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Atlanta’s Achilles heel might be the only thing holding them back

The Braves are a great offensive team, a great defensive team and are beginning to fix their starting pitching. The bullpen may still be what holds the entire team back.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As of right now, the Braves are in a pretty good spot right now. They’ve already locked down two absolutely prodigious talents to long-term deals. Their offense has proven to be formidable, but I think we all figured that this team would do well in that department if they stayed healthy. The addition of Josh Donaldson is currently going as well as they planned and Ronald Acuna Jr. easily squashed any rumors of a sophomore slump with his performance as of late. Brian Snitker has even figured out that Ender Inciarte shouldn’t be hitting leadoff anymore and that alone is a net-positive for the offense.

The defense is doing pretty good as well. The infield has turned into a vacuum cleaner when it comes to ground balls. The keystone combination of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies is working like a charm. Donaldson is reaching back to the recent past with his defensive efforts in the early stages of this season. Freddie Freeman continues to scoop up anything that comes his way. The outfield is sold as well, with a legitimate Gold Glove center fielder, a future legitimate Gold Glove outfielder in left field and Nick Markakis is at least not a statue in right field.

Even the starting pitching is starting to come around. After they had a very shaky start to the season, it seems as if the Braves are starting to figure things out when it comes to their rotation. You have to figure that better days are on the horizon, since the starters have begun to “wake up” and there’s help on the way in the form of Mike Foltynewicz and hopefully we’ll see guys like Touki Touissaint get a chance to make some start as well.

That brings us to what is very clearly the Achilles heel of this team, and that’s the bullpen. The Braves’ problems aren’t unique — if you were to ask fans of most other teams in baseball right now what their favorite team’s weakness was, they’d tell you that it was their bullpen. There are a whole lot of teams struggling with their relief pitching at the moment. The problem is that when it comes to the Braves, this is a problem that has been carried over from the 2018 season.

Atlanta’s bullpen finished the 2018 campaign with both the worst BB/9 (4.41) and walk rate (11.3 percent) in all of baseball. This helped give the Braves pitching staff as a whole the second-worst BB/9 in baseball and the overall worst walk rate. That’s what makes the short sample size of 2019 even more worrying. Braves relievers are currently sporting a 4.76 BB/9 and a 12.2 percent walk rate as a unit, and that’s before Wednesday’s debacle.

It would be one thing if this was a brand new cast of characters coming in and continuing the trend from last season. It’s a completely different thing because this is mostly the same group of relievers from last season. This isn’t really a short sample size, since it’s a continuation of what we saw from the same group of pitchers. There’s really no reason to wait for this crew to work out the kinks. For most of these guys, this might just be who they are as pitchers.

That’s what makes it so mystifying that the Braves as an organization have stood pat with this group. This was clearly the Achilles heel of the Braves after 2018 and they’ve gone into the first month of the season with the same exact Achilles heel totally intact and waiting for an opponent to exploit it. You know things are going terribly when Touki Toussaint is currently the bullpen leader in fWAR and he has made a grand total of one (1) relief appearance in 2019.

Now, the obvious fix for this would be to just go out and spend money on Craig Kimbrel. If the rumor from Ken Rosenthal is true and Kimbrel is apparently asking for something between $52 million and $39 million over three years, that might be a steep price in terms of years for a reliever (and the compensatory draft pick has to come in mind as well) but at the same time, the peace of mind for having an elite closer for this season at least would be worth it.

Yeah, Craig Kimbrel is not going to be pitching the sixth, seventh or eighth inning for you during the regular season. However, just having him as your ninth inning guy would give you way more leeway to utilize your other relievers. It’s comparable to how signing Josh Donaldson made it so that you’re able to deploy Johan Camargo from the bench and put his versatility to use when need be. Kimbrel is not going to be the cure, but he’s going to serve as some incredibly effective medicine when it comes to this bullpen.

Failing a big free agency splash, the Braves could choose to put their pitching depth to use and use those young arms as relievers. Anthony Traurig already gave you an idea of how the Braves could figure things out when it comes to their “pitching carousel,” If the Braves want to keep things in-house, then that’s a possibility as well. Sure, it would be a trial-by-fire when it comes to the young pitchers but at the same time, could they really do much worse than what most of these relievers have done so far?

The main point is that the Braves have to figure something out, and quickly. You can’t win a division in April, but you can definitely lose it. I do not want the Braves to be competing for a playoff spot in October and wondering what could have been due to the bullpen blowing some games that should have been comfortable victories. Last night’s game against the Diamondbacks might be one of those games. Let’s hope that there aren’t too many more of those regretful moments.

This team is on the cusp of being truly great. The Braves are good-to-great in every facet of the game — except for their relief pitching. The sooner that gets figure out, the sooner the Braves can make a serious run at something special this season without having to worry about their Achilles heel being so exposed.

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