2017 Braves Preview Series: The Bullpen

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

Jim Johnson (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images)

Jim Johnson (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images)

Jim Johnson | RHP | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2-years, $10 million

Atlanta has proven to be a good landing spot for Jim Johnson not once, but twice over the past two seasons. The former All-Star closer got his career back on track in 2015 before being traded to the Dodgers, then returned to do it all over again in 2016. After taking over ninth inning duties and turning back the clock to his Baltimore days, Johnson found himself the recipient of a two-year extension on the final day of the season. The move may have surprised some, but the club was happy to ensure that a proven closing option would be present in the bullpen for the foreseeable future. Johnson has done anything the team has asked during his two stints with the club. His quiet leadership and unselfish attitude should help set the tone for the relief corps. Johnson posted a 3.06 ERA (2.71 FIP) and fanned a career-best 9.5 batters per nine innings last season. His 7.9 H/9 also marked his lowest rate since 2012, the first of his consecutive 50-save seasons for the Orioles. Atlanta has quite a few hard-throwing relievers in house, but Johnson’s power sinker made him the most effective of the bunch as he gained velocity in the second half. The results speak for themselves. After posting a rather unimpressive 4.06 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 2.7 K/BB with a .683 opponents’ OPS over 31 appearances in the first half, Johnson turned in a 2.14 ERA with 18 saves, 11 K/9 and 4.1 K/BB with a .584 opponents’ OPS down the stretch following the break. His fastball, which had been sitting between 90-92 in the first half, bumped up to 94-96 with great sinking action. Johnson will enter 2017 looking to pick up right where he left off.

Arodys Vizcaino (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Arodys Vizcaino (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.55 million

A power arm that many thought would be closing for Atlanta last season, Arodys Vizcaino comes to camp looking to reestablish himself yet again. Injuries have led to numerous setbacks for the talented right-hander, but he exited 2015 poised to handle the late innings for Atlanta. Unfortunately, that carryover effect was derailed by the All-Star break as both an oblique strain and shoulder inflammation limited him to just seven appearances over the final three months. Throw in a topical infection in July and Vizcaino pretty much ran the gamut of maladies, while avoiding major injury. It is unlikely that Vizcaino will unseat incumbent closer Jim Johnson at the outset of the season, but team’s top priority is insuring that the hard-throwing righty is ready to contribute to the late inning mix in some form or fashion. Vizcaino approaches 100 mph and backs up his fastball with a sharp breaking pitch in the mid-80s that is sometimes difficult to classify as either curveball or slider. Regardless, this two-pitch mix has been extremely effective when he’s healthy. Fastball command is the key to his success and sets up his breaking ball as a swing-and-miss weapon. Vizcaino averaged 12.4 K/9 over the first 34 appearances in 2016, sporting a 1.93 ERA and .554 opponents’ OPS, numbers that made him an intriguing trade candidate had injuries not cropped up. Atlanta avoided arbitration with Vizcaino, who was first time eligible this past winter. If he is healthy and back to full speed, then Atlanta’s eighth innings will be in very capable hands to open 2017.

Mauricio Cabrera (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Mauricio Cabrera (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Mauricio Cabrera | RHP | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Of all the pitching prospects in the system over the past few years, none boasts better pure velocity than Mauricio Cabrera. Despite that weapon, he was something of an enigma in his six years in the organization. That all changed upon his move to the bullpen. Only one reliever in baseball held a higher average fastball velocity than Cabrera’s 100.1 mph in 2016, and that was Aroldis Chapman. There are, of course, differences both subtle and not-so-subtle between those two pitchers. For starters, Cabrera has yet to refine his arsenal to yield the requisite number of strikeouts to be a truly dominant closer. While Chapman has used his overpowering stuff to average an absurd 15.2 K/9 during his career, Cabrera (7.9 K/9 across all levels) has yet to turn the corner and approach that kind of success. Atlanta promoted Cabrera from Double-A and he rewarded the club with a 2.82 ERA (3.04 FIP) in 41 games. He made a career-high 66 appearances between the minors and majors last season, which may have led to his September slowdown – 4.15 ERA with 9BB/3K in 8.2 IP over his final 11 outings. It wasn’t the innings, but the amount of appearances that seemed to add up. That aside, Cabrera stands 6’3” and weighs 245 pounds, so he has the build to go with the big arm and durability shouldn’t be an issue. Like Vizcaino, the foundation for success is fastball command. Unlike Vizcaino, Cabrera does not possess the plus-breaking ball that leads to insane K-rates. Instead, he has a biting low-90s slider that will need refinement to maximize results going forward. Cabrera figures to see plenty of high-leverage work this season as the club grooms him for the closer’s role down the line.

