The Braves came into the season with a lot of uncertainty in the pen. From the 2017 squad, only these five pitchers logged more than 50 appearances: Jose Ramirez, Arodys Vizcaino, Jim Johnson, Sam Freeman, and Ian Krol. Krol, Freeman, and Ramirez at different points have reinforced that relievers from year-to-year can be unreliable at best. Jim Johnson was proving he was on the downslope of his career. We did see some glimpses as Dan Winkler and AJ Minter contributed strong debuts in short sample.
Going into this year, we knew there was talent. Vizzy was returning. Minter, Winkler, and Jesse Biddle were all given clean bills of health from their previous injury concerns, and Luke Jackson, Sam Freeman, and Jose Ramirez would return from semi-competent seasons last year. Peter Moylan was signed in the offseason, and Shane Carle was picked up off waivers and would ultimately pitch key innings for the team. And we were told there was flexibility to acquire relievers at the deadline should be we be in contention.
The pen came out strong in the first couple months of the season. They were in the top 10 in ERA and WAR, but it was being ridden hard as they were also in the top 8 in innings pitched. While the unit was talented, it just wasn’t going to be able to sustain that workload. They began to slump towards the end of the first half, but reinforcements of Jonny Venters and Brad Brach — both acquired via trade — and the call-up of surprising non-prospect Chad Sobotka gave the the pen much more depth to finish the season.
All told, they finished the season 17th in bullpen ERA, up from 26th the year before. Many stats put the Braves between 14th and 18th in team rankings, so you can say that they went from being one of the worst pens in baseball to being simply average. Average is not going to bring you home a championship, but the majority of last year’s pen continues to be under control for the next few to several years. The only notable departure from this year’s pen will most likely prove to be Brad Brach.
But average is average, and this is one unit that will undoubtedly need reinforcements in the offseason. One is already on the roster as Darren O’Day, who was acquired in the Kevin Gausman deal, was sidelined with a knee injury but should be ready to go in Spring Training. Another source of reinforcements will undoubtedly be what is now an ever-growing list of starting pitching prospects in the high minors. Some may be traded, sure, but the list of starting pitching prospects ready to serve in the bullpen will most likely be higher than it was even last year. If not traded, close to full season availability of Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Bryce Wilson, Mike Soroka, and Luiz Gohara will all enter the season — assuming good health as well — of being even more ready to help the staff. Of course, some of them may very well end up in the rotation, but behind them, we may see Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Ian Anderson, and Patrick Weigel factor into the equation the same way the aforementioned batch of prospects did so in 2017. There’s also the Shane Carle’s and Chad Sobotka’s of the world that tend to come out of nowhere to provide some support.
They may also look at acquiring a relief ace as this unit currently does not have one. We all know that our friend Craig Kimbrel could be re-acquired through free agency, we’ve been connected to Zach Britton who could be a rebound candidate after his successful second half, and someone like Raisel Iglesias could be had by teams like the Reds who may be looking to grab a quantity of prospects from us.
Relievers are awfully unreliable from year-to-year, but there’s probably enough opportunities to have enough pitchers to throw out there in the coming year than there was last year, and you should see a better unit.