The Braves Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel and… Some Other Guys

Fresh off a season that saw the Braves relievers lead all of baseball, they return the vast majority of their arms. While their team xFIP was nearly a run higher than their ERA, indicating some regression is likely, they are also anchored by one of baseball’s premier closers. Couple that with the fact that the majority of their arms are under 30 and they work in a pitcher-friendly park, and there’s little reason to doubt the team should be a solid source of fantasy value again in 2014.

The closer
Craig Kimbrel

The top closer in the game now has a fitting, multi-million dollar deal to go along with his ridiculous 1.46 career SIERA. Still 25, he projects to be a good bet health-wise, even if he’s throwing breaking balls a third of the time. It’ll be interesting to see if he’ll ever get close to matching his magical 2012 (0.68 SIERA, 50+% K%!), but regardless, he’s as safe and secure as a bet there is among fantasy closers. There are probably not enough superlatives to keep writing, so I’ll stop.

The setup guys
Jordan Walden
Luis Avilan

The former Angels “closer-of-the-future,” Walden took a big step forward in the command department during his first year in Atlanta. Previously the owner of a 10+% BB% each and every season during his brief big league career, he slashed that number to 7.3% in 2013. It’ll be interesting to see how sustainable that mark is going forward; his first-pitch strike percentage climbed for the fourth consecutive year, but his Zone% actually slipped. A large reason for the free pass improvement was the fact that his Swing% (in particular, swings outside of the strike zone) was way up over the righty’s career averages. Easier to stop walking people if they swing at 10% more pitches, I guess. Still, the owner of ERA indicators in the 2.80-3.40 range, he’ll likely open the year as the next-in-line guy behind Kimbrel as Atlanta’s top setup man. Unless the wheels come off, he should be a solid bet in holds leagues and he’ll also help out in the strikeouts category.

Avilan currently has a leg up as Atlanta’s top lefty thanks to a 1.69 ERA in just over 100 career innings. His SIERA hasn’t been quite as elite, pegging him at a 3.60 mark. A large portion of his early-career success has been derived from a low BABIP (.226) and HR/FB% (2.6%). However, he’s posted a GB% over 50% and he’s a lefty specialist who is successful against same-handed hitters, so it’s tough to know if he’s getting lucky or is just really good at inducing weak contact. Will also be an OK target in holds leagues since he’ll be the top option in lefty-heavy batter sequences, but with a weaker K%, I certainly wouldn’t consider him a strong investment on draft day.

Middle relief
David Carpenter
Cory Gearrin
Anthony Varvaro
Alex Wood (?)
Jonny Venters (INJ)

Carpenter had a breakout of sorts last season, posting a 1.78 ERA (2.68 SIERA) while with his third big league club. A huge part of those gains were due to a improvement “twofer.” The righty posted both an increase in strikeout rate while allowing fewer free passes. Who doesn’t love relievers who trend positive across the board? He’s a fly ball pitcher who had a .260 BABIP and strand rate greater than 90%, so perhaps there was a bit of luck involved, but the peripherals are strong enough that he could join Walden in high-leverage situations right out of the gate if he hasn’t lost his mojo.

The righty Gearrin has battled some shoulder woes over the offseason, but he should be back in the running for a middle relief spot in Atlanta’s bullpen (if healthy). Unfortunately, unlike Carpenter, both his K% and BB% are going the wrong directions. His sub-90mph fastball isn’t going to allow him to just blow heat past guys late in games so it’d be nice to see his control improve. With the declining stuff and uncertain role, he’s not a tremendously interesting guy from a fantasy perspective. Varvaro is a similar right-handed arm, albeit one that posted slightly better walk rates and slightly fewer punchouts last season. He owns a better heater (92+ mph) but doesn’t have elite swinging strike rates with it, so he’s also not going to be blowing guys away anytime soon. A fungible arm, but again, little chance at serious upward mobility.

With Freddy Garcia making noise about being on the big league roster (or bust!), Wood may be the odd starter out to open the season. Further hurting his starter aspirations, the team may look at the bullpen as a viable mechanism for keeping his innings under control and currently Avilan is the team’s only lefty reliever until Venters returns. All of the pieces seem to favor Wood operating a swingman to open the season. J.P. Breen touched on him in the Braves’ rotation piece from a few days ago, so I won’t hammer him here. I’ll just say, if he doesn’t get a rotation spot when camp breaks, he may come very cheap as a stash-type guy in late drafts.

According to Mark Bowman, Venters has been long tossing without pain, hopes to get on a mound soon, and is shooting for somewhere in the late May-early June timeframe for his return from Tommy John. His 2011-2012 seasons were sterling, but things like a LD% spike and velocity decline early last year are concerning. It’s tough to know how much of those regressions were due to previous overuse and a shredded elbow, but Venters will certainly start in low-leverage situations and, if all goes well, may work his way back into a setup role by the end of the year. A lot of things have to go right, though.

Looking up the totem pole
Wirfin Obispo
Ryan Buchter

The owner of one of my favorite names in all of baseball, Obispo whiffed over a quarter of the batters he faced at Triple-A Gwinnett last year. He also was a little Carlos Marmol-esque in the walks department, but Atlanta stashed the 29-year-old on their 40-man to protect him this offseason. He’ll likely get a fairly long look in spring training and would be an interesting source of whiffs if he could make the big league squad.

Buchter is another tantalizing minor-league option. The lefty whiffed nearly 40% of all hitters he faced while paired with Obispo in Gwinnett’s bullpen. Of course, if he isn’t going to strike you out, you should probably just not swing. To go along with that elite whiff rate, Buchter gave a free pass to 18% of the guys he faced. Add the strikeouts and walks together and what do you get? A guy who “let” 56.2% of his opposing hitters… well… not put the ball in play. Kyle Boddy had an interesting writeup about Buchter last year in the Hardball Times. It’s worth a read. Also now on the 40-man, he’s another name to keep an eye on in NL-only or deep mixed leagues.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Any chance Avilan’s stuff would allow him to be converted into a starter? I know the Braves have no shortage of starters, but with his ability to retire batters from both sides of the plate, might he get a look at some point?