate thanks to a stellar stint with Milwaukee. After getting dealt to the Brewers at the deadline last season, he posted a 2.39 ERA in 25 appearances with 45 strikeouts in against just eight walks in 26.1 innings of work. He is good against lefties and serviceable against righties which makes him a guy that could be used in multiple roles out of the pen and could even be a long man or spot starter if need be. Given that Sean Newcomb could feasibly end up back in the rotation, the Braves could do far worse than having a lefty like Pomeranz in the bullpen.
Craig Stammen - This is more a name recognition nod than anything else. Stammen is a workhorse type reliever who has been mostly effective over the last few seasons. He has done so despite middling stuff and gets a lot of weak contact, but he has also missed less and less bats over the last couple of seasons and at the age of 36, that does not portend well. However, he shouldn’t be expensive and has a track record of being decent, so he is worth a look.
Steve Cishek - Cishek is a guy that always seems to end up posting a decent ERA but his peripherals are scary and his outings always seem to be an adventure which means he could fit right in with some of the relievers on the Braves roster. His strikeout rates have remained in the 8-10 K/9 range over the last several seasons, but his walk rates have jumped to north of 4 BB/9 which is some cause for concern. He is also 34 so keeping an eye on Father Time’s grip on the side-armer is going to be necessary, but again, Cishek should not be terribly expensive and he does remain a guy that is particularly tough against righties (they had just a .259 wOBA against him in 2019).
There are a lot of other names out there including Dellin Betances (whose health is a huge question mark), Cody Allen, Carl Edwards Jr., Dan Straily, Jake Diekman, Francisco Liriano, and others that could be interesting as well. Expect the Braves to be looking at all parts of this reliever market, from the top, non-Smith guys (I do not think there is any chance that the Braves part with a draft pick for a reliever) to the clearance bin to look for guys with upside that the Braves think they can fix. Regardless of who the names that get brought in are, lets just hope that this offseason that the Braves start off with a decent bullpen rather than punting on three months of the season before deciding to get one that is passable.