One of the main reasons the Atlanta Braves lost 95 games last season was the bullpen, and it is one area that could be substantially better for the team in 2016.
As the Braves took the field for the first official workout of spring training Saturday, they had a ton of pitchers on the field. Well, the number was somewhere around 37: 23 pitchers on the 40-man roster and another 14 invited as non-roster pitchers trying to win a job.
Last season, the Braves' bullpen was ranked next-to-last in baseball with a 4.69 ERA. That's a far cry from what became the norm earlier in the decade, with closers Billy Wagner and then Craig Kimbrel leading a normally impressive group of relievers.
Things sort of fell apart for the Atlanta bullpen last summer when closer Jason Grilli ruptured his Achilles in Colorado on July 11, and then when his replacement, Jim Johnson, was traded to the Dodgers almost three weeks later. The Braves found a decent closer to replace Grilli in young Arodys Vizcaino, but the setup relievers were simply a revolving door of mostly no-names who were not very effective.
Vizcaino is only 25 years old, so he fits the mold of a young core member of Atlanta's future. Vizcaino has a blazing fastball, and getting a strikeout per inning last season helps his case to keep his job.
But the 39-year-old Grilli is now healthy, and the expectation is he will fight to get the closer's job back from Vizcaino. The Braves brought Johnson back as a free agent, and the hope is he can be as effective as he was before his trade to Los Angeles, where he wasn't very good at all for the Dodgers.
We can't discount the possibility that if the Braves struggle this season, but if Grilli and Johnson do well, they could be traded for younger players in the summer. Every veteran player who makes the Atlanta roster will be in jeopardy of a midseason trade as the Braves continue this rebuilding process.
That makes the other candidates crucial to the potential success of the pen. The Braves have two pitchers who must make the roster or be offered back to their original teams. Evan Rutckyj and Dan Winkler were Rule V selections, and the Braves will give them every chance to make the team.
Lefty Ian Krol came over from the Detroit Tigers in the Cameron Maybin trade. Krol has been with the Washington Nationals and Tigers the past few years but must be more consistent.
One pitcher who has a great chance to make the bullpen is right-hander Chris Withrow, who was acquired in the Juan Uribe deal with the Dodgers in May. Withrow is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and the Braves believe if he does bounce back, he could be a future closer. Withrow has a 2.73 ERA in 46 career games with the Dodgers.
There are four veterans in as non-roster invitees who have a chance. Alexi Ogando has been effective for Texas and then last season for Boston. Alex Torres and Carlos Torres were both in the New York Mets' bullpen last year. David Carpenter is back. He was solid for the Braves in 2013 and 2014 before being traded to the Yankees last year.
There are others, and certainly a no-name not listed or not even known much now could pitch well enough in March to win a job. But the important thing is there are candidates, good candidates to make Atlanta's bullpen better in 2016.
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