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Braves Potential Free Agent Target: Ryan Tepera

You can never have enough bullpen arms...but it may be possible to have too much money tied up in one’s bullpen.

MLB: New York Yankees at Chicago White Sox David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2021 regular season, it is fair to say that the Braves’ bullpen was largely very decent with some more adventures than fans would have liked. The unit as a whole ranked 13th in MLB in fWAR with AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek leading way in terms of overall production. However, even with “The Night Shift” becoming an absolutely critical part of the Braves’ World Series run, bullpen arms are a notoriously volatile part of team rosters which brings us to one of the more interesting arms left on the free agent market in Ryan Tepera.

Tepera put together the best season of his career in 2021 with a 2.79 ERA and 2.73 FIP on his way to a 1.6 fWAR year for the Cubs and White Sox. He struck out 10.86 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.79. These were better than his career norms, but not so much as to think that it was purely luck at work. In fact, it is more likely that these improvements were thanks to improving his slider to where it was one of the more effective pitches amongst bullpen arms last year and then threw it a lot. Combine that with a changeup that gets swings and misses and a four-seamer that can at least keep hitters honest and you have a formula for success.

This brings us to whether or not he is a fit for the Braves. On the surface, yes...no team can have enough quality bullpen arms and that includes Atlanta. Sure, one can reasonably expect a good chunk of the core group of Minter, Matzek, Smith, and Jackson to be productive, but it would be foolish to expect all of them to be. One only needs to look at the stretches in the regular season where Will Smith was giving up homers in the ninth as a form of torment for Braves fans or look at Chris Martin, one of the Braves’ more important bullpen arms coming into the 2021 season, crashing back to Earth in addition to dealing with injuries.

Even if Tepera isn’t a top flight reliever over the next couple of years, he still has a good chance of being a good bullpen arm that you don’t have to employ as a closer. Him throwing with his right hand in a bullpen that is VERY lefty heavy at the moment sure doesn’t hurt his case, either.

The issue here is whether or not the Braves want to invest even more into a bullpen that already has a decent chunk of money sunk into it. Just looking at Spotrac’s payroll projections for Will Smith, AJ Minter, Tyler Matzek, and Luke Jackson alone, that is a little over $20 million in the Braves payroll and that doesn’t include pre-arbitration guys, etc. That number is obviously buoyed by the $13 million owed to Will Smith in final guaranteed year of his deal, but its still a good bit of money. Chris Martin coming off the books does help that cause, though, or at least make the arbitration raises sting a bit less.

If we look at the free agent predictions for the remainder of the free agent class, most outlets expect Tepera to get a two year deal somewhere in the $12-14 million range which is similar to what guys like old friend Mark Melancon as well as Hector Neris are expected to get. The plus side here is that we have seen the Braves give deals like that to relievers recently (again, see Chris Martin), so it is not a reach to think they would do so again and Tepera wouldn’t necessarily have the expectation or need to be the team’s closer. Its possible that a team in desperate need of bullpen help will buy high on Tepera’s 2021 and pay him more, but the expectation currently is that that won’t happen and the Braves have a track record of being willing to spend a little bit on non-closer relief help.

The Braves got a big financial boost thanks to being one of the first teams to welcome back crowds to games as well as a World Series title run, but there are some payroll question. The elephant in the room is obviously the fate of Freddie Freeman, but Ronald Acuna Jr. is getting a healthy pay bump in 2022 and guys like Ozzie Albies, Max Fried, Austin Riley, and Dansby Swanson are going to get raises as well. This would be made a whole lot easier if the Braves were able to shed Marcell Ozuna along with his baggage and $16 million salary, but there is no guarantee whatsoever that happens.

In short, Tepera is a real possibility and the fit makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, whether or not the Braves make a deal for him (or a similar bullpen arm) is likely going to be dictated by the result of the CBA negotiations as well as how their attempts to reunite with Freddie Freeman and pursuit of reinforcements in the outfield goes.

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