Reporting Grant McAuley
The Atlanta Braves rotation has made headlines countless times over the past two decades. While this year’s starting staff has the potential to be one of the best in the National League, it is the Atlanta bullpen which may prove to be the best in baseball.
Last season, the Braves were 83-1 when leading after eight innings, a testament to the late inning stability provided by the relievers.
Boasting an elite closer and a supporting cast that is the envy of baseball executives in both leagues, the Braves enter 2013 with a definite late inning advantage. This group of relievers will be tasked with protecting the leads as Atlanta seeks to unseat the Washington Nationals on its way to a division title.
The most dominant closer in baseball can be found finishing games in Atlanta.
His name is Craig Kimbrel. And while he hails from the planet Earth, his late inning exploits have been otherworldly.
Kimbrel, 24, followed up his 2011 NL Rookie of the Year performance by pacing the league with 42 saves last season.
That gives the righty a total of 88 saves in two years as Atlanta’s closer, a job he took over following Billy Wagner’s retirement.
Hitters around the league may have been relieved to see Wagner call it quits after 16 seasons, but Kimbrel has taken dominance to a whole new level. His imposing presence has batters hoping to avoid facing Kimbrel with the game on the line.
Braves second baseman Dan Uggla discussed the general consensus of opposing hitters with MLB.com’s Mark Bowman.
“Guys will get on base and sarcastically say to us, ‘Oh man, can’t wait to face Kimbrel in the ninth!’” Uggla said. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, I know, bro. Good luck with that. Better you than me.’”
The righty used his electric stuff to strike out 116 batters in 62.2 innings pitched last season, an average of 16.7 K’s per nine innings. Just over half the batters (50.2 percent) who faced Kimbrel went down on strikes. He did all of this while walking just 14 men and allowing opponents to hit just .126 against him.
Combining a 98 mph fastball with a power curveball has led to a pair of All-Star game appearances as well as a fifth place finish in the NL Cy Young voting in 2012.
Need one more impressive stat to sum up how hard it is to have any success against the Atlanta closer?
Kimbrel led all of baseball by striking out 4.3 batters for every hit allowed. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ mph heater finished second with 3.5 K’s per hit surrendered.
The bottom line is that Kimbrel is the best in the business at what he does. And that gives the Braves an advantage over the opposition.
Jonny Venters has been the perfect lefty complement to Kimbrel over the past two seasons.
A hard-thrower who features a sinking fastball in 93-95 mph range, Venters overcame elbow soreness and mechanical issues to recapture his previous form in the final two months of 2012.
The heavy workload from his first two seasons in the majors may have brought about some of the early struggles Venters faced last year. He was used 79 times as a rookie in 2010, and followed that up with a league-leading 85 appearances in 2011.
His results were nothing short of outstanding. Venters turned in sub-2.00 ERA’s in each of those seasons and was selected for the NL All-Star team in 2011. Like Kimbrel, Venters has been known to pile up his fair share of strikeouts, fanning 189 batters in his first 171 innings of big league work.
After a strong April showing, things came off the track for Venters in May of last season. His strikeout rate plummeted, while opponents batted .423 against him in 14 appearances that month.
As the struggles continued throughout June, the Braves opted to give Venters and his elbow a rest in July. It turned out to a move that provided the lefty reliever with time to heal and time to regroup.
His 4.45 ERA over the first 40 relief outings was a stark contrast to the 1.71 mark he turned in over his final 26 appearances. Also telling, the league was batting .313 against Venters prior to the stint on the DL, and managed just a .211 mark after his return.
Venters told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that he is prepared to hit the ground running in his age-28 season.
“I definitely came in a little more prepared this year than I did last year,” Venters said. ” I took a lot of time off throwing last year and then I kind of got behind the eight ball. Once camp started, I had a hard time getting going and my arm started getting sore. This year, I started to crank it up a little earlier and be a little more prepared.”
The Braves will rely on Venters as the primary left-handed set-up man for Kimbrel again this year. His workload may decrease given the other arms available to manager Fredi Gonzalez, but there is no doubt that Venters will be called upon in pressure situations this season.
Many waiver claims never bear fruit, but sometimes a general manager will select just the right player.
That was the case when Atlanta GM Frank Wren claimed Eric O’Flaherty off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in November of 2008. An integral piece of the bullpen for the last four seasons was plucked from an organization that had no plans for him.
With Seattle, O’Flaherty managed just a 5.91 ERA in 78 appearances over parts of three seasons. Those numbers were hardly a harbinger of things to come.
O’Flaherty, 28, has been a model of consistency as a left-handed specialist in his time with the Braves. He has averaged 69 appearances over the past four seasons while turning in a 1.95 ERA in 231.1 innings.