Ian Krol (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Ian Krol (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Ian Krol | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $900,000

The Braves will be counting on southpaw Ian Krol to build off his best season to date. After turning in what could be considered a breakout campaign of sorts in 2016, he seems to have the inside track on a spot in the Atlanta pen this season. Krol’s splits that are relatively neutral, which makes him better suited for full inning work rather than the lefty specialist role. Krol struggled a bit down the stretch, but finished the season with a 3.18 ERA in 63 appearances. He turned in excellent rates (9.9 K/9 – 2.3 BB/9 – 0.7 HR/9) over 51 innings. Atlanta acquired Krol from Detroit, where he’d struggled the prior two seasons, posting a 5.34 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 and 1.70 WHIP in 78 appearances (60.2 IP). While he did an excellent job limiting walks last season, he did allow more than a hit per inning. Krol issued just one walk in his final 20 outings and it was intentional, but opponents batted .345 with a lofty .452 batting average on balls in play. With a little luck to lower that BABIP and the ability to continue missing bats, Krol should be a serviceable member of the Atlanta bullpen this season.

Paco Rodriguez (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Paco Rodriguez (Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Paco Rodriguez | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $637,500

Atlanta has waited quite a while to put Paco Rodriguez into the bullpen mix and it appears this spring will finally be the time. Rodriguez was acquired from the Dodgers in the Hector Olivera trade and ended up having Tommy John surgery in October of 2015. That was an unforeseen setback for the lefty who sports a 2.53 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 124 career games. Rodriguez has not appeared on the mound since May 29, 2015 and is now nearly 17 months removed from elbow surgery. An excellent lefty specialist for Los Angeles in 2013, he has limited left-handed hitters to a .174/.245/.234 slash line in 186 plate appearances. If he proves to be healthy and effective, that would seem to be the role Atlanta has reserved for Rodriguez. However, it’s been a long road back and this spring will help determine whether or not he needs some minor league time to knock the rust off at the very least. Rodriguez starred as a reliever at the University of Florida before being taken in the second round of the 2012 draft by the Dodgers. He works with a low-90s fastball, but has a deceptive delivery and relies primarily on his cutter and slider to confound hitters. Toss in the occasional changeup and Rodriguez has the mix to be an extremely effective lefty reliever. However, health is the question he will have to answer this spring.

Josh Collmenter (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

Josh Collmenter (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

Josh Collmenter | RHP | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.2 million

Over the past few seasons, the Braves have picked up various spare parts in hopes of creating a patchwork rotation or simply trying to fill out a beleaguered bullpen. Jose Collmenter may actually be able to help out in both of those roles. As a starter, he provided the Braves with a handful of useful outings in late September and appears poised to serve as the club’s long reliever in 2017. Collmenter was the Diamondbacks’ opening day starter in 2015, but fell out of Arizona’s rotation by midseason and has bounced between starter and reliever over the past six years. He is a soft-tossing righty who does not top 90 mph and relies on deception and location to keep hitters off balance. With an average fastball velocity that sits around 85 mph, Collmenter’s changeup and slow curveball are an effective change of speeds. Collmenter owns a career 3.50 ERA in 678.1 IP, but has out-performed his 4.02 FIP. Obviously, throwing strikes is a big part of his success. Collmenter’s 2.1 BB/9 is solid and he misses just enough bats (6.3 K/9) to remain effective. The Braves have some young arms on the way and a couple of veterans in camp who could see time in the Triple-A rotation, but Collmenter remains the first line of defense should the rotation falter in the early going this season.

