Atlanta Braves: Just How Good Will Their Bullpen Be in 2017?

Aug 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jim Johnson (53) delivers a pitch to a San Diego Padres batter in the ninth inning of their game at Turner Field. The Braves won 8-1. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jim Johnson (53) delivers a pitch to a San Diego Padres batter in the ninth inning of their game at Turner Field. The Braves won 8-1. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

Much has been made of the Atlanta Braves starting rotation improvements this winter, but just how good is the bullpen? Let’s dive in.

It’s been a whirlwind of moves in regard to the Atlanta Braves starting rotation. The team kicked off the offseason by signing two veteran innings-eaters in Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey. The front office sunk over $20 million into these two additions, which many expected were efforts to give some of the Braves’ young arms some more experienced leaders. However, the Braves weren’t done adding to their starting staff.

In early December, Atlanta traded away prospects John Gant and Chris Ellis to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for lefty Jaime Garcia. The 30-year-old was a realistic target for the club because he was owed $12 million, which the Cardinals considered too expensive for a pitcher that finished last season with an ERA over 4.65.

While Garcia did struggle in 2016, he’s had a considerable amount of success over his eight-year career. This was another solid veteran addition to a rotation that was very young last season.

Obviously improving the starting pitching was the primary goal of Braves team management. However, the team’s bullpen is not something that should be overlooked.

Re-signing Jim Johnson was the only real consequential offseason move the Braves made in regard to their bullpen. The team inked the veteran reliever to a two-year, $10 million deal before he hit free agency, which may seem a little rich for a guy that struggled mightily for two of the past three years. However, Johnson was rather good for the Braves after the team picked him up off of the scrap heap in 2015.

The 33-year-old posted ERAs under 3.10 in each of his two seasons in Atlanta. He actually posted the highest strikeout rate of his career at 9.5 K/9 in 2016. Johnson is still more of a ground ball pitcher using his two-seam fastball over 58 percent of the time. His recent success should set him up to open this coming year as the closer, even though there are relievers behind him with more potential.

This potential dominance starts with the Braves’ former closer, Arodys Vizcaino. The 26-year-old is a flamethrower who consistently pumps his fastball in the high 90s. This has led to a bevy of strikeouts (11.6 K/9) as well as a fairly high ground ball rate of 53.8 percent, according to FanGraphs. But there is a reason why Vizcaino did eventually lose his grip on the ninth inning role.

First, he walked 26 batters in just under 39 innings pitched in 2016. This led to a bevy of inconsistencies in his appearances and also a lot of blow-ups when he took the mound. Vizcaino did allow more than two runs in half of his final six appearances last season. These outings bumped his ERA into the mid-4.00s. But this still doesn’t mean that the right-hander can’t improve. His FIP was markedly better than his ERA and his pure stuff should certainly help him stay effective as he tries to hone his control.

Another reliever built in the same mold of Vizcaino is 23-year-old Mauricio Cabrera. Previously signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, the 6-foot-3 right-hander got his first taste of the big leagues this past season.

Cabrera posted an impressive 2.82 ERA in the 41 games, flashing his triple-digit fastball in the process. They say you can’t teach arm strength and this young hurler certainly has all the makings of a typical late-inning reliever. This is not to say that Cabrera was perfect as a rookie. He did not strike out as many hitters as one would expect with his power arsenal (7.5 K/9) and he suffered from a high number of bases on balls, too (4.5 BB/9).

It should be said that Cabrera did not post outstanding strikeout or walk numbers in the minor leagues. In fact, his minor league career average of five walks per nine innings is certainly a cause for a concern. Cabrera should break camp with the Braves after a successful rookie campaign, but a greater amount of exposure may force the young righty to adjust.

The only left-hander slated to start the season in the Braves bullpen is 25-year-old (26 in May) Ian Krol. This coming season will mark his fifth year in MLB, but last year was clearly the best of his career thus far. The former seventh round pick posted a solid 3.18 ERA with an even better 2.91 FIP. He struck out a just over a batter an inning, which was a considerable jump from the year before. However, the true difference between his rough 2015 campaign and this past year was that he lowered his walk rate by over three bases on balls. If the lefty hopes to maintain his role as a late-inning specialist in 2017, he must continue to control the strike zone.

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Two other intriguing arms who shouldn’t be expected to work in highly strenuous roles are Jose Ramirez and 2016’s Rule 5 pick from the Chicago Cubs, Armando Rivero.

Ramirez, 27, had not appeared in over eight games in a season until 2016, and he was surprisingly successful given his increased exposure to major league hitters. He does have a high fly ball percentage (42.5 percent), which is a cause concern, especially for a reliever. But he has fairly good stuff and should be able to carve out a role.

Rivero, on the other hand, has not appeared in the big leagues just yet, but he will get his opportunity to prove that his exceptional numbers in Triple-A will translate to effectiveness in MLB.

Others like Chaz Roe, Josh Collmenter, Luke Jackson and Jordan Walden all do have big league experience, and should represent solid depth at both the major and minor league levels.

Overall, the Braves are filled with high potential hurlers in the bullpen, but that comes with a fair amount of risk, too. Jim Johnson should be able to bring some much-needed veteran consistency to a bullpen that lacks experience and is marked by some clear red flags. But the young arms of Vizcaino, Cabrera, Krol and Ramirez all have had their bright spots as well, which should add some intrigue when this revised starting rotation gives way to the later innings.

Next: Phillies Closer Job Up for Grabs

It’s certainly not one of the better or more proven relief staffs in baseball, but Atlanta does have a bounty of intriguing options to hand the ball off to in 2017.

What are your expectations for the Braves’ 2017 bullpen? Let us know in the comments below.