No Bull, Just Who’s in the Pen
By Fred Owens
The Braves starting rotation is close to set barring some kind of catastrophe or the emergence of a prodigy. The bullpen is in more flux. In the mix are a pair of returning middle relievers, a pair of hard throwing setup men who would both like to close, a long reliever/spot starter who did well enough last year to take that job again, a recently acquired solid middle reliever and a recently acquired former closer who had a horrible season last year. That seven added to our five probable starters is our 12 man staff. Of course that isn’t the end of the story so let’s start with what we know or think we know.
Peter Moylan is back in his “I need a ground ball out or a whole 7th inning when the starter is gone” role. As much as I heard fans complain about him last year he had another steady year in 2010. He had a 2.97 ERA – up a little bit from previous years – and allowed 53 hits while racking up 53 Ks in 65 innings. He looked at one point to be tiring but a few days off saw him return to form and finish with a WHIP of 1.416 in 85 games. If he stays healthy he should do the same this year and along the way pick up 4 wins.
In spite of being on the DL for 40 days and in July and August Eric O’Flaherty had another good year as the situational lefty finishing with a 2.45 ERA and a 1.250 WHIP in 44 innings (56 games) and handling right handed hitters (.229 batting average) as well as lefties (.231). A healthy O’Flaherty is essential against the heavily left handed Philly lineup this year. I expect him to be back to his best and pickup a couple of wins along the way as well.
Though they may, as many have guessed, start off sharing the closers job like Soriano and Gonzales in 09 I believe that Craig Kimbrel will soon become the closer this year and Jonny Venters will end up back in his setup role. Both of these hard throwing rookies have the stuff to close of course but after watching them last year in save situation I think that mentally Kimbrel is better suited to the role than Venters. He was wild early on but the longer he stayed the sharper he became. He was in fact filthy, striking out 40 in 20 innings with a microscopic ERA. Add to that performance the fact that he has always been a closer, knows what it means how to handle it when you’re the man in the middle when the pressure is on and it’s easy to conclude Kimbrel is the man this year. He will have his ups and downs like all rookies of course but in the end he’ll have 30+ saves and blow only a handful. Those numbers will make him a Rookie of the Year candidate but he’ll lose that to Freddie Freeman.
Meanwhile everyday Jonny Venters will become the best setup man in the league this year. We’ve seen his electric sinker and the slider that bites down so hard it leaves batters shaking their heads. That isn’t going to change. As his experience grows so will his confidence and his mound presence making batters eager to get that good pitch and more likely to swing and miss when they do. Along the way he’ll save a couple of games and win at least 3.
Since we traded for Scott Linebrink I think he’s almost guaranteed a bullpen job. In spite of having a bad May and June for the ChiSox causing Ozzie Guillien to lose confidence Linebrink finished the season strong. Moving to the NL having a manager that doesn’t give up on him should be good for him. If his stuff is as good as last year he’ll be nearly be a fine compliment to Moylan’s sidearm double play encouraging stuff. He handles righties and equally well so we won’t have to waste a left hander in a tight situation early or play lefty righty in the middle innings. Along the way he’ll win a couple for us as well. Those were relatively easy to project and most will agree, the rest aren’t and many won’t.
I have 5 rotation spots theoretically spoken for as well as 5 bullpen slots. My math is pretty rusty but I think that’s 10 pitchers out of what almost has to be a 12 man staff; more on that when I get to everyday players. For those remaining slots we have the following challengers (in alphabetical order); Brandon Beachy, Cristhian Martinez, Scott Proctor and George Sherrill. This is where the cheese gets more binding for the GM and manager and I hope egos take a back seat.
Cristhian Martinez After being claimed off of waivers from the Marlins last April Cristhian Martinez pitched extremely well in long relief and spot starts for the Braves. He pitched 26 innings in 18 games with an ERA of 4.85 and a WHIP of 1.318. I know that doesn’t sound “extremely well” to some but if you remove one bad outing – 2 innings, 4 runs and 6 hits against Detroit in June – his ERA drops to 3.75 and his WHIP to 1.038. He had a 3.76 k/bb ratio (22ks while walking only 6) and seemed to be ready whenever needed. Recalled from Gwinette after 40 he allowed one run in his next six appearances (10 innings.) Though his numbers against lefties weren’t all that good – though better than some as you’ll see – he would seem to be in a good position to start the season with the big club. But he probably won’t.
Brandon Beachy Plucked from independent ball, Brandon Beachy impressed during his time at Myrtle Beach, Pearl and Gwinette and with JJ injured and Mike Minor worn down, it was Beachy who the Braves called on for late season start against the Phillies. Though he took the loss Beachy displayed calm under fire and did well enough to stay with the club the rest of the way. He is in theory challenging Mike Minor for the 5th starting spot he is much more likely to start the year at Gwinette. If he pitches well there he will be available for a quick call to spot start or replacement if a starter gets injured.
Scott Proctor The Braves signed Scott Proctor last year hoping that after missing 2009 recovering from Tommy John surgery he would quickly get back to full strength and join the big club. That didn’t happen. He was steadily whipped on in April (11.25 ERA, 2.50 WHIP) and had to rest his arm then start rehab again with Myrtle Beach in June. He wasn’t thrilling there either (6.14 ERA, 1.36 WHIP in 7.1 innings 6 games) but returned to Gwinnett finishing the year with a 7.08 ERA and a 1.75 WHIP in 31 games -34.1 innings. When the rosters expanded he came to Atlanta, made 6 appearances with a 6.35 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP in 5.2 innings. Proctor used to throw hard, but his velocity was still down at the end of the season and if he’s going to be successful he’ll have to learn to pitch with off-speed stuff ala Trevor Hoffman. Though he really did nothing to inspire confidence, the Braves gave him a Major League contract for 2011 albeit for only $750,000 so I fully expect him to get one of the last two bullpen spots. IF (note that’s a big if) he can recover and adapt two years after his T J surgery he could be valuable in middle relief. I always liked Proctor and want the transformation to succeed.
Anyone who’s been reading this blog knows I think signing him was a waste of time and money. His 1.927 WHIP and 6.69 ERA and nearly a 1:1 k/bb ratio make his acquisition at best questionable. However Roger McDowell says the implosion that began in the 2009 post season and continued through last year is simply due a lost arm slot and, McDowell says he can fix it. Even if he never gets back to his career year stuff, Sherrill remains effective against lefties and so would be extremely useful against the Phillies who will have 5 lefties and 2 switch hitters in their projected starting lineup. Having him for 18 games against the Phillies is ok. It’s far better IF McDowell is correct and can fix his arm slot therefore keeping right handers from – as they say in Texas – beating him like a rented mule. That done he could also provide everyday Jonny with some time off in his eventual setup role and become our 3rd or 4th closing option. I expect Sherrill to be given the last bullpen spot. I wish him success and look forward to saying I was wrong.
I suppose I should mention Rodrigo Lopez.Common wisdom – is there such a thing – says that Lopez was signed to challenge Minor/Beachy and be available at Gwinette in the event a spot start is needed. With Beachy, Marek, Cordier and later Teheran available to do that as well I still don’t see the need for another sub-par 35 year old pitcher. It’s bad enough we’re still paying Kenshin Kawakami – whose numbers were better BTW; yes, yes, I know, we’re going to move him before the season starts. In any event, I don’t think Lopez, whose first 30 pitches are notorious for giving up runs, is useful in middle relief or as a spot starter so, barring a pitching epiphany I don’t believe he’ll make the big club.
Well, that’s what I believe will be the bullpen when we break camp; Kimbrel, Venters, Moylan, O’Flaherty, Linebrink, Proctor, Sherrill. Is that pen good enough? What do you think?