The Atlanta Braves put together a solid season from the bullpen in 2010, recording the second-highest fWAR in the National League at 6.7, third-best ERA at 3.11 and second-best FIP at 3.18. Despite the losses of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, it was expected for the Braves to pick up where they left off in 2011 with the emergence of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. While this has happened, it has not solved the middle relief woes that could potentially plague the team as the season wears on.
The Braves are extremely top heavy in the bullpen. They are second in the league in fWAR at 1.9 while sitting fifth in ERA at 2.98 and third in FIP at 2.84. They have the best K/9 in the league at 8.95 and best GB% at 54%. The main reason for these high rankings is the trio of Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
Venters has been perhaps the most dependable/automatic/predictable reliever in baseball so far this season, inducing ground balls at an 85% rate while allowing just two runs in 20.2 innings. And the best stat of all from Venters is a 2.18 BB/9, which is really the only thing that has caused any type of concern for the left-hander. He is obviously the best reliever on the team.
In his rookie season, Kimbrel has displayed the strikeout ability that made him a big prospect in the minors, recording a K/9 of 13.5 and 12.2 SwStr%. That has given him a 2.70 ERA and 1.39 FIP. Kimbrel will go through his rookie struggles as closer, but I fully believe he will remain in the role all year.
O'Flaherty has stepped up in the absence of Peter Moylan and has given the Braves a third solid option for the late innings. He has a 0.96 ERA and 2.20 FIP in 18.2 innings, including zero homers allowed. He put himself on the map by striking out the side with two in scoring position in a close game against the Phillies on May 6. O'Flaherty has appeared in several high-leverage situations and seems to be filling the role of Moylan with strikeouts instead of groundouts.
These three relievers have a combined 1.7 fWAR. The rest of the bullpen has a 0.2 fWAR.
Venters has a 1.45 WPA. O'Flaherty is at 0.84. Kimbrel is at -0.42 due to blown saves. That comes to 1.87. The rest of the bullpen has a WPA of -1.62.
So while the combination of Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty is well above average, the rest of the pen is barely above replacement level. And this should not be surprising; middle relievers live at replacement level, and that's why they're so interchangeable. But the Braves should be concerned with what they have in middle relief.
Of course, the absence of Moylan due to back surgery is the main reason for this entire piece. If he's pitching the sixth or seventh innings, there is no reason to be concerned. However, his replacement is a rookie who also can't pitch to lefties, Cory Gearrin. The side-armer has been very good in 8.2 innings, allowing three runs and four hits with three walks and nine strikeouts. But it's highly doubtful that he can sustain a 9.5% line drive rate, and he is thriving from unfamiliarity across the league. I remain skeptical that he will continue at this pace.
Scott Linebrink has been a failure of a signing. He holds a -0.2 fWAR and -0.9 WPA with a 7.50 ERA in 12 innings. He should be gone by the end of the month.
If the Braves do cut ties with Linebrink, who is his replacement? It should be Jairo Asencio. Despite allowing four runs in 5.2 innings in April, Asencio is likely the most talented arm of the options for middle relief. He is one of the few with true punch out ability, evident by 15 strikeouts in 9.1 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett. He also doesn't let walks beat him. Asencio certainly deserves a shot at holding a middle relief spot.
Plus, who else is there? Scott Proctor may get another shot just because of his experience and name. After getting bombed in Spring Training, Proctor was cut, but he returned to the team as a minor league free agent. He has a 1.20 ERA and four walks to 22 strikeouts in 15 innings at Triple-A. He should not be pitching in a major league bullpen, but his season to date will probably earn him a look at some point.
Other options from the minors include Juan Abreu (1.13 ERA, 21 K's in 16 IP) and Anthony Varvaro (3.71 ERA, 13 BB, 17 K in 17 IP).
There's always going outside the organization to find relief. Padres setup specialist Mike Adams could be available if San Diego falters, but it would cost the Braves dearly in the form of prospects. Also, I don't believe Atlanta is so desperate that someone of Adams' caliber is needed. Unless one of the big three goes down due to injury, I feel sticking to the organization's arms is best.
Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty have pitched a combined 57 innings. The rest of the pen has combined for 55.2 innings, including 17 from long reliever Cristhian Martinez. While it makes sense for the best relievers to have the most innings, such an extreme difference in innings pitched will eventually catch up to those three. Having some offset by a better right-handed middle reliever will go a long way toward providing help.