The Braves find themselves in an interesting and, frankly, enviable spot this offseason as they have a very deep and quality bullpen on paper despite the fact that they are losing a couple of higher profile arms from the back end of the group.
Shane Greene is almost certainly headed elsewhere as he is likely looking to be paid as AND used as a higher leverage reliever than the Braves are willing to...the latter being pretty evident based on his usage during the regular season and playoffs last year. However, the guy that the Braves relied on for the highest leverage situations for the most part, Mark Melancon, is also headed for free agency and the question of whether or not to bring him back is far less clear. Below are some things to consider when thinking about a Braves-Melancon reunion this offseason.
While Melancon, whether he ends up being the highest leverage guy on the staff or not, absolutely makes the Braves’ bullpen better, there is a real question as to whether the Braves’ bullpen NEEDS him. In previous offseasons, the team was left with a lot of question marks, lottery tickets, and young arms in the bullpen while crossing their fingers and toes that they could stitch together a decent relief performance so a guy like Melancon had arguably more value. Nowadays, here are four guys in the Braves’ bullpen right now that one could easily see in high leverage situations.
Now it is important to note that none of these guys are sure things. Martin and Minter both have had bouts of various lengths with injury bugs in recent years, Matzek’s breakout 2020 season was great, but his track record in the pros is much spottier, and Smith was supposed to be one of the Braves’ big acquisitions for the 2020 season, but a bout with COVID-19 likely helped bring about what was a very mediocre season with some notable bright spots. If the Braves have less confidence in any of the above guys, then bringing back Melancon makes more and more sense.
It is also worth noting that the above list isn’t exhaustive as the Braves do have other arms in the bullpen of note including Jacob Webb and Luke Jackson who, at times, have shown glimpses of being important cogs in the bullpen. With all of the quality arms as well as all of the resources already committed to relievers, it may not be worth it to pay a guy like Melancon as well when there are other needs like outfield and DH on the roster.
First, the positive news about the Braves bullpen and how it is trending. As a group, it was SIGNIFICANTLY better than it was in previous seasons. Guys like AJ Minter and Chris Martin are trending upward as well. When you go from a bottom 10 bullpen by fWAR in 2019 to a top 10 bullpen in 2020, there are good things happening.
In Melancon’s case specifically, though, we are seeing some evidence that he is declining. While it isn’t some grand revelation that a 35 year old reliever isn’t as good as he was five years ago during his heyday with the Pirates, we have seen his FIP be 3.22 or worse in three of the past four seasons with a noticeable uptick in his walk rate with coinciding decreases in his strikeout rate with his 2020 rate of 5.56 K/9 being the worst of his career outside of his debut with the Yankees back in 2009. He has also been getting hit harder the last three seasons than he had previously. None of these numbers, outside of his shockingly low strikeout rate from last year which could just be a small sample thing, are terrible at all. There is a reason why the Braves have continued to rely on Melancon. However, these numbers do seem to be declines and if Mark is looking for a multi-year deal, such a deal for significant dollars may be ill-advised.
So should the Braves re-sign Melancon?
Honestly, that is impossible to say for sure because we have some variables that are outside everyone’s control. We still don’t know if the designated hitter is going to be in the National League which complicates the Braves’ roster and payroll decisions especially if they are intent on trying to bring Marcell Ozuna back.
We also don’t know when the 2021 season will start and when it will have fans in the stands. Organizations across the league are looking at this development closely and if they don’t like what they see there, they are far less likely to spend on guys beyond the essentials. For a team like the Braves that already have a nice relief corps, that may mean Melancon should head elsewhere.
At the end of the day, this decision is going to come down to dollars. The Braves obviously like Melancon and he seemed to have a positive impact on the team in the clubhouse in addition to his good work on the field. He was also very well paid for the last several years and the question now is that does he still value himself highly in terms of AAV or does he recognize that he is getting older and wants to make a deal work with the team that seems to be among the best in the league right now. MLBTR had a prediction for Melancon to the Braves at one year, $4 million when the offseason started. If that deal works for both sides, the Braves should absolutely jump at that. If Melancon is wanting more money or, more problematically, more years, it definitely gets trickier.