Braves Making Relief A Draft Priority

For nearly a decade the Braves draft strategy was to take talented position players and starting pitchers from the high school ranks, and this year that strategy has continued as the Braves selected prep position players with three of the first four picks. But in the last few drafts they have augmented that strategy by selecting collegiate relievers with high picks, and this year followed that same pattern.

In the drafts of the 90's and early 00's collegiate relievers have not been the players the Braves have used to restock their major league roster with relievers, they used former prep starting pitchers whom they converted to relief pitchers after several years in the minors. Relievers on our current roster like Blaine Boyer and Macay McBride were prep starting pitchers who were eventually converted to relievers. Guys like Tim Spooneybarger and John Rocker were drafted as relievers by the Braves, but they were selected in lower rounds.

Lately the Braves seemed to have focused more early picks on collegiate relievers in an apparent effort to quickly bolster their major league relief corps. This was kick started in the 2005 draft when the Braves selected college reliever Joey Devine with their first pick. While they rushed Devine to the majors too soon that year, they continued to take college relievers with high draft picks. That same draft saw the Braves select Will Startup from the University of Georgia in the fifth round and Tyler Bullock from Baylor in the sixth round. They continued that trend again in the 2006 draft selecting Kevin Gunderson in the fifth round.

Much like the script of the previous two years, this year the Braves have once again selected relievers with high picks. Right-handed reliever Josh Fields was selected in the second round out of the University of Georgia, and right-hander Cory Gearrin was selected in the fourth round out of Mercer University.

This makes for an interesting mix of young relievers that will be available to Atlanta fairly quickly (in the world of baseball development). This year has already seen the return of Joey Devine to the majors, though he didn't make an appearance. Will Startup is another who is knocking on Atlanta's door and might be ready should the Braves need another lefty reliever. Gunderson is working his way through Myrtle Beach this year, and Devine and Bullock are toiling away in Mississippi, with Devine having saved 15 games so far.

The next few years will tell us if this new draft strategy will pay dividends. With the usual carousel of relievers that cycles through our bullpen each year, surely the Braves will be tempted to showcase and use some of their drafted relief talent in the coming years. It will also be interesting to watch and see which one of these former college closers can have the most success in the big leagues.

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