The Lingering Bullpen Problem

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Craig Kimbrel and Brian McCann
Teammates Brian McCann #16 and Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Atlanta Braves celebrate after a 6-3 victory on their opening day game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field on April 8, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

If there was one enduring question mark throughout the Braves’ surprising 2018 season it was the shakiness and the questionable decisions Brian Snitker made while handling a youth heavy group mixed with some unreliable veterans.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where it still is in January.

The backend still looks like a combination of Arodys Vizcaino and AJ Minter, which proved to a formidable duo in 2018 so long as Vizcaino was healthy and Minter wasn’t being overused. In front of those two there is nothing but question marks. Darren O’Day is going to be added to the mix, and a full season of Jonny Venters should prove to be a huge lift, but neither of those arms are the impactful, reliable relievers the team need in 2019.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t think anyone knows at this point.

Options are very few and far between.

INTERNAL OPTIONS

Jesse Biddle, Dan Winkler, and Shane Carle faded drastically down the stretch thanks to extreme over-reliance in the first half, while Chad Sobotka burst onto the scene and impressed many with what little we saw of him.

What’s left with experience are the likes of Luke Jackson and Sam Freeman. No thank you. Those guys and Peter Moylan well overstayed their welcome thanks in large part to the fact they were the only guys around who had thrown Major League innings. It was proven time and time again — that isn’t going to work going forward, and Snitker can’t be trusted with those types of pitchers.

The young arms available for the bullpen are almost entirely dependent on what happens with the starting rotation and how it rounds out. The good news is there are a ton of talented arms in the talent pool to pull from if the answers lie internally.

If the rotation ends up being some combination of Foltynewicz, Gausman, Newcomb, Teheran, and one other from the group of Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson then any of those six arms could also fit into the bullpen. And that is without even considering a Luiz Gohara, Grant Dayton, Wes Parsons, or Jacob Webb who are all still on the 40-man roster. Throw in some guys like Patrick Weigel, Thomas Burrows, and Corbin Clouse as wildcards, and Tucker Davidson as a darkhorse, and you have plenty of depth.

The problem still remains — there is still no proven, impact arm to improve on 2018. You can use any combination of the above to eat up innings on a team that doesn’t have to worry about contending, but the Braves are a defending division champ who is going to have to make every inning of every game count to keep pace with a much improved NL East.

FREE AGENT OPTIONS

There’s an elephant in the room here we desperately need to address.

Craig Kimbrel is becoming more of an option the closer we get to Opening Day.

And while this may not be 2012 Kimbrel, he’s still one of the best relievers in baseball, even entering his age 31 season. But the length of the contract is going to have to drop to two to three years before the Braves (and maybe anyone else) is willing to commit.

With Zach Britton now heading to New York, Kelvin Herrera agreeing to a deal with the White Sox, and Adam Ottavino’s name still attached to the Yankees, there isn’t much left outside of Kimbrel in the impact reliever mold.

There are a lot of next tier arms beneath them — Cody Allen, a potential return by Brad Brach, and another half dozen other arms with more experience than the internal options — but again, none of them are going to solve the problems the 2018 bullpen was plagued by.

But if the combination of Minter and Vizcaino can approach their best from 2018, maybe that impact arm isn’t needed. Perhaps all the team may need is a reliable arm to put behind Vizcaino/Minter/O’Day/Venters so the necessity to rely on Winkler, Biddle, and Carle can be lessened.

If that’s the case, you could see the team settling for a grab like Brad Boxberger, Greg Holland, old friend Bud Norris, Ryan Madson, Tyler Clippard, or Sergio Romo in hopes they can at least be more reliable than the veteran outcasts Snitker strung together last year. None of those names may be appealing on paper, but as a reclamation project maybe they’re worth a shot.

Definitely couldn’t be worse.

TRADE CANDIDATES

Um. Yeah. About that.

If the internal options are inexperienced, and the free agent market is empty outside of a handful of names, the trade market is non-existent in regards to meaningful, high-leverage arms.

Of the arms available, the Giants’ Will Smith and Tony Watson seem to be the most coveted. Outside of those two, there’s not much available because of what a weird off-season it has been with a handful of teams stockpiling every imaginable piece, while others are stuck in rebuild limbo and not completely tearing everything down.

The good news is there are plenty of trade options and prospect capital available to fill the Braves holes, like Josh discussed in yesterday’s outfield options piece, which would at least free up the money needed to potentially go after Kimbrel if the stars align and the price is right.

WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT?

No one knows. Not even the great minds we have over here at 755.

Two months ago we all were up in arms about the mere idea that Kimbrel could be an option, now he’s looking like he may be the only option if the team is going big. To be fair, however, the bullpen market entering the offseason was already questionable at the very best for those teams looking to cover crucial innings late. With Zach Britton, David Robertson, and Joakim Soria all off the board, pickings are even more slim.

It’s a very strange feeling to be in the same spot we were months ago with the Braves bullpen — completely lost without any answer as to how Alex Anthopoulos solves this conundrum.

But there is bigger question we don’t seem to be asking — is there even a bullpen issue to begin with? Everyone wants an unstoppable backend of the bullpen. What if the Braves already have that in the closer duo of Vizcaino/Minter and O’Day as the new setup man? Minter was already worth 1.4 fWAR last year, compared to Kimbrel’s 1.5 fWAR in a comparable number of innings. O’Day has been a 10 K/9 pitcher for each of the past four seasons. And while we’re all still waiting for Vizcaino to stay healthy and breakthrough, remember he just turned 28 and continues to have electric stuff.

It may not take nearly as much as all of us are expecting or wanting. If AA were to focus his attention elsewhere and make a couple cheap waiver claims or hope a non-roster invite shines in camp, he could just fall backwards into a dominant bullpen in the Frank Wren mold.

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