Relievers are often an eclectic group, and the Atlanta Braves Top 10 Relief Pitching Prospects are no different. Two of the pitchers on the list were converted to relievers mid-season, four of them joined the organization in 2011, and one of them hasn't even played as a professional yet. Still, it's a list full of talent, and the top three pitchers all have a chance to be important parts of Atlanta's 2012 bullpen.
1. Arodys Vizcaino - B/T: R/R, Born: 11/13/1990, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 190 - The 20 year old Dominican Vizcaino began his season as a starting pitcher in High A for the Lynchburg Hillcats, and finished it as a reliever in Atlanta. In 9 starts for the Hillcats he had a 2-2 record, 2.45 ERA, and a 1.02 WHIP in 40.1 innings. He moved up to AA Mississippi at the end of May and had a 2-3 record, a 3.81 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in 49.2 innings over 8 starts and 3 relief appearances. He stayed in the pen when he moved up to AAA Gwinnett in July, with a 1-0 record, 1.29 ERA, and a 1.00 WHIP in 7 innings over 6 relief appearances. When the Braves couldn't take another day of Scott Proctor, they called up Vizcaino, and he made his Major League debut on August 10th, finishing the year with a 4.67 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP in 17.1 innings over 17 appearances.
The Braves could still decide to move Vizcaino back to the starting rotation, but his stuff plays much better in the bullpen, where the shorter appearances allow him to let loose and push his fastball into the high 90s. That fastball, which couples heat and movement, is paired with a devastating hammer curve ball and an effective, if sometimes seldom used, changeup. The biggest knock on Vizzy in his first few years was that he was injury prone, missing time in his first pro season with a back injury, and time in 2010 with elbow problems, and the move to the pen should put less of a strain on his arm and his growing body.
Vizcaino seems like a virtual lock to make Atlanta's bullpen out of Spring Training in 2012. He pitched well enough in his Major League stint to prove he belonged, and if his September 2nd appearance, where he allowed 5 earned runs while only recording 1 out, was taken out of his stats, he would have had a 2.08 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. It's easy to envision that it won't take long before the three-headed monster of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O'Flaherty becomes a four-headed monster.
2. JJ Hoover - B/T: R/R, Born: 08/13/1987, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 215 - Hoover was one of the most rock steady performers in the Atlanta organization, with a 21-13 record, a 3.87 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 290.1 innings between 2009 and 2010. He began 2011 just as solidly, earning a Southern League All-Star appearance as a starting pitcher, but the Braves saw more potential out of him as a reliever and moved him to the bullpen. He finished with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 87 innings over 12 starts and 19 relief appearances for Mississippi, and then finished his season with 13.2 scoreless relief innings for AAA Gwinnett, striking out 26 in the process.
As a starter, Hoover might not have had an attribute that set him apart from any other pitcher, aside from durability, but as a reliever he should be able to get the absolute most out of his ability. The shorter appearances allow him to push his fastball near the mid 90s, and that extra speed creates a ton of deceptive movement. He also has something most relievers don't, two polished secondary pitches, with a curve and a changeup that are both slightly above average pitches. Midway through this season, Hoover made a commitment to getting in better shape, and the results were obvious as he shed 20 pounds in season. Combining improved conditioning with his durable arm should make for a reliable reliever. He's working in the Arizona Fall League this offseason in an effort to work in as many different relief situations as possible. He'll come into Spring Training in 2012 with an outside chance at earning a spot in Atlanta's bullpen, but, even if he doesn't, he should make his Major League debut at some point in the season, and could end up being an important part of the pen by season's end.
3. Cory Gearrin - B/T: R/R, Born: 04/13/1986, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 200 - After a 2010 that saw him post a 3.36 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP in a team high 52 appearances for AAA Gwinnett, Gearrin felt good about his chances at getting to the Majors in 2011. He got that chance, spending most of May and the middle of July with Atlanta, though the results weren't pretty, a 7.85 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP in 18.1 innings over 18 appearances, though most of that damage came in his final 3 appearances, where he allowed 10 runs over 2.1 innings. Despite the rough times in the Majors, Gearrin was dominant for Gwinnett, with a 1.80 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, and 60 strikeouts in 50 innings over 35 appearances, and after the All-Star break he had a 1.09 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in 24.2 innings while striking out 35.
Gearrin's sidearm delivery makes him hell on right handed hitters, as he held them to a .191 average in AAA and a .143 average in the Majors. His fastball just touches 90, but the delivery creates a ton of break, which also makes his frisbee slider incredibly effective. He's also a groundball specialist, and that combined with his effectiveness against righties makes him the perfect pitcher to replace Peter Moylan in the Braves bullpen as the right handed specialist. He'll likely never be a premier back of the bullpen type pitcher, but his specialty delivery will likely keep him in high demand for years to come.
We'll look at relief prospects 4-10 after the jump:
4. Billy Bullock - B/T: R/R, Born: 02/27/1988, Ht: 6'6", Wt: 225 - At the end of Spring Training the Twins traded Bullock to the Braves in exchange for the permanent rights to Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond. It was a win-win for both teams, as the Braves are always looking for bullpen depth and Diamond was unlikely to get a shot as a starter in Atlanta and the Twins were in need of starting pitching depth (Diamond would end up making 7 starts for Minnesota). Bullock had a nice season in 2010, splitting time between High A and AA, finishing with a 3.53 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP, 27 saves, and 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings. He spent this season with AA Mississippi, and had an inconsistent season, striking out 11.8 batters per 9 while also walking 6.2 per 9, finishing with a 4.53 ERA, a 1.39 WHIP, and 11 saves in 49.2 innings. Bullock has a premier arm, hitting the high 90s with a moving fastball, but he's been wild his entire career, with a career 5.1 BB/9 rate. He can miss bats, as his .193 batting average against this season at AA shows, and there in lies the excitement surrounding Bullock if he can ever control his wildness. He'll continue to work on his control in the AFL this year, then head to AAA Gwinnett in 2012, hoping to harness his immense potential. If he can, he could become a dominant reliever, perhaps even a top flight closer, if not, he'll just become another tantalizing arm that frustrates one organization after another.
