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Bullpen could be Braves strength, though questions remain

 

In recent years the Braves have frequently filled out the left-handed portion of their bullpen by bringing to spring training a non-roster assortment of cast-offs, waiver claims and up-and-comers in hopes that one or two will have made an adjustment, mentally or physically, or found some other way to seize the moment and take advantage of their first — or perhaps last — big-league opportunity.

This year is no exception.

Paco Rodriguez, who has missed more than 1 1/2 seasons following Tommy John surgery, could be crucial to the Braves' bullpen hopes in 2017 (AP photo)

Paco Rodriguez, who has missed more than 1 1/2 seasons following Tommy John surgery, could be crucial to the Braves’ bullpen hopes in 2017 (AP photo)

Yes, they bring back lefty Ian Krol, who’ll make $900,000 in his first arbitration season after posting a solid 3.18 ERA in 63 appearances in his first season with the Braves. But Krol actually allowed a higher average (.287), OBP (.330) and slugging percentage (.391) against left-handed batters in 2016 than he did against right-handers (.259/.320/.366).

So while he’ll almost certainly have a spot in the opening-day bullpen – he’s out of minor-league options and couldn’t be sent down without going through waivers – the Braves need another lefty in the ‘pen.

Assuming Paco Rodriguez is healthy, he’ll be that guy. Assuming he’s healthy I expect him, not Krol, to the primary lefty. Rodriguez is coming back from Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched since the end of May 2015 when he was still a Dodger, but should be ready this spring.

If not, the assortment of lefties competing for a bullpen spot currently includes non-roster invitees Eric O’Flaherty, a former Braves standout who’s coming back from arthroscopic elbow surgery after struggling mightily last year in his return to Atlanta following a previous TJ surgery and other injuries, and John Danks, 31, the former White Sox starter who has been struggling for years to regain his form after shoulder surgery.

Danks was released by the White Sox in May after going 0-4 with a 7.25 ERA in four starts, with $15.75 million that he was owed last season in the final year of a five-year, $65 million contract extension he got when he was one of the top young starters in the AL.

Highly regarded, hard-throwing lefty relief prospect A.J. Minter will also be in camp and will have plenty of attention focused upon him, but the Braves aren’t expected to add Minter to their major league roster at least until later in the 2017 season. He’s part of a farm system rated as the best in baseball by many including ESPN’s Keith Law.

The Braves love Minter’s potential and believe he could be a future setup man or possible closer someday with his high-90s fastball and devastating slider. But after selecting the former Texas A&M standout in the second round of the 2015 draft when he was recovering from TJ surgery, they kept him on a planned relief schedule last year as he ascended the ladder from low-A to Double-A, compiling a 1.30 ERA in 31 appearances across three levels and amassing 47 strikeouts with just 11 walks in 34 2/3 innings.

This guy’s for real, and the Braves want to be sure they don’t rush Minter to the majors too soon after spoon-feeding him for much of his excellent first professional season in 2016.

In other words, there doesn’t appear to be any obvious diamond-in the-rough or waiver-claim-on-the-verge type of lefty talent set to emerge early in 2017, not like those the Braves have brought up following strong showings in recent spring trainings. Guys like Jonny Venters, a former 30th-round draft pick who posted a 1.95 ERA in 79 appearances as a Braves rookie in 2010; O’Flaherty, who’d done nothing of note in parts of three seasons with Seattle before the Braves claimed him on waivers and saw him post a 3.04 ERA in 78 appearances in his first season with them, then become dominant over the next three seasons.

Or even Hunter Cervenka, whom the Braves signed out of an indy league in 2015 and then watched post a 3.18 ERA in 50 appearances last season before they traded him to the Marlins.

The Braves did sign Michael Kirkman this week, and he has plenty of major league experience (5.28 ERA in 96 major league relief appearances over parts of six major league seasons. But he’s made only two appearances in the majors since 2015 and signed a minor league deal with no spring-training invite.

There are still a handful of notable lefty free agents available including Javier Lopez, Jerry Blevins, Boone Logan, Travis Wood and Chris Capuano. But so far, at least, the Braves have deemed them either too expensive or not clearly better than what they already have.

Which brings us back to Paco.

Rodriguez, who’ll be 26 in April, was impressive in parts of four seasons with the Dodgers before tearing the UCL ligament in his elbow. He had a puny .174 opponents’ average (29-for-167) by lefties and and extremely strong .478 opponents’ OPS, with only two homers allowed, 14 walks and 66 strikeouts.

Even as high as the recovery rate is for first-time TJ surgeries these days, it can’t automatically be assumed a pitcher is going to come back at full strength, particularly in his first months back. And again, it’s been 20 months since he pitched, and Rodriguez did most of his rehab away from the Braves last year at a facility near his Miami home, per his choice.

When I saw him during a late-season visit he made to Atlanta, he appeared in excellent condition. The Braves will hope the ligament in his elbow is as strong as he looked, because their bullpen has a chance to be a real team strength this year, but a lockdown lefty is necessary for a truly dominant bullpen.

Manager Brian Snitker already said they’re leaning toward going again with an eight-man bullpen like they used much of last season, instead of their formerly customary seven-man pen. So it’s highly likely they’ll go with more than just one lefty.

Assuming they keep two lefties, the Braves would have six right-handers in the opening-day bullpen, which means they’ll have some difficult decisions to make between now and then, given the status of some Rule 5 picks and others who are out of minor league options.

If there are any certainties, to me those are probably Jim Johnson, who signed a two-year contract extension on the final day of the season and goes to spring training as the closer, subject to change at any time, and Mauricio Cabrera, whose triple-digit fastball and durability presumably make him too valuable to consider trading after less than one full season in the majors.

Beyond them, the most-likely candidates for what would presumably be four other right-hander spots might be Chaz Roe, who really impressed Snitker and others after being claimed off waivers from Baltimore in early August, and Jose Ramirez, who is out of minor league options and was much improved after being sent down for a midseason stint in  Triple-A to work on his command.

The Braves return hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino, who was having an All-Star-type season as closer before a July DL stint for an oblique strain. He was never the same and went on the DL again at the end of August with shoulder inflammation.

The Braves had him skip winter ball and instead rest and re-strengthen his arm, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Braves get – and consider – trade offers for “Viz” in the spring. He’ll make $1.55 million this season in his second arbitration year, and if he hadn’t gotten hurt before the All-Star break, there was a good likelihood he’d have been dealt before the trade deadline last year.

Also expected to to get strong consideration for the opening-day bullpen is Armando Rivero, a Rule 5 pick in December who had a 2.13 ERA and 105 K’s in 67 2/3 innings for the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate last year, the highest nine-inning strikeout rate in the minors. The Cuban turned 29 on Wednesday.

The Braves have versatile veteran Josh Collmenter, whom they re-signed in November after his strong work as an emergency starter in September. Seemingly squeezed out of the rotation by subsequent acquisitions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia, Collmenter could draw plenty of trade interest this spring and might get dealt if the Braves don’t need him in the bullpen, where they probably have enough other options.

Among the other top candidates for the last righty slots: veteran non-roster invitees Blaine Boyer, a former Brave who’ll be in the bullpen if he pitches this spring as he has the past three seasons; Jordan Walden, another former Brave; and Daniel Winkler, a former Rule 5 pick who was impressive in April before breaking his elbow on a pitch. He still has to stay on the Braves’ major-league roster for nearly the first two months of the season or be offered back to the Rockies, per Rule 5 regulations.

 


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