The Braves are holding on to first place because of a quality bullpen

July 9, 2013 

Remember all the years when the Atlanta Braves had a bad bullpen?

You could probably make an argument that if they had a better pen in the 1990s, there would be more than one World Series banner flying above Turner Field.

But my, how things have changed. Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Marlins, the Braves’ bullpen had the majors’ best ERA at 2.63.

The Braves are really continuing a trend that started in 2010, when Billy Wagner came aboard as the closer. Atlanta’s bullpen had the third-best ERA in MLB that season with a 3.11 mark. Then in 2011, when Craig Kimbrel took over for Wagner, the bullpen had the best ERA at 3.03. It was second last season with a 2.76 mark.

That success looked to be in jeopardy earlier this season with two high-profile relievers lost to arm injuries.

When Jonny Venters went down with an elbow injury, there was plenty of reason to be concerned. Then when his fellow southpaw Eric O’Flaherty followed Venters to Dr. James Andrews’ operating room, there could have been widespread panic.

Venters and O’Flaherty have arguably been the top two setup men in baseball the past few years. Since 2010, they have combined for an ERA of 1.98. And don’t forget the loss of Cristhian Martinez, who for the last two years was pretty effective as a long reliever.

But what started out as a potential weakness has instead become a strength. It helps that Kimbrel is probably the best closer in baseball. It seems when there is greatness at the top, it filters down through the rest of the bullpen.

The pitchers behind Kimbrel have been really, really good. Jordan Walden, who was acquired for Tommy Hanson during the offseason, has been the hard-throwing setup man the Braves hoped he’d be.

Luis Avilan is perhaps the best story on the team. He was never on any top prospect list. In the minor leagues, Avilan was statistically mediocre, but give the Braves’ front office and the minor league coaches credit. They obviously saw that this guy had big-league stuff. Avilan has more or less taken over for O’Flaherty and Venters and is putting up numbers like they did for the past three years. His career ERA is 1.71 and it’s even lower this season at 1.43.

Then you have two guys who were plucked off the waiver wire, just like O’Flaherty and Martinez. Anthony Varvaro (from Seattle) and David Carpenter (from Boston) are both hard throwers who are getting the job done in the middle innings.

And you have to give Alex Wood credit. After O’Flaherty went down, the Braves needed a second lefty in the bullpen. That was a lot of pressure for someone who is just a year removed from college, but Wood has been really effective. He’ll probably be a starting pitcher in the big leagues at some point, and this experience will only benefit him, while his good work will continue to help this team.

The Braves will likely continue to look for another veteran arm before the July 31st trade deadline. There are plenty of relievers available, and adding depth will only help if any of the bullpen arms slow down later in the season.

Right now, however, the Atlanta bullpen has been the best part of this first-place team. We know how the offense has struggled with consistency, but if you have a bullpen that holds leads and keeps teams from scoring more runs, it definitely helps the offense catch up if needed.

And just think. The part of the Braves that has historically been an Achilles’ heel might actually be the big difference once this Atlanta team plays in October.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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