Let’s take a look at the Atlanta Braves bullpen, as it stands now in late-December.
Craig Kimbrel is once again going to be the closer. He’s the best young closer in the game, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t continue to be a dominant force in the Atlanta bullpen. Kimbrel’s numbers last year were ridiculous. He had 42 saves and a 1.01 ERA in 63 games pitched. The Braves did a better job of lightening his workload in 2012, and the results were even better than Kimbrel had in his rookie campaign from the previous year.
The main lefty setup role was again split in 2012 between Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, and that will once again be the situation next season. Venters was not as dominant as he had been in his first two pro seasons, as his ERA was at 3.22 (up from 1.84 in 2012). But his strikeout per nine-inning ratio was actually even better from the previous season. Like Kimbrel, both Venters and O’Flaherty pitched in fewer games compared to 2011. O’Flaherty now has a 1.95 ERA in four seasons with the Braves. He limited lefty hitters to a .113 batting average last season.
Atlanta needed another pitcher for the mid-innings that could get a strikeout, particularly from the right side. The Braves filled that need when they got Jordan Walden from the Angels in exchange for Tommy Hanson. Walden is 25 years old and is under control for four more years. He consistently throws in the mid-upper 90s. Last year he transitioned from closer to a setup role and was very effective. Walden saved 32 games and was an All-Star in 2011. He’s struck out 138 batters in 114.2 career major league innings. Walden will, in effect, replace Kris Medlen, who pitched in 38 games out of the bullpen before moving to the Atlanta rotation.
Chad Durbin led the Braves in appearances last year with 76. He had a 2.21 ERA after April 30 and was quite effective in middle relief. However, Durbin is a free agent, and while the Braves have expressed interest in bringing him back, the right-hander is still on the market. He may be seeking a two-year deal, and with the Braves believing that relievers like this are somewhat interchangeable, it’s unlikely Atlanta would do that. But if Durbin would agree to a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $1 million or so, he might return for 2013.
Peter Moylan is also a free agent, and you get the feeling the Braves might let the veteran leave this time. Moylan pitched in eight games after coming back with his shoulder issues, and while he did fine, there just doesn’t seem to be a positive feeling about giving him another shot. Moylan has been outstanding for the Braves since 2006, and if this is, in fact, the end of his run in Atlanta fans should appreciate his contributions. Last year, it seemed inevitable Atlanta would re-sign Moylan, but this year it just seems like they may let him sign elsewhere. We’ll see, but you know he’d prefer to stick around, and if he’s healthy the Braves should bring him back.
One reason the Braves may feel comfortable letting Moylan go is the emergence of right-hander Cory Gearrin, who had a 1.80 ERA in 22 games last season. Gearrin had 20 strikeouts in 20 innings, and he’s done well using his sinker to get ground balls when needed.
Over the last two years Cristhian Martinez has become a very valuable middle reliever for Atlanta. He had a 3.81 ERA in 118 games since 2010, so Martinez has been a good pick-up off the waiver wire from the Marlins. He’ll undoubtedly fill the same role in 2013.
A big surprise last year was lefty Luis Avilan, who was called up from Double-A in July and stuck with the team for most of the remainder of the season. Avilan pitched in 31 games and had an ERA of 2.00. He limited lefty hitters to a .180 batting average and had 33 strikeouts in 36 innings overall. Avilan is only 23, so he’s still got a chance to get better. If he does well in a more important role in 2013, the Braves might be tempted to dangle Venters or O’Flaherty in a deal if needed. It’s unlikely, but Avilan’s development and success could definitely provide the club with options.
Anthony Varvaro is still on the 40-man roster after pitching in 12 games with Atlanta last season. He wasn’t as effective as he was in his 18 games in 2011, but the Braves must feel he has value to keep him on the big league roster. He’ll likely be in the Gwinnett bullpen and be on the list when a call-up is needed.
David Carpenter was signed by Atlanta in December. The 27-year-old right-hander pitched for Houston and Toronto last year and was not very good. He had a 8.07 ERA in 33 games. The Braves hope he’ll get back to the solid work he did in 2011, when he had a 2.93 ERA in 34 games with the Astros. He’s a converted catcher, and he didn’t switch to pitching until 2009. Carpenter has a good fastball and slider, and the Braves will give him a shot in spring training to earn one of the last jobs in the bullpen. If not, he could be good insurance in Triple-A.
The Braves made an interesting decision placing Juan Jaime on the 40-man roster. Jaime is a 25-year old right-hander who had missed the previous two seasons with Tommy John surgery. He had actually been Washington’s #17 rated prospect by Baseball America in 2009 before his injury. Then after he got hurt, the Nationals tried to slip Jaime through waivers and Arizona picked him up. But the recovery time was too much for Arizona and the Braves got him. Jaime then went to Lynchburg and was outstanding. He had 18 saves and allowed only 31 hits in 51.1 innings, with 73 strikeouts. The Braves must have thought another team might pick up Jaime if they had not protected him, so that tells you he does still have potential. He throws hard, and that’s always good to have a hard-throwing option for the pen. Jaime will be either in Double-A Mississippi or Triple-A Gwinnett. If he has a good spring training, the Braves might be tempted to allow him to skip the Southern League. Either way, if he does well again, the Braves might give him a shot if a reliever is needed in Atlanta.
After battling shoulder injuries for what seems to be years, Cory Rasmus regained his prospect status last year with a solid season in Double-A. It was really Rasmus’ first full season as a pro since signing in 2006. He pitched in 50 games and had a 3.68 ERA and seven saves in Mississippi. He also had 62 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Rasmus struggled a bit in the Arizona Fall League, as he posted a 7.53 ERA in 10 games. But the Braves still put him on the major league roster. We’ll see if Rasmus can open some eyes in big league camp.
Wirfrin Obispo has had a strange journey in his pro career. He originally signed with the Red Sox in 2002. They released him and then Obispo went to the Reds. The right-hander then signed to play in Japan and played there through 2011. Cincinnati signed him when he returned to the states last year. Obispo pitched 25 games (10 starts) in Double-A and had a 2.23 ERA, with 77 strikeouts in 76.2 innings. Then he went to Triple-A Louisville and struggled with control issues. The Braves signed the 28-year-old and will give him a shot in March. Obispo reportedly throws hard, so like Jaime, he’s another hard-throwing option for the bullpen. We’ll see if Atlanta puts him back in the rotation or allows him to pitch in relief in the minor leagues.
Lefty Dusty Hughes was actually pretty decent last year for Gwinnett. He had a 3.31 ERA in 54 games and the Braves re-signed him for 2013. Hughes has pitched in 80 games in the big leagues, so if he does well and the Braves need a left-handed arm, he could be an option.
Robert Fish missed 2012 with after having Tommy John surgery. The Braves had plucked him off the Rule V draft from the Angels, but instead of offering him back when Fish got hurt the Braves decided to keep the left-hander. He probably won’t be back to full strength until midway through the season, but again, if the Braves need a lefty and Fish is doing well he could be an option.
Daniel Rodriguez is one more southpaw to mention. He was signed by the Braves in September out of the Mexican League. Rodriguez has a sinker in the low 90s and a decent breaking ball. The Braves will see what they have in Rodriguez and give him a chance in Gwinnett. He’ll probably be in the rotation, but if he performs well could be on the radar.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com . Follow Bill on twitter @BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .