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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Bullpen

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The Braves spent big in hopes of solidifying their bullpen for 2020.

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The Atlanta Braves won 97 games in 2019 but did so largely with a bullpen that could be described as inconsistent. Alex Anthopoulos tried to address those issues at the trade deadline with the additions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon. He set out again early this offseason in hopes that he could transform Atlanta’s bullpen from a question mark into a strength. While it is worth mentioning the volatility of relievers in general, this group of Braves relievers does look like a strength.

While both Greene and Melancon are under contract for the 2020 season, Anthopoulos acted quickly snagging the best relief arm on the free market in Will Smith locking him down with a three-year deal that includes a club option for a fourth season. The team also brought back Martin and Darren O’Day on team friendly deals in hopes of further solidifying the unit. The addition of Smith gives Brian Snitker the ability to mix and match depending on matchups. Smith could be used in the seventh or eighth inning in high leverage situations with Melancon also available to close. It will be interesting to see how all of the pieces fit but I do think it is easy to come to the conclusion that this is an improved unit over what we saw early on in 2019.

The expanded 26-man roster will allow Atlanta to carry 13 pitchers for the duration of the season, five starters and eight relievers. Six of those relief spots appear to be taken provided everyone gets through the spring healthy. Another of those spots could go to Sean Newcomb if he fails to earn a spot in the team’s rotation. That will leave a big time competition with several different pitchers vying for that final spot.

The Big 6

Will Smith (2019: 63 G, 65.1 IP, 37.4 K%, 8.2 BB%, 2.76 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 2.73 xFIP, 1.2 fWAR)

Will Smith returns home to Atlanta where the Braves are hoping that he will be the anchor of their bullpen for at least the next three seasons. Smith posted a strong 2019 season in the bay area appearing in 63 games with a 2.76 ERA and a 3.23 FIP. He put together an eye popping 37.4 K% thanks to an excellent fastball and slider combination. Smith faced 72 left-handed hitters in 2019 and struck out 42 of them. Right-handers didn’t see a lot of success either hitting .212/.297/.412. While the Braves said that Melancon would remain the team’s closer, expect to see Smith in the most high-leverage situations. Whether that is in the seventh or the ninth doesn’t really matter.

Shane Greene (2019: 65 G, 62.2 IP, 25.4 K%, 6.8 BB%, 2.30 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.97 xFIP, 0.9 fWAR)

There was some brief discussion early in the offseason about Shane Greene as a non-tender candidate. The thinking was that the addition of Smith along with Greene’s $6+ million salary could make him expendable. Anthopoulos however put that thought to bed saying the Braves were trying to build a deep bullpen and Greene remains a key piece of that going forward. When Greene arrived in Atlanta via trade from Detroit, he was sporting a minuscule 1.18 ERA in 38 appearances. His 3.69 FIP at the time suggested that some form of regression was likely. We saw some of that especially early on as Greene allowed 13 hits and seven runs in his first six appearances for Atlanta. However, he settled in from there holding hitters to a .171 average while allowing just four runs over his final 20 appearances. Greene may not see a lot of save opportunities for the Braves in 2020 but he gives the team another experienced option at the backend.

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Luke Jackson (2019: 70 G, 72.2 IP, 33.7 K%, 8.3 BB%, 3.84 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 2.52 xFIP, 1.2 fWAR)

If you are looking for the biggest surprise of the 2019 season then you will have to look hard to find a bigger one than Luke Jackson. Jackson came into the 2019 season just hoping to hold onto a roster spot but put together a career-year and became a key piece of Atlanta’s bullpen. He appeared in a career-high 70 games and through over 72 innings while posting a 33.7% K-rate with a 3.84 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. Perhaps the most impressive part of Jackson’s season was his success against left-handed hitters who hit just .157/.222/.324 with 42 strikeouts. Jackson did wear down at the end with a 5.65 ERA over his final 28 2/3 innings but was a bit unlucky as well as his 3.91 FIP and 2.51 xFIP over that span show.

The Braves probably shouldn’t call upon Jackson to pitch in 70 games again and he appears to be the very definition of volatility when it comes to relief arms. With the new additions he shouldn’t have to and shouldn’t see quite as many high leverage situations. He may not ever come close to replicating his numbers from 2019 but if he does the Braves have a clear bargain.

