Barring injury, which is a big caveat at this stage of spring training as Mark alluded to earlier today, there are a couple things we know about the Braves bullpen. We know Craig Kimbrel is the closer. We know Jordan Walden and David Carpenter will act as set up men. We know Luis Avilan will be the top lefty to start the year. Aside from that, there are a number of questions around who will fill in in front of these last three spots.
I can say pretty confidently that Anthony Varvaro is a front runner for a spot in the bullpen. He’s close to a lock, but I could see a horrendous spring leading to the Braves going in a different direction. Varvaro is a standard middle relief type who had a good season last year but his peripherals do not suggest that he is much more than a replacement level pitcher. In fact, for his career he has been worth exactly -0.1 FanGraphs WAR while netting only 0.2 last year despite his 2.82 ERA. With that said, he still will probably be on the roster.
So let’s assume Varvaro does not implode this spring and makes the team. That leaves two more spots to a number of different candidates. Those candidates include newly acquired fireballer Luis Vasquez, lefty Ryan Buchter, lefty Alex Wood, Just Make Pitch man Freddy Garcia, out of options Cory Gearrin, older statesman Yunesky Maya, and a few guys on the outskirts of the 40 man roster in Juan Jaime, Wirfin Orbispo, and Carlos Perez. To top it off, there is always the ability for the Braves to trade for a reliever or claim one that has been cut. Frank Wren has been a dynamo in finding gems in the bullpen on waviers so it is not outlandish to believe he could do it again before the regular season begins.
Alex Wood or Freddy Garcia will make the starting rotation, so that knocks one out of contention for a bullpen spot. As of now, I would bet Wood will begin the season in the rotation which means that Garcia is probably the favorite to land the coveted long reliever role to begin the year. I would not go this particular route, but I would expect the Braves to keep Garcia’s employment by holding onto him as the team’s long man out of the gate.
That would leave one spot to the aforementioned players. As of now, it would be a surprise if Jaime, Orbispo or Perez made the roster, but we’ve seen some guys come out of nowhere and earn a spot in the past ala Jonny Venters in his rookie season. It could happen, but for predictions sake the odds are against it so let us count them out for now.
That leaves one spot between Ryan Buchter, Yunesky Maya, Luis Vasquez and Cory Gearrin. Maya would really only be useful in the long relief role, as he has primarily been a starting pitcher throughout his career. He could make the roster but I would be at least a little surprised if he came out of spring with a job. I don’t doubt that we see him at some point, but I wouldn’t bet on him landing a spot.
Cory Gearrin being out of options gives him some help, but with the Braves packing Walden and Carpenter as their top two righties and having comparable options in Varvaro and Vasquez to replace Gearrin, I don’t think they will give the job to Gearrin solely due to him being out of options. I would even go as far to say I think Gearrin gets left behind and is put on waivers. Another team may covet him and give him a roster spot, but it’s also possible he slides through waivers and heads back down to Gwinnett.
If all goes as I have previously planned, then that leaves the last spot to Vasquez and Buchter. Gearrin certainly has the ability to beat these guys out, but they have seen a good deal of Gearrin so far and at the major league level there just has not been too much to be impressed about. Vasquez is an intriguing guy because he comes from the David Carpenter line of pitchers who is entering the scene with the franchise as an extremely high strikeout guy but also one with serious command issues. McDowell has worked well with these guys in the past and Wren went after him for a reason I am sure. I believe the Braves want Vasquez to have a spot.
However, the Braves also want left-handed bullpen help. If Garcia makes the rotation instead of Wood, then Wood slots right into that role and probably means Buchter is headed back to the minors until one of the two lefty spots open back up. The Braves have gone with three lefties in the past, but that’s when they had O’Flaherty and Venters acting as primary set up men. I don’t expect them to carry three out of the gate.
If Wood makes the rotation in lieu of Garcia, then I think the favorite for the spot would have to be Buchter. I can’t see the Braves going into the season with just one lefty in the bullpen. I would rather see them ditch the long reliever role and go with Vasquez instead of Garcia, after all they have Maya in the minors and he is a pretty solid substitute for all that Garcia does. To me, the best bullpen is the following:
Kimbrel – CL Carpenter – SU Avilan – LSU Walden – MRP Varvaro – MRP Buchter - LOOGY Vasquez – MPR
Unfortunately, I think Garcia grabs the long relief role and pushes Vasquez to the minors. However, keep in mind that injuries happen all the time and another spot could open up at any time. For now, I think Buchter is looking as a guy with the best odds of all the aforementioned players of making the roster.