Entering the 2019 MLB season, the Atlanta Braves figured to be one of the top teams in the National League, if not the entire MLB. However, the one (huge) question mark was the bullpen. Arodys Vizcaino came into the season slotted as Atlanta’s closer, and AJ Minter started the year on the injured list. The Braves made hardly no moves to bolster the relief corp. during the offseason, banking on the likes of Jonny Venters, Shane Carle, and Luke Jackson.
Now, 49 games into the season, Jackson and Josh Tomlin are the only remaining relievers from the Opening Day roster. The Braves relievers have issued 94 walks this season to lead the NL, and have a bullpen ERA of 4.59 which ranks 22nd in MLB. There’s no question that the Atlanta relievers have been a disappointment thus far, and below are options for how the Braves can turn the pen (and save opportunities) around.
SIGN CRAIG KIMBREL!
As Braves fans have made very clear by now, the former Atlanta closer remains a free agent following a three-year stint in Boston. In 9 seasons, Kimbrel possesses a career ERA of 1.91, and has 333 career saves. The 31-year old has yet to sign on with anyone this season entirely due to money. Kimbrel entered the winter asking for a 9-figure, multi-year deal. However, since then, he has dropped his asking price to the $15 million per year range. While he’d still come with a steep price tag, plus he’d cost Atlanta a draft pick in June, Atlanta needs a proven closer.
Vizcaino was serviceable until he suffered a season-ending injury, AJ Minter was a disaster before being demoted to Triple A, and after last night, Luke Jackson has blown 4 saves in 10 tries. All total, the team has blown 8 saves in 21 tries. That’s a conversion rate of only 61.9%. Kimbrel has a career save percentage of 90.7%, and aside from his first full season, was never worse than 92.2% with Atlanta.
At this point, the Braves management has failed miserably to piece together a solid bullpen. The makeshift pen they ran out on Opening Day has cost the team the lead in the NL East, and if they aren’t careful, a possible playoff spot come October. If they don’t get him now, he may be gone by the time the draft concludes.
Trade Young Prospects
With a wealth of blue-chip pitching prospects within the Atlanta farm system, there’s no way all of them are going to make it to The Show with the Braves. With young lefties such as Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard (both of whom have MLB experience) stashed at Triple A, they could be possible trade candidates. Both have good stuff, and both are just inside top 10 prospects in Atlanta. Allard likely has a lower ceiling, and would be more easily traded by Atlanta.
Trading a young hurler for a proven closer could eliminate having to pay top-dollar for Kimbrel, while also giving the team a better chance for late-game success. Possible targets could be Shane Greene in Detroit (15-15 in save opp. this season), or Ken Giles who has 101 career saves with Philadelphia, Houston, and Toronto.
Convert Sean Newcomb
Since breaking into the big leagues with the Braves in 2017, the big, hard-throwing Newcomb has made 42 starts and thrown 284 ⅔ innings. However, despite being a starting pitcher, Newcomb has struggled with command and consistency. In 2018, he issued only 1.98 K/BB, and in 3 starts in 2019, he issued 6 walks in 12 ⅓ innings and gave up 6 earned runs. Following the third start, he was sent back to Triple A, before returning in early May to help a sputtering bullpen. Since returning to the majors on May 6th, Newcomb has dominated in relief.
In 7 relief appearances this season, he has yet to allow a run in 8 ⅓ innings, hasn’t walked a batter, and has 8 strikeouts. And along the way has dropped his ERA from 4.38 to 2.61, as well as picking up his first career save Monday night in San Francisco. If Atlanta is looking to solve its closing issues in-house, Newcomb should be the next one given a shot. He’s young, has really good stuff, and has even seen a slight uptick in velocity since moving to the bullpen. If Atlanta continues to be too cheap to find a proven solution, Newcomb has the potential to be a dominant closer.
Slot Jacob Webb In The Setup Spot
Assuming Atlanta can find a reliable closer, the eighth-inning would be the next point of emphasis. So far this season, it’s been a revolving door for Braves relievers, and Webb could be just what Atlanta needs from a setup man. He’s a 25-year old righty who has a 1.93 ERA in 16 appearances this season, converted his only save opportunity, and averages a strikeout per inning pitched.
Webb also has closing experience in the minors, so he should be fairly comfortable in late-game situations. Since making his MLB debut on April 16th, he’s been one of, if not the most, impressive and consistent Atlanta relievers. The only thing that could prevent this from happening would be, one, if Webb is made the closer, which is unlikely, or two, if AJ Minter returns from Triple A. However, Minter has a WHIP of 1.80 since returning to the minors, so he’s been just as wild as he was with Atlanta. If the Braves can find a permanent closer, Webb has earned the right to be the setup man, and despite the poor pitching around him, he has actually performed quite well.
*All Stats From ESPN.com and Baseball Reference