The Atlanta Braves are coming off a season in which they posted solid pitching numbers, including several that led all of baseball. The bullpen was a big part of it, recording the third best bullpen ERA in baseball at 3.11 and the second best bullpen FIP at 3.18. They were the only bullpen in baseball with a K/9 above 10, and they had the best groundball rate in baseball at 49.7%. Repeating in 2011 is a tall order, but the Braves seem to have what it takes.
Naturally, the bullpen is the most difficult area of the team to project and predict. Relievers fall off the map in a matter of weeks, while others jump out at you unexpectedly. Trying to give a rundown of how the Braves bullpen will fare is not exactly a science, but it's fun to look at anyway.
Kimbrel is already well-known in the baseball world for his Billy Wagner-like tendencies, including a 100 mph fastball, deadly slider and short stature. The difference (aside from Kimbrel being a righty) is that Kimbrel has control issues, and at times they are major. Kimbrel's two biggest innings amounts in the minors were 26.1 innings at A+ Myrtle Beach in 2009 and 55.2 innings at AAA Gwinnett in 2010. At the beach, his BB/9 was 9.57. At Gwinnett, it was 5.66. Even in his successful 20.2 innings in Atlanta at the end of 2010, his BB/9 was 6.97.
Yes, Kimbrel set a major league record for K/9 in at least 20 innings of work with 17.42, and it definitely isn't a fluke, but neither are the walk rates. There is no denying his ability, and I have little doubt that he will become a great closer, but the walks are still a concern going forward.
The Braves will use Kimbrel as the main closer in 2011, but Jonny Venters will get the save opportunity if the situation calls for it (lefties due up in the ninth). It's also worth noting that Fredi Gonzalez may have a fairly quick hook on Kimbrel if he falters and Venters is lights out, but Kimbrel is still the long-term guy.
Bill James: 63 IP, 2.57 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 6.71 BB/9, 14.29 K/9, 0.29 HR/9, 25 SV
Marcel: 35 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 3.86 BB/9, 9.77 K/9, 0.77 HR/9
ZiPS: 63 IP, 3.53 ERA, 115 ERA+, 54 BB, 92 K, 5 HR
Just to get this out of the way, Venters will see some regression in 2011, but I don't think it will be as drastic as people want to make it. His one home run allowed in 83 innings last season will not be repeated, and a difference between a 1.95 ERA to 3.10 xFIP shows he is due for regression (4.23 BB/9 is a big reason for that), but predictions seem to be ignoring his stuff and strikeout ability. That K/9 of 10 last season should not be dipping very far, and neither should the 68% GB%.
Venters will more than likely see a rise in ERA closer to the xFIP, but if he maintains his strikeout and groundball rates, and he works some on his walk rates, nothing should change much. He will get save opportunities when a lefty duo is due up in the ninth, but otherwise he will get the bulk of the eighth inning spots. As I mentioned above, if Kimbrel slips pretty drastically in his rookie season, Venters will be Plan B for the ninth inning.
Bill James: 74 IP, 4.14 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 4.86 BB/9, 7.42 K/9, 0.36 HR/9
Marcel: 67 IP, 3.16 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.63 BB/9, 8.87 K/9, 0.54 HR/9
ZiPS: 83 IP, 3.66 ERA, 111 ERA+, 44 BB, 78 K, 6 HR
Since Moylan's Tommy John Surgery:
2009 – 73 IP, 2.84 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 4.32 BB/9, 7.52 K/9, 0 HR
2010 – 63.2 IP, 2.97 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 5.23 BB/9, 7.35 K/9, 5 HR
The elbow surgery affects pitchers' command on different levels. Moylan has yet to reach his pre-surgery command, and it seems to be getting worse. He is also on the wrong side of 30 to develop his command all over again. On the bright side, Moylan had a better groundball rate and lower line drive rate in 2010. If the above trends continue, he may not have a job for long. He already posted below replacement level last year.
Bill James: 63 IP, 3.71 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 4.57 BB/9, 7.29 K/9, 0.43 HR/9
Marcel: 64 IP, 3.59 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 4.08 BB/9, 7.45 K/9, 0.7 HR/9
ZiPS: 51 IP, 3.88 ERA, 104 ERA+, 27 BB, 43 K, 4 HR
O'Flaherty dealt will illness that limited to 44 innings in 2010, but he still showed what he can do against LHB, recording a 2.61 FIP and 8.02 K/9. He will continue to be used strictly as a LOOGY, especially with the emergence of Venters as an option against both sides. O'Flaherty should be back to full strength and provide the Braves with more solid numbers against lefties.
The Linebrink trade would be considered very questionable if it was intended to be a move for a late innings guy, but Linebrink should not see very many outings later than the seventh inning. The move out of Chicago will certainly benefit his outrageous home run rates, which in turn should help lower the FIP a tad from the 4.33 mark last season. His extreme flyball tendencies are only getting worse with age, but as long as he maintains a K/BB similar to last year's 3.06, Turner Field should help him remain a dependable middle innings guy. He's replacement level making too much, but you could do worse.
Sherrill is greatly misunderstood, especially when it came to being traded to the Braves. He has incredibly bad overall numbers, but he still maintains decent numbers against LHB. He posted a 3.32 FIP, 8.41 K/9 and 0.44 HR/9 against lefties last season. It was a small sample size, but going back to 2009, he posted a 1.38 FIP, 11.19 K/9 and zero home runs against lefties. The problem is when batters from the right side tee off against him, yet the manager continues to run him out there against them. It's idiotic. Hopefully Fredi will know better. It will also help that he is the second LOOGY in the pen behind O'Flaherty, so he probably won't make a huge impact either way.
Proctor is likely to get the best shot at the final spot in the bullpen. He is replacement level and could just as easily implode as stick all season, so there's really nothing to go on. My one issue with Proctor is the fact that several arms are ready in AAA, yet the Braves are giving him first shot. It doesn't make sense to me, but no one really knows how much it will matter within a month or two.
Notables to watch this spring:
Stephen Marek – As ready as he'll ever be. Marek will likely get first shot at a bullpen spot if injury or failure occurs. Follow him as you would a regular in the pen.
Cristhian Martinez – Has proven capable of maintaining a back-end spot in the pen. Most already know what he possesses, but also watch him like he's a regular.
Jairo Ascencio – I valued him pretty highly just a couple years ago, and a strong spring will put him right back where he was. He should get major league innings this year.
Cory Gearrin – Also as ready as he'll ever be.
Erik Cordier – Don't have a lot of confidence in Cordier, but he's a distant option for this season.
Juan Abreu – Still developing in the minors, though he isn't far away. A very distant option for this season.
Anthony Varvaro – Electric stuff and strikeout rates, but control is holding him back. Also a very distant option for this season.
Lee Hyde – Pretty much done with the minors. Similar situation to Gearrin and Marek, but I don't have quite as much confidence in him. I assume he is the next option for lefty reliever behind Sherrill.
What We're Looking At:
CL – Craig Kimbrel
SU – Jonny Venters
MR – Peter Moylan
MR – Scott Linebrink
MR – Eric O'Flaherty
MR - George Sherrill
LR/MR – Scott Proctor