This is part four of a five part series of posts that will examine the most pressing questions for thethis off-season.
Question Four: Can the Braves add the right relievers to their bullpen?
As the Braves sought to add more pieces to their team last off-season they acquired veteran reliever Scott Linebrink and signed veteran reliever George Sherrill. The idea was to add some veteran presence, and possibly veteran reliability, to a bullpen that would have at its heart, two 20-something year old relievers. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, it was presumed, needed some guidance.
Too bad that veteran reliability didn't really work out on the mound.
While the kids were used over and over and over again, day after day, the veteran relievers were not really relied upon in important situations. Two of the veterans -- Linebrink and Scott Proctor -- had the second and third lowest WPAs (Win Probability Against) on the team. The negative effects of their appearances far outweighed the positives. Linebrink should have been released like Proctor was, but the Braves kept him and kept plugging him into games. Of the last 11 games Linebrink appeared in, the Braves won only one of those games. He essentially became a glorified mop-up man, or reliever of last resort.
In the days leading up to the 18 inning affair with Pittsburgh in late July, Scott Proctor had an ERA of 18.00 in his previous four appearances, three times appearing in and contributing to blowout losses. That 18 inning game in which Proctor somehow threw three scoreless innings (that might actually be the most improbable thing that happened all season) allowed Proctor to stay on the roster for another two weeks before the Braves finally came to their senses.
Sherrill was used like a pure LOOGY last year, but he actually held right-handers to a lower batting average. He was, though, pretty adept at striking lefties out. His season ended because of injury in August, so he never got to "contribute" in September.
The Braves spent over $7 million on those three veteran relievers, while spending less than $2 million on O'Ventbrel. With money always at a premium in Atlanta the club will need to spend it a little more wisely on relievers next year.
There will likely be a need to add a bullpen arm or two to the current mix. The starting core will be extremely strong for the Braves: Kimbrel, Venters, O'Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, and probably Anthony Varvaro. After them I believe the team will benefit most by putting Kris Medlen into a key Venters-like setup role. Meds could go back to starting, but there's plenty of arms for the rotation, and a bulldog like Medlen could take a lot of pressure off O'Ventbrel by adding his name to the late innings mix: O'Ventlenbrel.
Arodys Vizcaino showed some promise as a reliever, and again, with several other young starters already waiting for a spot to open in the rotation, keeping Vizzy in the pen should be a pretty easy decision for Atlanta. That group gets us to seven relievers, but leaves little depth in the minor leagues.
The workload that O'Ventbrel took on last year will need to be spread around in 2012, and more relievers will need to be relied upon to be setup men in close games. The team just can't keep going to Jonny Venters every single night. Medlen will help with some of that, but Atlanta should be looking for another key setup man this winter.
The team will have the extra money to spend, and they won't be spending much on the pen to begin with -- only Eric O'Flaherty will be making over a million dollars. But just because there's money available doesn't mean the team has to go out and get a pricey reliever. The money is there if the player is right, but that money shouldn't be committed to another Linebrink or Proctor or Sherrill.
Above all else, the use of the team's top relievers should not be so burdensome early in the season that they have nothing left in September. The Braves should construct their bullpen so that this won't occur, and Fredi Gonzalez should recognize that he must find additional reliable pitchers to protect leads late in the game. This process starts now, by identifying possible relief acquisitions who can share the important role of getting the Braves to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning.