LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Braves have two relievers with major league closer experience and another with a fastball that regularly reaches or exceeds 100 mph, but there are no plans to go with a closer-by-committee or have an open competition for the closer job this spring.
Barring injury or other unexpected development before opening day, veteran Jim Johnson will be the Braves’ closer when the season begins. That’s what they had in mind when they signed him to a two-year extension worth at least $10 million on the final day of the 2016 season, and that hasn’t changed.
His main setup guys figure to be Arodys Vizcaino, who excelled in the closer role for about two months last season before injuries derailed his season just before the All-Star break, and second-year flamethrower Mauricio Cabrera, who throws harder than anyone in the majors other than all-everything closer Aroldis Chapman.
“JJ’s in great shape,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Hopefully he’s throwing the ball like he did when the season ended. … (Vizcaino) hasn’t done it in a long time. Viz has just got to be healthy. We just hope we get him through, and he’s healthy and back to being like he was when I got here last year in May. …
“Look at it right now, I don’t know why (Johnson wouldn’t be the closer), quite honestly. That guy was pretty good, and reliable and durable. Things change day-to-day as we know in this business. But gun to my head right now, yeah, probably would go that way.”
Johnson, 33, had a 3.06 ERA and 19 saves in 65 appearances, with 68 strikeouts and 20 walks in 64 2/3 innings. He thrived after moving from a setup role back to full-time closer in the second half, following the early-season trade of Jason Grilli and Vizcaino’s injuries.
Johnson posted a 1.65 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 12 walks in 49 innings over his final 48 games in 2016.
“Whatever the job title is,” Johnson said. “I mean, that (closer) is kind of what we talked about at the end of last year, by signing the extension with the team. But that doesn’t change my motivation at all, what my goal is to do, whatever I have to do to help the team win ballgames.
“Getting those big outs at the end of games is one of them. Guys put everything they’ve got to get to that point (team leading late) and all I’ve got to do is get a couple outs for them. It sounds easy; it’s not, but I enjoy it.”
He could have become a free agent, but Johnson re-upped with the Braves, getting a $1 million signing bonus and a $4.5 million salary for each of the next two seasons. He can make additional performances bonuses worth up to $1.75 million annually, bonuses basically tied to how much he serves in the closer role and how long he stays healthy.
He gets $250,000 for finishing 30 games, plus an additional $250,000 for each additional five games finished up to 60 per season. If, for example, Johnson finished 45 games in a season, he would get $1 million in bonus money.
The sinkerballer has a 2.72 ERA and 29 saves in 114 appearances for the Braves over two seasons, with 101 strikeouts and 34 walks in 112 2/3 innings.
Five days after after Johnson signed his extension, the Braves fired pitching coach Roger McDowell, whom Johnson credited for helping him get his career back on track in 2015. Chuck Hernandez, a former major league pitching coach with several teams, was promoted from Braves minor league pitching coordinator to replace McDowell.
The Braves also bolstered their pitching department by bringing back veteran pitching coaches Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, who served the past three seasons as pitching coach and bullpen coach, respectively, with the Orioles. Chiti is back as Braves director of pitching and Wallace as a special assistant to pitching.
“Roger and I had a good relationship,” Johnson said. “Most of my pitching coaches, I still keep in touch with casually. I actually had an opportunity to meet Chuck when he first came over to the organization a couple of years ago. We’ve always gotten along. We had a good long talk this offseason — he’s not far from me up in Tampa. And I crossed paths with Dom and Wally (Wallace).
“It’s funny, before I got traded (from Baltimore) to Oakland, Wally got hired as the pitching coach in Baltimore. We had a good long talk and, like, three days later, I got traded. And so … I was like, hey, I know you. He said, ‘Hey, we finally link up.’ It’s not just one guy here (coaching pitchers now), there’s a lot of resources. And I’m expecting myself to also be a resource for guys on the team, as well. And I think that also is the same with some of the other (veterans) that were brought in.”