If you followed the Braves for any amount of time this season, you were undoubtedly treated to some adventurous to downright terrible performances from the bullpen. The unit as a whole struggled all year long to just stay healthy, let alone effective. To get an understanding of what happened, we must start from the beginning.
During the offseason, the bullpen was already an area of concern especially in terms of depth. While the Braves did sign veterans Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, they were far from sure things. Luis Avilan was inconsistent at best, but at the very least Craig Kimbrel was as close to a lock down closer as there is in the game. Trouble started when the Braves trade David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve (both had been decent to good with the Braves 'pen) to acquire Manny Banuelos from the Yankees. While the trade could easily be a big win for the Braves in the long term, especially if the cleanup procedure on Manny's elbow is all he needed, it certainly hurt the depth in the bullpen. Then, Shae Simmons, who was supposed to compete for the setup role and play a major part in the relief corps, went down with Tommy John surgery. Then came the very surprising Craig Kimbrel trade that the Braves used to shove Melvin Upton out the door and all of a sudden Jason Grilli was the closer....and then Grilli blew his Achilles....and then Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan were traded...which brings us to the Arodys Vizcaino closing era. So given all of that (which is really only a small sampling of the turmoil), where did the Braves' bullpen end up
2015 Braves Bullpen Stats and Rankings
Yeah...it isn't pretty. In short, there were four teams in the entire league with a negative WAR from their bullpen and the Braves were one of them. Its hard to pinpoint a lot of positive things with how the bullpen performed this season, although Arodys Vizcaino was excellent with a 1.60 ERA in 36 games and looks to be the closer for the immediate future. As mentioned earlier, there were a lot of injuries, but also a lot of turnover and just bad pitching. The Braves seemingly signed every veteran reliever off waivers just to get some viable arms in the bullpen as well as bringing up young prospects to try as well. The result was a bullpen that had few defined, established roles and ultimately one that cost the Braves their fair share of games. Several things went wrong for the Braves in 2015, but the one that seems to have one of the most identifiable and fixable causes is the bullpen.
Fortunately, there does seem to be at least some light at the end of the tunnel as there should be reinforcements in 2016. Arodys is the closer going and he will likely stay in that role even when Jason Grilli returns from his Achilles injury. Shae Simmons should return by May from Tommy John surgery and Chris Withrow, acquired from the Dodgers, will be ready for spring training. The Braves had hoped that Paco Rodriguez was going to contribute to the bullpen, but he will not play for the Braves until 2017 as he must undergo Tommy John surgery. The front office has already indicated that the bullpen is an area that they plan on bolstering in the offseason and there is never a shortage of bullpen arms available on the market, although it would be shocking if they went after any biggish named free agent relievers. Some internal options could include prospects Kyle Kinman, Jason Hursh, and Matt Marksberry (who did see some time with the big league club this year). There is an outside possibility that Mauricio Cabrera could see time in the big leagues as well, but only if he can demonstrate the ability to throw strikes a reasonable percentage of the time.
It was a tough season, but not one without signs of promise and with some smart signings and guys getting healthy, the bullpen should be better next season than it was in 2015. However, that is not a high bar to clear and how much better the bullpen is will depend entirely on how some of these guys recover from their respective injuries.