One of the roster parts that will see the most competition at Spring Training for the Atlanta Braves will once again be the bullpen. The Braves may very well add to this mix at some point, but they already possess a number of internal options.
The Braves avoided arbitration with Arodys Vizcaino earlier this offseason, agreeing on a one-year, $4.8 million deal for the 2019 season. Vizcaino pitched decently when available in 2018 but was hampered by a sore shoulder for much of the second half. He appeared in 39 games and averaged just over one strikeout per inning. The main question with Vizcaino is his health: will his shoulder hold up for a full season? The Braves may not get their answer in Spring Training but with his contract not fully guaranteed, they will likely be looking for any sign that he isn’t 100 percent. If he is healthy, then he is a safe bet to fill a late inning role in the pen. Also worth mentioning is that Vizcaino hasn’t been too effective against left-handed batters, especially not over the last two years. The Braves haven’t seemed too concerned about this to date, but it could affect how Vizcaino is used going forward.
If Vizcaino isn’t penciled in as the team’s closer, then that job will likely go to A.J. Minter, who delivered a pretty solid season in 2018. Minter battled some injury issues of his own but appeared in 65 games while averaging over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. He put up a solid FIP of 2.72 and was worth 1.4 fWAR in just 61.1 innings. That was good for a top-30 relief season in 2018, and he was also 30th in MLB among relievers in Win Probability Added.
Darren O’Day came over in the Kevin Gausman deal but was unable to pitch after he was acquired due to a hamstring injury. O’Day appeared in just 20 games for the Orioles last season and will be 36 in 2019. If healthy, he will be another experienced option for the back half of Atlanta’s pen with a good track record of preventing runs. In his entire career, he’s only posted an FIP- or an ERA- above 90 twice, and neither of those came in his last two seasons.
Jonny Venters’ return to Atlanta was a feel-good moment for the 2018 season. Venters has battled multiple Tommy John surgeries but has proven persistent and made his way back to the major leagues last season. Venters appeared in 28 games after being acquired by Atlanta via trade with Tampa Bay. He allowed just eight earned runs in 20.1 innings and limited left-handed hitters to just a .133 batting average in 66 plate appearances. Aside from Minter, who may not be used to play matchups, the Braves probably don’t have a better option for a standard left-handed reliever than Venters at the moment.
Potential Bullpen Candidates
For this exercise we are going to assume that the Braves will carry a total of eight relievers. Above, we considered four virtual locks in Vizcaino, Minter, O’Day and Venters. That leaves four more slots which will likely be filled from the following group if no more additions are made to the roster.
After being limited to just 21 combined appearances from 2015-2017, Dan Winkler established himself as a key piece out of the bullpen in 2018. He appeared in 69 games and averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. His 2.76 FIP relative to his 3.43 ERA suggests that he was a bit unfortunate before seemingly wearing down a bit at the end of the season. Winkler is a bit of an odd case — he was left off the playoff roster despite a top 40 relief season by fWAR and WPA. While he wasn’t particularly good against lefties for the year, he was one of the two best relievers for his team in 2018, and if not for the team apparently souring on him due to September struggles, he might be considered another bullpen lock.
When the Braves signed Shane Carle last offseason it appeared to be a move that was based purely on adding depth. However, he earned his way into a bullpen spot and pitched well before an injury sidelined him for a stretch during the second half. Carle ended up appearing in 53 games while posting a 2.86 ERA (3.54 FIP) in 63 innings. He actually ended up with more WPA than Winkler on the year, but rather than a bad month, he endured an entire rough second half. Like many of the Braves’ relievers, Carle doesn’t manage opposite-handed batters well.
Chad Sobotka didn’t make his major league debut until August but pitched well enough down the stretch to earn a spot on Atlanta’s postseason roster. Sobotka appeared in 14 games with the Braves and posted a 36.2 percent strikeout rate. Walks are still a concern and he outperformed his 3.93 FIP by a wide margin. Still, he was good enough to turn heads and should be in the mix again come Spring Training. Sobotka has even less of a track record than many other bullpen candidates and has only managed 85 innings or so above A-ball, but if the Braves felt confident enough to give him a playoff roster spot, it stands to reason that he’ll get some heavy consideration for a bullpen gig in 2019.
Jesse Biddle and Sam Freeman are pair of left-handed relievers who are both out of options. Biddle made his debut for the Braves in 2018 and appeared in 60 games posting a 3.11 ERA (3.88 FIP) in 63.2 innings. Like several others, he seemed to wear down in September under a heavy workload and was ultimately left off of the postseason roster. Interestingly, Biddle was more effective against right-handers last season limiting them to a .191 average, though his xFIP (3.45 against lefties, 3.64 against righties) suggests this was just the usual reliever small sample weirdness.
Freeman struggled early on in the season posting a 5.06 ERA over his first 37.1 innings. After a DL stint due to shoulder fatigue, he improved and got much better results down the stretch allowing just three earned runs over 13 innings in the second half. Atlanta avoided arbitration with Freeman earlier this offseason when the two sides agreed on a one-year, $1.575 million contract. That deal isn’t fully guaranteed which may or may not factor into the decision. Despite drawing some consternation from fans, Freeman isn’t as bad his ERA suggested, with an FIP and xFIP that never exceeded 4.10 (league average was around 4.15) in any calendar month. Rather, Freeman was burned by having to face 1.4 righties for each lefty he faced in 2018.
Luke Jackson found his way into making 35 appearances for the Braves while posting a 4.43 ERA in 40.2 innings. His 3.55 FIP suggests that he was a bit unfortunate with his results last season but it remains to be seen whether he can earn nail down a spot this time around. Jackson keeps sticking around the organization, as he was outrighted four times in 2018 yet continued to rack up innings and actually posted a career-best season while doing so.
It is also worth mentioning that one or more of the starting options could end up shifting into a bullpen role. That idea has been thrown around in regards to Luiz Gohara as well as Max Fried, the latter of whom performed well in that role down the stretch in 2018.
Jacob Webb put together a solid campaign between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018. He appeared in 30 games for Gwinnett, averaged more than a strikeout per inning while posting a 3.13 ERA (3.55 FIP) in 31.2 innings. He was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and could make his major league debut at some point this season.
Patrick Weigel is another name to keep an eye on during the spring. Weigel tore a ligament in his elbow in 2017 and missed nearly all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He looks healthy entering camp and could be an option at some point in 2019.
Wes Parsons made one five inning appearance for the Braves in 2018. He logged 88 innings at Gwinnett where he was solid finishing with a 3.27 ERA (3.59 FIP). He is still on the 40-man roster and will be in big league camp this spring.
The Braves added Huascar Ynoa to the 40-man roster this offseason in order to protect him from the Rule-5 Draft. Ynoa split last season between Low-A Rome and High-A Florida. He is likely to start the season again with the Fire Frogs but could move quickly.
Thomas Burrows, Corbin Clouse and Tucker Davidson all received invites to spring training. Of the three, Clouse appears to be the closest to the majors but Burrows might not be far behind. Davidson ended the year in Florida but is another that could move quickly through the system.