Chaz Roe (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Chaz Roe (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Chaz Roe | RHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Another cast-off who found a home in the Atlanta bullpen last season, Chaz Roe used his wipeout slider to pile up strikeouts in 2016. It’s a pitch that can seemingly defy the laws of physics and adds a valuable dimension to the Atlanta bullpen. Before launching into his backstory, it’s important to note that the complimentary remarks about the slider are not simply hyperbole. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote a piece in 2015 in which he laid out the reasons why Roe’s slider was in the same category as Jose Fernandez’s breaking ball. It all comes down to command, however. That is something that is still a work in progress for Roe. He was claimed off waivers from the Orioles in August and joined his ninth organization in the process. He posted a 3.60 ERA in 21 appearances with 7BB/26K in 20 IP for Atlanta. Teams are always looking for relievers who can miss bats and that’s precisely what Roe does. His 11.7 K/9 last year with the Braves was the high water mark, but a 9.7 K/9 over 90 big league appearances serves as proof that his slider is an excellent weapon. Roe has just over a year of service time, so the Braves could have quite a bargain on their hands over the next two seasons at the very least. A good spring training should allow for Roe to make his way back to Atlanta, where he could finally find a home after years of bouncing around.

Jose Ramirez (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Jose Ramirez (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

There will be no shortage of live arms in the Atlanta bullpen. Jose Ramirez is yet another with a mid-90s fastball, but pairs his with a quality changeup to find success. The Braves acquired him in a trade with the Mariners last winter. His first few chances at the big league level were rocky to say the least, including a brief stint with Atlanta to open 2016. Out of options, the team had to sneak him through waivers in order to send him to Gwinnett, but by season’s end Ramirez established himself as a viable major league relief option.  He was roughed up in two April appearances (6 ER in 2 IP), but returned in late July to compile a 2.05 ERA with 14BB/29K and a .196 BAA in 30.2 IP over 31 outings. Ramirez averaged 95.3 mph on his fastball last season, which is a tick faster than Mike Foltynewicz (95.2 mph AFV). Yes, there is the matter of sample sizes and roles that play a factor, but Ramirez is just one of the many Braves relievers who can crank up the velocity and make it hard on opponents with a nice change of speed. With so much depth available to manager Brian Snitker, it may be hard to imagine that some of these arms will not be working in the eighth and ninth innings. This, however, is exactly what the Braves are looking for – sustainable, quality depth on the pitching staff.

Prospect Heatseeker

No. 21 - A..J. Minter (Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

No. 21 – A..J. Minter (Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2015 | ETA: 2017

Perhaps no other relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel has generated as much buzz in Braves circles as A.J. Minter, who checks in at No. 21 on my Braves Top Prospects for 2017. The Texas A&M product was back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance in 2016, wiping out opposing hitters with a nasty fastball-slider combo that had top team executives mentioning his name throughout the summer. Atlanta opted to take Minter with the 75th pick in the June draft two years ago despite the arm injury and he rewarded them for their patience last summer.

Minter sits in the mid-90s and can also rely on a cut fastball a few ticks off that. He backs up that velocity with an excellent slider, a weapon that helped him post 12.2 K/9 in 34.2 IP last season. Minter could have been a first rounder were it not for the arm injury and obviously Atlanta thought enough of him to spend a top pick on him anyway. He was eased back in to action last season, posting a 1.30 ERA across three levels, ending the season in Double-A. The one caveat, however, is that he has yet to throw on consecutive days, something relievers are routinely asked to do. As the Braves remove that restriction this season, it’s possible Minter could begin 2017 with Mississippi and see a relatively quick promotion to Gwinnett. If he has a good showing in the spring, Minter could be ticketed for Atlanta sooner than later.