Chris Martin (2019: 58 G, 55.2 IP, 30.1 K%, 2.3 BB%, 3.40 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 2.72 xFIP, 1.0 fWAR)

Perhaps the biggest blow of the Division Series for the Braves came in Game 1 when Chris Martin suffered an oblique injury in the eighth inning with the Braves holding a 3-1 lead. That lead would go on to slip away and they’d drop the series in five games wondering what might have been.

Atlanta acquired Martin at the trade deadline sending lefty prospect Kolby Allard to the Rangers. Martin came to the Braves with a 3.08 ERA in 38 innings with Texas. More impressively he had walked just four batters while totaling 43 strikeouts. Like Greene, Martin was a bit unfortunate after arriving in Atlanta posting a 4.08 ERA but alongside a 1.63 FIP. Additionally, he walked just one batter over his 20 appearances in a Braves uniform.

The Braves re-signed Martin to a two-year, $14 million deal this offseason and he will again play a key part in the bullpen.

Mark Melancon (2019: 66 G, 67.1 IP, 23.9 K%, 6.3 BB%, 3.61 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 3.06 xFIP, 1.2 fWAR)

The Braves assumed all of Mark Melancon’s $14 million salary for 2020 when they acquired him at the deadline in a trade with the Giants. Atlanta inserted him into the closer’s role where he posted a 3.86 ERA in 23 appearances. A familiar theme among the team’s late bullpen additions, Melancon’s 1.83 FIP with the Braves suggests that he was a bit unfortunate.

Melancon was tagged for four earned runs in that Game 1 loss in the Division Series but the lost of Martin in the eighth set off an unfortunate chain of events. It will be interesting to see how long he can hold onto the closer’s role in 2020. Interestingly, Melancon was replaced as Giants closer by Smith in 2019 and that same situation could play out again in 2020. He may not be the shutdown arm that he was several seasons ago but he adds more experience and another option to the back half of Atlanta’s bullpen.

Darren O’Day (2019: 8 G, 5.1 IP, 28.6 K%, 4.8 BB%, 1.69 ERA, 2.09 FIP, 3.95 xFIP, 0.1 fWAR)

The Braves waited a long time to get any kind of contribution from Darren O’Day whom they acquired from the Baltimore Orioles at the 2018 trade deadline in the Kevin Gausman deal. O’Day was on the injured list with a hamstring injury when he was acquired and developed a forearm issue during spring training in 2019. He wouldn’t make his debut in a Braves uniform until September 7 allowing three hits and one run in 5 1/3 innings spanning eight appearances. That was enough to earn him a spot on the Division Series roster where he allowed just one hit in two innings while making four appearances against the Cardinals.

Atlanta inked O’Day to a one year deal worth $2.25 million this offseason that also includes a $3.5 million club option for 2021. Right-handers have hit just .195 against O’Day in his career and he should give the Braves another experienced relief option.

Newcomb Category

Sean Newcomb (2019: 55 G, 68.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 9.9 BB%, 3.16 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 4.61 xFIP, 0.4 fWAR)

I covered Newcomb in the starters preview as he will go to spring training competing for the final spot in Atlanta’s rotation. However, if that doesn’t work out then he figures to be a safe bet to make the Big 6 above into a Big 7 as Smith is the only left-handed option in the above group.

Other 40-man roster options

The group below are all on the 40-man roster so they have that much going for them but all have their own set of question marks.

Grant Dayton (2019: 14 G, 12.0 IP, 27.5 K%, 7.8 BB%, 3.00 ERA, 6.21 FIP, 4.70 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR)

Atlanta avoided arbitration with Grant Dayton this offseason settling on a $655,000 contract for the 2020 season. The Braves acquired Dayton in November of 2017 after he underwent Tommy John surgery. He sat out the entire 2018 season while recovering but returned in 2019 and saw action in 14 games with Atlanta. He is another left-handed option who has had success against both left-handed and right-handed hitters in his career. If he is finally healthy, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a shot at some point in 2020.

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A.J. Minter (2019: 36 G, 29.1 IP, 23.8 K%, 15.7 BB%, 7.06 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 5.32 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR)

A.J. Minter entered the 2019 season looking like the odds on favorite to take over as the team’s closer. His season was derailed from the start as he exited his only spring appearance after facing just one batter due to shoulder discomfort. Minter had been involved in a fender bender and that was said to be the root of his shoulder injury. However, he never was able to get on track thanks in large part to a walk rate that ballooned to 15.7%. In theory, if Minter could recapture his form, he would add even more depth to an already deep bullpen, but his 2019 season was so off the rails that he will have a lot to prove at spring training.

Chad Sobotka (2019: 32 G, 29.0 IP, 28.4 K%, 14.2 BB%, 6.21 ERA, 5.56 FIP, 4.65 xFIP, -0.3 fWAR)

Chad Sobotka turned heads at the end of the 2018 season and looked like he could be as a backend arm in the team’s bullpen for 2019. However, Sobotka had been plagued by control issues throughout his minor league tenure and those returned in 2019. He did make 32 appearances for the Braves but with little success posting a 6.21 ERA in 29 innings with a 14.2% walk rate. He has a big time arm but until he refines his command, his future appears uncertain.

Jacob Webb (2019: 36 G, 32.1 IP, 21.4 K%, 9.2 BB%, 1.39 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 5.15 xFIP, 0.2 fWAR)

Jacob Webb’s 2019 season was cut short due to an elbow injury that required offseason arthroscopic surgery. He was effective appearing in 36 games with the Braves while recording a 1.39 ERA albeit with a 4.30 FIP. If he is recovered from his elbow issues then he may be one of the favorites to latch onto the final spot in the bullpen.

Patrick Weigel (2019 Triple-A: 21 G, 11 GS, 63.1 IP, 21.0 K%, 12.2 BB%, 2.98 ERA, 5.58 FIP, 5.84 xFIP)

Patrick Weigel in his first full season since Tommy John surgery advanced his to Triple-A seeing time as both a starter and a reliever. The Braves were careful with his workload. He did earn a couple of promotions to the majors but failed to get into a game. It will be interesting to see how the Braves view Weigel at this point. They could opt to let him work as a starter but it wouldn’t be a surprise to finally see his major league debut in 2020.

Huascar Ynoa (2019 Triple-A: 17 G, 14 GS, 72.2 IP, 23.9 K%, 10.3 BB%, 5.33 ERA, 5.52 FIP, 4.82 xFIP)

Huascar Ynoa made two appearances for the Braves in 2019. He was impressive in the first closing out a 15-1 win over the Phillies while allowing one hit with two strikeouts over a pair of shutout innings. He returned to the majors a month later and was tagged for five hits and six runs in just one inning in a loss to the Brewers. Ynoa worked as a starter for Gwinnett in 2019 but profiles nicely as a reliever with a power arm.

Touki Toussaint (2019: 24 G, 1 GS, 41.2 IP, 22.7 K%, 13.1 BB%, 5.62 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 5.63 xFIP, -0.2 fWAR)

I was going to include Touki Toussaint in the starters preview until I realized he made 23 relief appearances in 2019. While the ship may not have fully sailed on him as a starter, Toussaint is in need of a big turnaround from a disappointing 2019 season. While his fastball/curveball combination can be devastating, Toussaint struggled with his command as his walk rate jumped to 13% in the majors. Perhaps a full time conversion to a relief role would allow him to unlock some of that potential that he exhibited during his rise through the minors.

Philip Pfeifer (2019 Double-A: 11 G, 4 GS, 34 IP, 25.4 K%, 11.3 BB%, 2.38 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 3.76 xFIP)

The Braves added Philip Pfeifer to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft after he put together a solid 2019 season as a starter. Pfeifer showed an improved fastball while advancing from Florida to Mississippi and then was given a cup of coffee at Gwinnett. He will likely begin the season with The Stripers and could figure into the picture at some point in 2020.

Jeremy Walker (2019 Triple-A: 11 G, 22.2 IP, 26.9 K%, 6.5 BB%, 3.97 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 3.55 xFIP)

Jeremy Walker began last season at Mississippi where he was often tied to Patrick Weigel in a piggyback situation. He got into six games for the Braves as a reliever and pitched pretty well. He profiles nicely as a groundball middle reliever who could throw multiple innings out of the pen.

