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A Risk Worth Taking (AKA The Beauty of Investing in a Beast)

After a volatile 2019 season, the Braves bullpen is now not just a strength. It could be the best in the game, and a true difference maker in the postseason.

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I have mentioned it several times in previous pieces, but I do so because I feel it is significant. Many may not care to remember it, but it truly was a turning point of the season. Back on August 10th, though they had a significant lead in the NL East, the Braves looked very vulnerable. So much so, they wanted to hide it with the fumes from a fire extinguisher.

That day, the Braves lost to the Marlins 7-6, in a game where Atlanta gave up four runs in the ninth inning. It was the implosion many had felt was coming for months, despite the recent additions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon. Walks, regression, and bad luck were creating a horrible mixture of heartache and anxiety on what seemed to be a nightly basis. While this breakdown was just one game, several others just barely missed the same fate, and the concerns of past late season collapses for Atlanta were growing. There was quite a bit of uncertainty as to how the team would respond, and little hope that there would be a significant or quick turnaround.

Thankfully, both happened overnight.

From August 11th till the end of the season, the bullpen did not just get better. In fact, it arguably became the best in baseball. Over that stretch of the season, with Martin, Greene, and Melancon now comprising the late inning options, the Braves bullpen was sixth in ERA, first in FIP, first in xFIP, and first in BB/9 in the majors. In amazing and remarkable fashion, the Braves bullpen transformed from one of the worst in the majors to perhaps the best.

The result was not just the Braves maintaining their lead in the NL East. It actually led to Atlanta winning at a rate over a four week time frame that it had not experienced since 1999, despite starting names such as Matt Joyce and Adeiny Hechavarria in the lineup. The end result was a Braves team that won 97 games, and one that entered the playoffs with arguably its best chance to win a playoff series since 2001.

It was at that point, unfortunately, that we were reminded of how volatile and unpredictable bullpens can be.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

During Game 1 of the series against the Cardinals, Chris Martin entered the top of the eighth in Game 1 with a 3-1 lead. While Martin was likely the least significant addition name-wise at the trade deadline, compared to Melancon and Greene, he had been the Braves best reliever (1.88 ERA, 0.70 FIP, 2.09 xFIP after 08/11/2019) since the deadline. Unfortunately, during warm-ups, he strained his oblique. The Cardinals came back and won Game 1, and the rest is history.

If Martin remains healthy and the Braves take Game 1, there is a significant chance the Braves do win their first playoff series in 18 years. Furthermore, a big reason that would have resulted in the Braves taking the next step in their quest for a World Series title was the bullpen makeover at the 2019 trade deadline. The Braves became consistent at throwing strikes and getting outs, and therefore became a true title contender.

The 2019 World Series featured two teams that each had three pitchers who will make more than $25M in 2020 (Gerrit Cole made $13.5M in 2019, but is due for a bit of a raise, in case you have not heard.) While it may be an understatement that investing big bucks in pitching is an inexact science, if the arms stay healthy, they are going to win, both in the regular season and the playoffs.

The Braves simply do not have that luxury in their expected budget. It does not make sense for them to pay $30M plus over several years to one player. It also seems unlikely for them to invest $20M or so in a name such as Wheeler or Bumgarner, plus give up a draft pick, in the hopes they become a true ace a few times over the life of their contract.

No, to compete with teams with deeper pockets, the Braves have to get creative and risky. Through some astute accounting ($2M saved from Tyler Flowers and Markakis, $12M from declining Julio Teheran’s option), the Braves freed up $16M in additional funds to operate with this offseason. They used that savings to create the ability to feature Will Smith, Chris Martin, and Darren O’Day for multiple seasons into the future. Along with Melancon, Greene (who is here to stay according to Anthopoulos) and Luke Jackson, this bullpen has the potential to be one of the best, and deepest, in baseball.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Not only should they limit walks, but the addition of Smith should improve the strikeout potential of the pen as a whole. The Braves should also become better at limiting production from left-handed batters. The relievers should have a better idea as to what their consistent roles will be, and also should not be used as often since the back end of the bullpen is much more certain now.

One other point to remember is that Alex Anthopoulos is again investing in himself. Just like he did with the Donaldson (whom he traded for in Toronto) signing last year and with keeping significant funds available for in season additions, Anthopoulos is betting on the talents he targeted to make the difference for Atlanta to achieve their goals. His track record offers much more proof than not that further investments into the bets he makes in terms of talent acquisitions pays off positively in the end.

The potential of this creativity is quite exciting in theory, but also is legitimately risky in reality. There are likely more multi-year commitments to significant relievers that have turned into failures than successes. That is simply due to the volatility of relief arms. Braves fans should look no further than A.J. Minter between 2018 and 2019. They also can point to the struggles of Mets acquisition Edwin Diaz, who regressed from arguably the game’s best reliever into 2018 to a legitimate liability in 2019.

Fortunately, Atlanta’s approach through its bullpen investments was done with this risk in mind. The Braves bullpen is not potentially fantastic due to the quality of one or two arms, but due to the depth it features. The Braves have three former All-Star closers in Melancon, Greene, and Smith. Jackson and Smith finished in the top 10 in K/9 rate among relievers who threw 60 or more innings in 2019. For any relievers who threw 55 or more innings last year, Chris Martin had the best BB/9 rate and K/BB ratio in baseball. From 2010 through 2017, Darren O’Day was second in fWAR among relievers with 20 or less saves, and looked like his normal, effective self once healthy last year.

If a few of these arms struggle or battle injuries in 2020, there is another one or two arms to rely upon with ease. The goal for this bullpen is not to overwhelmingly be the best in baseball during the 2020 regular season. The goal for this bullpen is to be fresh and healthy to make a true difference in next year’s playoffs. Every team’s wish is to have is to have one or two ace level arms they can rely upon in the postseason. However, not every team can realistically afford that luxury. While the Braves may not have that type of arm (beyond Soroka) that they can unleash, they now have similar quality in a plethora of arms that can use to neutralize opposing offenses in a number of ways. Furthermore, these moves seem to be the right steps toward making the 2020 Braves better than they have been over the past two years.

MLB: 2019 Spring Training Media Days Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

By better, I do not mean surpassing 97 wins. By better, I mean featuring a pitching staff the Braves and their fans could logically see beating any team in a playoff series. That is the mindset that Alex Anthopoulos and the front office should be, and evidently are, operating with. Atlanta has every reason to feel confident in their ability to make the playoffs after winning the division two straight years. Last year, they took the steps offensively to be a threat in the playoffs. Now, Atlanta wants to firmly entrench itself as a World Series favorite.

As a result, Alex Anthopolous is wasting no time in investing and doubling down on a bullpen that truly made Atlanta one of the best teams in baseball at the end of last year. They have not just added stability to their pen, they have made it arguably one of the best in baseball. Furthermore, if Atlanta is truly and fully going for it, Anthopoulos is wisely investing in a foundation that he knows instead of one that he does not. He knows that when this bullpen was healthy after the trade deadline, this team played its best baseball of the year, despite featuring an offense that was operating at less than full strength.

The overall impact of these moves is truly an unknown until the rest of the off-season plays out. However, in what many have rightfully described as the most critical off-season for this franchise in several years, it is not a stretch to say that the Braves’ biggest weakness last year is now their biggest strength for 2020, and perhaps beyond. To be able to make that statement on November 20th seems to be an indication that the start of this off-season has been an overwhelming success.

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