Bill Shanks

Braves must fix the struggling bullpen

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino throws in the ninth inning of a game April 8 in Denver.
Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino throws in the ninth inning of a game April 8 in Denver. AP

Yes, we all know it. The Braves bullpen will occasionally make you dart for the medicine cabinet to get some Pepcid AC. Either that or maybe have a late-night cocktail, as you try to understand why we get scared out of our mind by unnecessary walks from a relief pitcher.

It can be unsettling, watching to see which reliever will come through the outfield fence to put out a fire. They’ve been good at times this season, especially in the first few weeks. Recently, however, it’s been a little too much drama for the soul.

The Braves just finished a 15-game stretch that had the starting pitchers posting an earned run average of 1.97. The relievers’ ERA in those games, however, was 4.39. But the eye-popping numbers were in an eight-game stretch through Monday night’s game in Cincinnati, as the Braves’ relievers walked 30 batters in 26 innings. The Braves were 4-4 in those games, with relievers getting the loss in all four.

There is nothing worse than a reliever issuing a walk to the first batter of a late inning. It’s a nightmare waiting to happen.

So, there is a problem in the bullpen. Well, there is a problem with pitching in general in this game. Starting pitchers no longer go deep into games. They are limited by pitch counts and the belief they cannot face a lineup for a third time. That compels manager to pop out of the dugout and bring the hook, often earlier than necessary.

Gone are the days when starting pitchers need to pitch 200-plus innings to be considered solid. A minor league pitching coach told me in spring training he wonders if that 200 number might decrease to 170 in a few years. If 170 innings will soon be a benchmark for a dependable starting pitcher, MLB better increase the rosters from 25 to 30. Relief pitchers will be dropping like flies by being overworked, and orthopedists will have more Tommy John surgeries on their schedules.

The Braves are in sort of a pickle. Many believe Craig Kimbrel, the game’s best closer, could come back this winter when he becomes a free agent. If the Braves believe Kimbrel might return, they don’t want to go get a closer now. And, the team might have to move a starting pitcher from the rotation to the bullpen, with the expected arrival of a young starting pitcher or two later this summer.

In a way, the Braves must survive while that all plays out. Luiz Gohara is perhaps 10 days away from being ready to rejoin the rotation. Top prospect Mike Soroka pitched a seven-inning complete game shutout Monday night, lowering his ERA in Triple-A to 1.99. He’s getting closer to being ready for Atlanta by the start. And then last week, Matt Wisler pitched the game of his life. He’ll get another start Wednesday night. What happens if Wisler has all-of-a-sudden turned the corner?

The rotation is already doing well, is crowded and is getting ready to be more crowded. Can the Braves trade one of the starters for a relief pitcher? Could one of those guys be put in the pen, like the Mets did with Seth Lugo?

One thing that needs to happen is the elevation of A.J. Minter to closer. The Braves know it’s coming. They wanted to make sure he was healthy first, but now expect to see the hard-throwing lefty get more save opportunities soon. That would allow Arodys Vizcaino to settle into a setup role, for which he’s most suited anyway.

They need another new arm or two in the pen, so a trade is probably inevitable. And with Sam Freeman on pace for 100-plus appearances they’re going to need another lefty.

This Braves team is good, but the bullpen may hold it back from being even better if changes are not made. And it certainly might improve our health, as well, if we can see more drama-free late innings with better relief pitching.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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