5. Navery Moore - B/T: R/R, Born: 08/10/1990, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 212 - The Braves selected several relievers before plucking Moore in the 14th round of this year's draft, but he might be the most promising of the group. Prior to the draft, Baseball America had ranked him as the 113th best prospect in the draft, which would have made him a 3rd rounder. The Braves paid him a $400,000 bonus (their third-highest draft bonus this year) to convince him to sign with Atlanta and skip his senior year. He had Tommy John in high school, which limited his innings in the early part of his college career. He was a teammate of Mike Minor at Vanderbilt, and this season he was the Commodore's closer, with a 1.21 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and 11 saves in 29.2 innings. He was a last-minute signing, so he wasn't able to make his professional debut this season. He'll likely begin 2012 as a 21 year old with Rome, though a good Spring Training could land him with Lynchburg. The Braves could have landed themselves the steal of the 2011 draft.
6. Cody Martin - B/T: R/R, Born: 09/04/1989, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 210 - The Braves selected Martin out of Gonzaga in the 6th round of this year's draft and watched him flourish in his professional debut, with 14 strikeouts in 9 scoreless innings for Danville and a 1.48 ERA a 0.90 WHIP, and 35 strikeouts in 24.1 innings for Rome. The combined stats are outstanding, a 1.08 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, 9 saves, 1.4 BB/9, and 13.2 K/9. He has all the makings of a solid reliever, with a mid 90s fastball, a mid 80s slider, and an average changeup and curveball. He even has a pro pedigree as his father Chuck played two years in the Braves organization. He'll head to High A Lychburg to start 2012 and in a few years could become a vital cog of Atlanta's bullpen.
7. Mark Lamm - B/T: R/R, Born: 03/08/1988, Ht: 6'4", Wt: 215 - After missing all of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Lamm spent his senior year at Vanderbilt setting up fellow Braves draftee Navery Moore. Unlike Moore, he signed quickly after being drafted and played at a higher level than any of the Braves 2011 draft picks, starting his pro career with 4 strikeouts in 2 scoreless innings for Danville before moving up to High A Lynchburg and posting a 3.16 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 25.2 innings. He throws with a sidearm delivery that creates deception and adds a sweeping, diving effect on his pitches. His stuff is only average, but his arm angle makes him a perfect righty/groundball specialist. He'll be 24 when the season starts, but relievers tend to work on a different age timeline than other prospects. He's likely to return to Lynchburg to start 2012, but a good Spring Training could land him with AA Mississippi.
8. Benino Pruneda - B/T: R/R, Born: 08/08/1988, Ht: 5'9", Wt: 170 - Despite being able to hit 103 with his fastball, Pruneda is consistently overlooked. It might be because he's been around so long, 2012 will be his sixth professional season and he has yet to play in AAA, or perhaps it's because despite his big arm he's never put up big save numbers, with only 30 for his career. Whatever the reason, Pruneda is a player more fans should know about. For most of his career, he's had a dominating first half, then faded down the stretch as his diminutive size has led to him just wearing out. That didn't happen this season however, as he had a fine year with AA Mississippi, posting a 3.50 ERA, a 1.48 WHIP, 11 saves, and 9.9 K/9 in 64.1 innings. He's still only 23 year old, and he'll get his first chance at AAA in 2012. If he can continue to rack up the strikeouts and improve on his 4.8 career BB/9 rate, he could become a dominant Major League reliever, as they really aren't very many guys with his kind of high power fastball.
9. Erik Cordier - B/T: R/R, Born: 02/25/1986, Ht: 6'4", Wt: 230 - Cordier is the only pitcher on this list who isn't actually a reliever, making 19 starts for Gwinnett this year, putting up a 5.13 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in 86 innings. Still, his future is likely in the bullpen, where his fastball, which sits in the mid 90s as a starter, can gain a few extra miles per hour, making his secondary pitches even more effective. Cordier has had a long, strange career, missing nearly three season's worth of play with various arm injuries, including Tommy John surgery after his first season. He missed the first few months of 2011 with an elbow injury, and even after he returned he was a magnet for baseballs, taking line drives off his pitching arm and his head. Despite the liners off his body and the ugly numbers, Cordier felt he was throwing as well as he ever has by the end of the year, and the Braves have him pitching in relief in the Arizona Fall League to see if he can capitalize on that. He'll return to Gwinnett in 2012 and likely head to the bullpen full time. If he can harness his extremely live arm he could become a real threat in Atlanta's bullpen.
10. Stephen Marek - B/T: L/R, Born: 09/13/1983, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 240 - The last remnant of Mark Teixeira's time in Atlanta, Marek began 2011 by striking out 14 over 9.1 scoreless innings for AAA Gwinnett, but then allowed 4 earned runs in 1.1 innings over his next 2 appearances. The reason for the trouble quickly became clear, as a week later he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. The recovery time for Tommy John is anywhere from 12 to 18 months, so even under the best of circumstances Marek won't be back until the middle of May. Even if he can come back that quickly, it usually takes a full year of pitching before a pitcher feels like himself again, so the Braves will have to look forward to 2013, when he'll be 29 years old, to see if Marek can make good on his potential.