Though O’Flaherty can pick up a strikeout when he needs it, his value has come in match-up situations. His 11 double plays induced were the best on the staff last season.
It was going to be hard for O’Flaherty to provide an encore for the 0.98 ERA he turned in during 78 games in 2011. He had a couple of bumps in the early going last season, but settled in to allow just one earned run in his final 39 appearances.
With a track record of success firmly established in Atlanta, O’Flaherty talked about his goals for this season with Jim Buchan of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, his hometown newspaper.
“My goals are never numbers,” he said. “It’s more about effort and focus. I feel like if I prepare every day and work my butt off, at the end of the season, no matter what happens, I can be proud of that.”
That hard work has paid dividends thus far, so the Braves will expect O’Flaherty to handle his duties with that same kind of efficiency again this year.
Jordan Walden was an All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011. It is certainly nice to be able to acquire such a pitcher to strengthen an already capable bullpen.
A slow start and control issues led to his removal from the closer’s role for the Angels last season, but there is no questioning the kind of stuff Walden adds to Atlanta’s late inning crew.
After collecting 32 saves in 2011, Walden, 25, converted just one of his two save opportunities before losing his late inning duties to Scott Downs last season. That was just one of many times the Angels were forced to make a change to their late inning depth chart.
Neck and arm woes caused Walden to have a six-week stay on the DL in July and August, but he still turned in a respectable line for the season.
Despite never getting another save chance, Walden finished with a 3.46 ERA in 45 appearances, fanning 48 batters in 39 IP. He has racked up 138 K’s in 114.2 career innings.
The Braves sent Tommy Hanson to Los Angeles in exchange for Walden this winter, in hopes that he would be able to utilize the same triple-digit heater that made him an effective closer to help in the late innings.
With Walden added to the mix, manager Fredi Gonzalez ran down the bullpen options he will have to choose from with Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Our bullpen got better with the kid Walden, a guy that’s pitched in the back end of games. If everything goes well, he’s throwing the seventh inning for you, which is good. In the last two years the way we’ve set up, we go O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel or Venters, O’Flaherty, Kimbrel, the other team knew that we had those two lefties in the seventh, eighth inning. So now we could throw (Walden) and split those lefties up.”
Even though closing games is out of the question for the time being, if Walden pitches like the guy who allowed just one earned run in his final 11 appearance of the season, then the Braves will certainly be able to find a role that suits him.
The Braves stumbled upon a quality long reliever in right-hander Cristhian Martinez, thanks to yet another astute waiver claim by Wren and company.
Martinez, who turns 31 on March 6, was claimed from the Florida Marlins in April 2010. He may not be as flashy as O’Flaherty, but Martinez gets the job done.
Originally property of the Detroit Tigers after signing as an amateur free agent in 2003, he was nabbed by the Marlins in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2007.
Over the past two years, Martinez has established himself as Atlanta’s go-to long man. He has made 100 appearances over that time, turning in a 3.63 ERA in 151.1 innings. The righty has walked just 38 batters while registering 123 strikeouts as well.
Relying on fastball location that accentuates his quality changeup, Martinez mixes in the occasional slider. He has a penchant for staying around the plate, which has helped him issue just 52 walks in 203.2 IP during a four-year big league career.
Every bullpen needs a guy who can come in and supply innings. Whether the starter exits early or an extra-inning affair turns into a marathon game, Martinez will be the arm summoned to do most of the heavy lifting.
Luis Avilan was a pleasant surprise for the Braves in 2012 after being recalled from the minors in July when Venters was placed in the disabled list.
Avilan, 23, pitched very well in his rookie season with Atlanta. He went 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 31 appearances. He posted 33 strikeouts while walking just 10 batters.
The southpaw’s best work came against lefty bats, who hit just .180 against him. Avilan also made himself right at home at Turner Field, where he allowed just one earned run in 17 appearances.
Primarily a starter for Double-A Mississippi, Avilan went 3-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 16 games (12 starts) before earning the chance to jump to Triple-A Gwinnett. His stay there lasted just one day, as the big club found itself in need of left-handed depth with Venters sidelined.
Signed by Atlanta as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2005, Avilan has dabbled in both starting and relieving in the minors, but it appears he has found a niche for the time being.
Atlanta turned to Cory Gearrin for three stints in 2012, and the side-arming righty made the most of his time with the big club. His multiple auditions may have won him a spot in the bullpen this season.
Originally a fourth-round selection out of Mercer University in 2007, Gearrin, 26, has spent the last three seasons with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Gearrin earned International League All-Star honors there last year. He turned in a 2.30 ERA in 39 appearances, saving nine games. He racked up 66 strikeouts against 22 walks in 54.2 innings of work.
Perhaps seeing some time with the Braves in 2011 helped Gearrin get over any nerves he might have been dealing with. After posting a 7.85 ERA 18 appearances during his first go-round, he settled in nicely in 2012. Gearrin trimmed his ERA to 1.80 in 22 games last season, striking out 20 batters while walking just five men.
His deceptive delivery has been tough for righty hitters to figure out, evidenced by their .151/.245/.174 slash line through Gearrin’s first 40 games. That has not been the case for left-handed bats, however. They have tuned him up for a .368/.463/.614 line thus far in his big league career.
Those early trends are extreme, but Gearrin’s minor league splits suggest that he can be effective against both righties and lefties. He will see the bulk of his action in the middle innings for Atlanta this season.
The Braves will use the Grapefruit League action to assess what other options they have in camp. Unlike many other clubs, Atlanta does not have nearly as many question marks in the bullpen.
Despite the strength of relievers who have already been featured, there are a number of pitchers attempting to make a lasting impression, or perhaps even earn a spot when the team breaks camp.
Anthony Varvaro, 28, is a righty who got a look in Atlanta last season. He remains on the 40-man roster after going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 games. He fanned 21 hitters in 16.2 big league innings and put up strong numbers in Gwinnett. Varvaro is yet another waiver claim, snagged from Seattle in January of 2011.
Cory Rasmus is a 25-year-old right-hander who was selected as a first-round supplemental pick in 2006. He is the younger brother of Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus. Like Varvaro, Rasmus is on the Braves 40-man roster.
He moved to the bullpen in 2012 with Double-A Mississippi, going 3-5 with a 3.68 ERA in 58.2 IP. Rasmus fanned 62 batters but walked 32, and is likely to start the season with Triple-A Gwinnett to continue adapting to the relief role.
Wirfin Obispo, 28, has certainly had an interesting journey through professional baseball. A shortstop turned pitcher who has played in the Red Sox and Reds chains as well as in Japan, Obispo signed with Atlanta as a minor league free agent in November.
His deal included an invite to big league camp. Obispo is coming off a 5-3 season with a 3.00 ERA and 91 K’s in 96 IP for the Reds Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. Most of his success came in Double-A Pensacola.
Dusty Hughes, 30, is a lefty who spent last year in Gwinnett, turning in a 3-2 mark with a 3.31 ERA in 54 games. A non-roster invitee, Hughes does have some big league experience.
He pitched well for Kansas City in 2010, but was not good at all for Minnesota in limited action the next year. Hughes will try to impress the Braves enough to earn his way back to the majors at some point this season.
David Carpenter, 27, is getting the reputation as a journeyman with the way he has been going through teams of late. He came up through the Cardinals organization, but has been traded three times since 2010.
Most recently, he was dealt from Toronto to Boston along with manager John Farrell for Mike Aviles. Atlanta claimed him off waivers from the Red Sox in late November.
A closer in the minors, he showed promise with Houston in 2011 before getting hit around with the Astros and Blue Jays last season. Carpenter is looking to get his career back on track and give the Braves some organizational depth from which to pull from in 2013.
Yohan Flande, 27, was signed as a minor league free agent in December of 2010 after six years in the Phillies organization. The lefty was on the verge of perhaps making the club last spring before the Braves signed Chad Durbin late in March.
Flande has spent the last two seasons in Gwinnett, primarily as a starter. He got another non-roster invite this year and could be converted to a reliever if the need arises at the big league level.
Ryan Buchter, 26, is yet another lefty non-roster invitee. He was traded from the Twins to the Cubs in 2008 before Atlanta sent Rodrigo Lopez to Chicago for him in May of 2011.
Buchter was extremely impressive with Double-A Mississippi last year, posting a 1.31 ERA in 35 games, but faltered in his trial with Gwinnett. He is likely to get another look at Triple-A this year.
Daniel Rodriguez, 28, was signed out of the Mexican league last season and given a non-roster invite to big league camp this year.
He will show the Braves what he has to offer, though most of his career has been spent as a starter. Rodriguez will probably end up back in Gwinnett, where he made two appearances after signing in 2012.
Many of those arms are likely to spend significant time in the minor leagues, but the collective unit that Atlanta has assembled at the big league level is poised to be a true difference maker this season. It certainly does not hurt to identify pitchers who can contribute to the cause in times of need.
Kimbrel, Venters, O’Flaherty and Walden will be given countless leads to protect this season. If the middle inning corps does its part, then it stands to reason that Atlanta’s bullpen will rank among baseball’s elite.