The Braves’ bullpen was quite maligned during the course of the 2018 season, but one of the success stories (at least in the first half) was in reliever Dan Winkler whose future with the team is one of the more interesting decisions the team must make.
Winkler was taken with the 20th round of the 2011 draft by the Rockies and began his career as a starter where he excelled in Colorado’s minor league system. He posted big time strikeout numbers and was moving quickly through their system. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and the Braves, sensing an opportunity for an upside arm, took him in the Rule 5 draft that year. He returned to action in 2015 and showed an intriguing mix of stuff although he certainly was a bit rusty. Before he could really get into a groove, he suffered a truly horrific injury early in 2016 where he fractured his elbow on a pitch (don’t watch it if you are squeamish at all) which cost him the 2016 season and most of the 2017 season.
Coming into the 2018 season, it was unclear what Winkler was going to be for the Braves given how much time he had missed to injury. However, he was without question one of the better relievers for the Braves through the first few months of the season. After a lights out April and May to go along with a less than good June, Winkler posted a 3.00 ERA in the first half while striking out 11.08 batters per nine innings pitched and walking just 2.54. Unfortunately, Winkler seemed to hit a wall in the second half where his numbers were significantly worse where he was striking out two less batters per nine, walking guys at a significantly higher rate, and posted a 4.22 ERA after the break (it is worth mentioning that he did sneak in a good month of August which helped his overall line).
While Winkler certainly had his issues this past season, he also showed real flashes and its important to note that his 69 appearances and 60.1 innings pitched last year represent almost double the amount of playing time he had over the previous three seasons COMBINED. He looked gassed as the season went on and when one looks at the big jump in usage (especially when he was used so heavily early in the season), it is easy to understand why and give him a bit of a pass on some of his struggles.
Bottom line, what did he do in 2018? Winkler posted a 3.41 ERA in 69 appearances (60.1 innings) with 69 strikeouts and 20 walks. He was particularly nasty against righties who hit just .192 against him.
Will he be on the roster in 2019? Very likely. There are few certainties in the Braves’ bullpen right now given how much they struggled as a unit in 2018, but Winkler was far from its biggest problem. He generally wasn’t a huge offender in terms of giving up walks and one can imagine that with an offseason of rest and having built some strength up from his work this past season, he could be a valuable piece in the bullpen. Its possible that he may not be completely healthy given his history and how much his production dropped off, but nothing points to that being an issue in the public sphere. The Braves will most certainly make upgrades in the bullpen, but Winkler’s spot seems secure.
What will he do in 2019? Its fair to assume that Winker’s usage will be monitored next season, especially if the bullpen is improved this offseason as many expect. He has the stuff to do good work in high leverage situations, particularly against righties, but probably shouldn’t be a guy that is run out there 70-80 times a season. Expect production similar to what he posted in the first half, but spaced out a bit more as the Braves should, in theory, have other reliable options to give him more breaks during the season.