If the Atlanta Braves are interested in signing Craig Kimbrel — and this remains a major “if” — they’d prefer to do it after the MLB draft. That way they wouldn’t lose the 60th overall pick and the slot money that comes with it, which is a major consideration for a club still hamstrung on the international market by MLB sanctions.
That said, the draft commences June 3, and we’re still in April. And this bullpen gets worse with every week
Much of the club’s initial resistance to Kimbrel had to do with need. He’s a ninth-inning guy, and the Braves believed they had a competent ninth-inning guy at less than one-third the price of what was believed to be Kimbrel’s reduced demand. But Arodys Vizcaino underwent shoulder surgery 12 days ago, closing the door on the closer’s 2019 season.
That left the job, albeit briefly, to A.J. Minter, who was slowed by a sore shoulder in spring training. On Saturday night, he started the ninth with the Braves leading 5-4. He retired two batters. He walked two and yielded two hits. He threw a wild pitch. His team lost, 9-5. He took both a blown save and the loss.
On Sunday, Minter started the ninth with the Braves leading 8-7. He retired one batter. He yielded two hits. He was pulled before he could blow another save and suffer another loss. Rule of thumb: When a manager is forced to pull his closer on consecutive days, he might need a different closer.
It’s possible the Braves could turn to Luke Jackson, who hasn’t been touched for an earned run since March 28. He has struck out 15 in 14 innings. His WHIP is down to 1.21, which is passable. Still, this is a 27-year-old with two career saves, one of which came Sunday. He worked 35 games here last season but was omitted from the NLDS roster. To suggest that Jackson, who has never been asked to take a regular turn as closer, is now the answer requires more than a leap of faith; it requires a bound of Bob-Beamon-in-Mexico-City proportions.
We’ve reached the point where bullpen stats should start to stabilize, assuming your bullpen is any good. As of Monday morning, the Braves relievers are 11th among National League teams in ERA, 13th in WHIP, 15th (meaning last) in walks and 12th in save percentage and OPS.
Now for Minter: His ERA is 9.35, his WHIP 2.08. His Baseball-Reference WAR value is minus-0.7. Maybe he’ll round into form, or maybe Jackson will become the new Kimbrel. But what if neither thing happens?
On Sunday, the Braves acquired left-hander Jerry Blevins from Oakland for the princely sum of $1. They put him to use, inserting him in the seventh inning. He recorded one out and walked a man. He’d signed a minor-league contract with the A’s and had been working for their Triple-A affiliate. The Braves will pay him $1.34 million — this according to the Associated Press — for the remainder of the season.
As Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told the AJC: “He was someone who was available, and we could get him pretty fast.”
The Braves have played 27 games, losing 14. They awoke Monday 2-1/2 games out of first place in the NL East; they were also a half-game ahead of fourth-place Washington. They can really hit — they lead the league in OPS — but they’ve lost eight of their past 12. In three of those four victories, they scored eight or more runs.
With Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka back in the rotation, the starting pitching should begin to do its bit. This being the 21st Century, every game will involve the bullpen to some extent, and the addition of Blevins tells us how desperate the Braves have become. He’s 35. He’d had a useful career as a LOOGY — left-handed one-out guy — but last year lefties hit him pretty hard, which is why he began this season with the Las Vegas Aviators.
The point being: The everyday eight is first-rate, and the rotation looks good enough. The bullpen, alas, has become the Island of Misfit Toys. Somebody is going to wind up with Kimbrel before the season is done, and there’s a chance that team could reside in the NL East. As we speak, it’s hard to make the case that the Braves’ need for a closer isn’t the most pressing in the division if not the entire sport.
Another argument against signing Kimbrel is that he’d need three/four weeks to get himself into game shape. Why sign him now if you won’t be able to use him until Memorial Day? That in mind, why not stick it out until the draft is done and keep your pick and slot money? And if you’ve waited that long, why even bother?
Answer: The longer the Braves go without a for-real big-league closer, the more they risk falling so far behind that a closer won’t make any difference. They’ve been lucky that nobody in the East has caught a flying start, but they can’t ride that luck forever. If it costs a draft pick, so be it. Even if Kimbrel isn’t available until the end of May, that’s better than the end of June.
Maybe Jackson or Blevins will do so well as to assuage all doubts. Maybe Minter will get himself squared away. Maybe Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb can be converted into relievers. The trouble with such scenarios is that, minus Vizcaino, a good team has been reduced to hoping against hope.
Even if Kimbrel costs a bundle, which he will, and even if he’s no longer Peak Kimbrel, which he mightn’t be, there’s a still a better chance of him making it through the ninth inning on a consistent basis than with any of the in-house alternatives. If the Braves are going to hire him, they need to do it now.
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