Top-5 Off-Season Questions for the Atlanta Braves:  #3

We continue our look at the top-5 questions facing the Atlanta Braves this off-season.

Question Three:  Who will be the Braves closer in 2010?

You heard it here first folks, the bullpen has the potential to be the biggest problem for the Braves this off-season. This season we had the luxury of having two closers at the back of our bullpen, and while they had their issues at times it was certainly a whole lot better than trying to get a save on a consistent basis from Jeff Bennett or Tyler Yates or Chris Reitsma. Our bullpen was a luxury, not as much of a luxury as having old 29 back there, but with Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez, and Rafael Soriano in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings we had a much better chance to win ballgames than we have in several years.

As good as they were, there were still some issues and plenty of blown saves, but our bullpen picked up 38 saves and was considered a strength of our club (for the most part). This off-season the two main parts of that pen are free agents, and this is a lean year for free agent closers. Both Soriano and Gonzalez are likely to be type-A free agents, meaning if we offer them arbitration we would get a first round draft pick were they to sign elsewhere. But that also means that other teams may be more hesitant to sign them for fear of losing a first round pick.

I've read some analysis that said baseball folks expect the Braves to offer arbitration to Gonzalez but not to Soriano. There is a danger in offering both of them arbitration as both could accept and re-sign and then we would be stuck with a pretty expensive bullpen next year, perhaps too expensive to afford. This is the reason being given for believing the Braves will let Soriano walk and go hard at Gonzalez. But if both of them leave... that would leave us in quite a predicament.

Would we  use our starting pitching surplus to acquire a closer, or would we once again assemble a rag-tag group of spring training invitees hoping for a chance to make the pen (as was quite often done under John Schuerholz)? Hopefully the Braves have learned their lesson about needing a "quality" "proven" closer (I don't think I need to mention any names).

The Braves do have a couple of internal candidates. Craig Kimbrel and his funky delivery will be another one of the prospects in the Arizona Fall League, but he is still likely a year away as needs to sort out his problem with the bases on balls. Peter Moylan is certainly a durable arm and one that can get the strikeout from time to time, he could be an option. Kris Medlen could also close, but he was very inconsistent this year and may not be ready just yet.  These aren't very good candidates, which further underscores the need for a proven commodity to close out games in Atlanta.

The only real other proven closer on the free agent market worth a damn is Jose Valverde of Houston. Yes there are others like Rodney and Gregg, but they aren't good. There is Billy Wagner, someone the Braves are rumored to be interested in, but he is coming off of surgery and is getting up there in age, so signing him may be a roll of the dice. All of that leads us back to either Gonzalez or Soriano.

Keep in mind too that the Braves could be well served by getting another setup man or two, since the last two spots in the pen are occupied by guys that Cox doesn't have much faith in. This is even more reason not to try and keep at least one of our 8th and 9th innings pieces around for at least another season.

Gonzalez seems to like Atlanta, and a chance to close here once again could persuade him to re-sign. I'd like to see the team offer arbitration to Soriano and go for that extra draft pick, but I don't think they'll risk it seeing how tight their finances are. Whatever scenario you throw out there it leaves us needing another reliever or two, so look for Atlanta to be very active on that front this off-season.

Coming up later, Question Four:  Who will man first base for the Braves in 2010?

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