The rest of the 40 man:

Jason Hursh (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Jason Hursh (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Jason Hursh is one of the last vestiges of Atlanta’s system from before the rebuild began. Hursh, 25, was a first round pick in 2013, who transitioned from starter to reliever last season. Despite a live arm and the ability to keep the ball down, he’s struggled to miss enough bats. That’s something that would have to change in order for Hursh to take the next step… Luke Jackson was acquired from the Rangers over the winter, adding a power arm to the system. He saw some time in the big leagues (8.50 ERA in 15G), but was unable to stick in Texas. Jackson, 25, throws in the mid-90s, but was hit hard in 11.2 IP last season (22H, 14R, 8BB/3K). He could be a late inning option if he can harness his control… Akeel Morris came over from the Mets in the latest version of “the Kelly Johnson trade” last summer and could find his way to Atlanta to stay later this season. Morris, 24, made a brief appearance in the big leagues in 2015, but appears bound for Triple-A this season. He has an excellent fastball-changeup combo that has helped him average over 12 K/9 in his minor league career. Morris is likely on the short list to make the jump if and when Atlanta needs reinforcements… Armando Rivero, 29, was selected in the Rule 5 draft from the Chicago Cubs, which means he must stay on the roster the entire season or be offered back. His eye-popping strikeout numbers (14 K/9 in 2016, 12.4 K/9 career) and success at AAA last season put him on Atlanta’s radar. With so many viable right-handed options in camp, it will take a good showing this spring to force a decision… Daniel Winkler suffered a gruesome injury that ended his 2016 season. A broken elbow has put his career in doubt as he comes to spring training hoping to make the club. He’s a fascinating case. Winkler is a Rule 5 pick who still has 53 days to go to fulfill his service time requirement, lest he be offered back to the Rockies. His strikeout ability is intriguing, but injuries have cost the righty much of the last three seasons. While Winkler could open the year on the DL, he appears to be a long shot to head north with the club.

Non-roster options:  

Blaine Boyer (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Blaine Boyer (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

There are plenty of other arms in camp hoping to earn a spot in the Atlanta pen. One familiar name is righty Blaine Boyer, 35, who returns to the organization after stops with six other clubs since 2009. In recent years, he’s been a useful pitch-to-contact reliever with a historically low K/9 (just 3.5 in 66 IP last season for Milwaukee). Boyer is well-liked and is hoping to force a tough decision as the team breaks camp. He could find himself in Triple-A Gwinnett on the ready for an opportunity later this summer, or be a trade piece for some club looking for proven help… Rhiner Cruz, 30, is a signing that has minor league depth written all over it. He has 72 big league appearances, but has been pitching primarily in Japan and Mexico since the 2014 season. He is another righty who may find himself in Triple-A, hoping for a call from a big league club sometime this season… Sam Freeman was a fairly effective lefty for the St. Louis Cardinals, but is coming off a bad 2016. He has good stuff, but a tendency to spend too much time behind in the count and out of the strike zone at times. Freeman, 29, also holds reverse platoon splits, limiting the possibility that he could operate as LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) for Atlanta. If he can parlay a good spring into a bounce back campaign in Gwinnett, then he may earn a promotion at some point… Adam Kolarek is another lefty option who comes to camp hoping to impress. The 28-year-old is yet to see big league time, but has shown the ability to miss bats during a seven-year minor league career. He’s averaged a strikeout per frame while posting a 3.50 ERA in 411.1 IP. He was a bit erratic (5.3 BB/9) at two stops in the Rays system last year and appears earmarked for Gwinnett to begin 2017…  Eric O’Flaherty was once a household name in the Atlanta pen, but the lefty has been hit hard by injury and inconsistency over the past few seasons. He underwent elbow surgery late last year and the club was encouraged enough to sign him to a minor league deal. O’Flaherty, 33, is a well-respected reliever who can help set the tone for younger pitchers this spring, but he must put up the numbers to warrant a longer look in a crowded camp.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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