Non-Roster Invitees

While several of the players listed below have worked exclusively as starters in the minors they may ultimately end up as relief options for the big league club. None of this group is currently on the 40-man roster so barring something unexpected, are likely to open the season in the minors.

Jasseel De La Cruz (2019 Double-A: 17 G, 16 GS, 87 IP, 19.9 K%, 10.1 BB%, 3.83 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 4.16 xFIP)

Jasseel De La Cruz was a pleasant surprise in 2019 as he was finally healthy and advanced all the way from Low-A Rome to Double-A Mississippi. De La Cruz possesses a big time arm and a fastball that touched 99 mph as a starter. While he may very well make it as a starter, his fastball/slider combination profiles him well as a backend relief arm.

Thomas Burrows (2019 Triple-A: 27 G, 36.0 IP, 24.5 K%, 11.3 BB%, 4.75 ERA, 4.46 FIP, 5.20 xFIP)

Burrows had a peculiar 2019 season in that he was seen as a relief option for the Braves but he struggled with Gwinnett early on and ended up back in Mississippi by the end of May. His walk rate jumped during his time at Triple-A but he is a guy that could get an opportunity at some if he can find some consistency.

Kurt Hoekstra (2019 Double-A: 11 G, 1 GS, 20.1 IP, 24.1 K%, 13.8 BB%, 0.89 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 3.88 xFIP)

Kurt Hoekstra switched to pitching full time in 2019 and will get an opportunity at major league camp this spring. Hoekstra began the season at Rome but ended it at Gwinnett posting dominant numbers along the way. He is a guy to keep an eye on during early spring action.

Connor Johnstone (2019 Double-A: 28 G, 7 GS, 78.2 IP, 14.9 K%, 6.3 BB%, 4.12 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 4.04 xFIP)

Connor Johnstone split time between Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2019 with varying results. He doesn’t strike out a lot of guys but does a good job of keeping the ball on the ground. He looks like a safe bet to begin the season at Gwinnett as a reliever.

Chris Nunn (2019 Triple-A: 24 G, 30.1 IP, 26.0 K%, 10.7 BB%, 8.01 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 5.48 xFIP)

Chris Nunn will be another intriguing name to keep an eye on during the spring. Nunn of course drew headlines when he posted a viral video of him hitting 99 mph on Pitching Ninja’s Flatground App on Twitter. That led to him eventually signing with the Dodgers where he put up good numbers at Double-A but got banged around during his stint at Triple-A. He is very much a lottery ticket but one that has a 99 mph fastball and is thus worth keeping an eye on.

Ben Rowen (2019 Triple-A: 31 G, 6 GS, 77.2 IP, 18.7 K%, 3.5 BB%, 3.48 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 4.56 xFIP)

Rowen appeared in 31 games for Gwinnett last season working mostly as a reliever. He posted solid numbers across the board exhibiting a low strikeout rate and the ability to keep the ball on the ground. He allowed just four home runs in 77 2/3 innings despite the juiced baseball.

Chris Rusin (2019 Triple-A: 22 G, 10 GS, 65.2 IP, 14.1 K%, 7.0 BB%, 4.93 ERA, 5.00 FIP, 5.83 xFIP)

Chris Rusin has logged over 465 innings at the major league level for the Cubs and the Rockies since 2012. He spent most of last season at Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate where he put up a 4.95 ERA in 72 2/3 innings. He was excellent in 2017 but was horrid in 2018 with a 6.09 ERA in 49 appearances.

Josh Tomlin (2019: 51 G, 79.1 IP, 15.9 K%, 2.2 BB%, 3.74 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 4.95 xFIP, 0.2 fWAR)

The Braves signed Josh Tomlin to a minor-league deal as pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday. Tomlin joined the 2019 team at the end of spring training and stuck on the roster for the entire season as a long relief option. With limited spots available and Snitker’s desire to carry a long relief pitcher for mop up duty, Tomlin would appear to have a decent chance of securing one of the final spots in the bullpen