The Braves bullpen has been tremendous through the first 10 games of the season for Atlanta. The unit has collectively produced a 3.07 ERA, 2.68 FIP, and a 3.10 xFIP across 44.0 innings, amounting to 0.8 WAR. Furthermore, the group has posted an impressive 10.64 K/9 rate along with a great 2.05 BB/9 rate so far. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that two messy long relief outings are included: one from Touki Toussaint, and another from Jhoulys Chacin, who is no longer on the active roster.
This bullpen already looks formidable, anchored by last year’s trade deadline acquisitions, Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene. That back end is supported by the controversial, but useful Luke Jackson along with a resurgent A.J. Minter, a fantastic comeback story in Tyler Matzek, and the steady long relief option Josh Tomlin. The talent pool is set to get even more impressive with the highly anticipated return of major off-season signing Will Smith, who should be joining the roster soon after his recovery from COVID-19. Smith produced a 2.76 ERA in 2019 backed by a tremendous 13.22 K/9 rate and a 2.89 BB/9. The former Giants and Brewers reliever has been lights out for the last 4 seasons, and should be expected to continue that trend in Atlanta, especially against left handed hitters, who he produced an absurd -0.24 FIP (yes that is a negative) against last season, striking out nearly 60%.
This group is so talented that cutting it down to eight, which will be necessary when rosters shrink to 26 will be incredible difficult. To predict the eight I am going to treat Touki Toussaint as a starter, since it was confirmed Monday that he is set to take another start on Thursday and looked decent in his first start. I am also going to assume that Josh Tomlin remains in the bullpen and is not called on to start.
With those things being said, I have Smith, Melancon, Greene, Jackson, and Martin as absolute locks. That would leave Tomlin, Minter, Matzek, Darren O’Day, and Grant Dayton to fill the final three spots. I think the Braves would want to keep Minter since he is supremely talented, fairly young, and looked great for the big league club in 2017 and 2018. It would seem like Dayton is the easiest to cut here since he hasn’t been tremendously effective relative to some of the others this season and doesn’t have much of a track record to fall back on. That would leave Tomlin, Matzek, and O’Day for the final two spots. It seems like the Braves really like Tomlin and he has been good for them as a long relief option, so we’ll assume Tomlin makes the final roster.
Choosing between Matzek and O’Day is really difficult for the final spot. I would lean towards Matzek since he is far younger, has looked fantastic this season, and O’Day has been injury prone of late. With that being said, it’s also easy to understand why the Braves might choose O’Day, since there would already be two left-handed relievers in the bullpen, they are paying O’Day $2.75 million, and he boasts a career ERA of 2.56. The next few weeks will be crucial towards determining who makes these final spots.
This exercise leaves the final bullpen as composed of Will Smith, Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, Shane Greene, Luke Jackson, A.J Minter, Tyler Matzek, and Josh Tomlin, with Darren O’Day just missing the cut, and Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint in the rotation. These decisions become even harder if Newcomb and/or Toussaint fall out of the rotation and must be considered for the bullpen. This is especially true for Newcomb, who posted an impressive 3.04 ERA over 53.1 innings as a reliever in 2019.
For a team with a lot of questions in the starting rotation, having a talented and deep bullpen is hugely helpful, especially with the 3 batter minimum rule and as the Braves (hopefully) head into the playoffs, where relief pitching is at a premium. Even with some statistical regression over a larger sample, this bullpen can be a huge weapon for Atlanta in 2020.