Max Fried had done his job, or at least the job of a starting pitcher in the less-is-enough 21st century. He’d gone six innings. He yielded two runs. When he left, his team led by three runs. His team – the Braves – would lose by four.
That happened Tuesday night. Wednesday afternoon brought these not-glad tidings: Arodys Vizcaino had undergone shoulder surgery and stands to miss the rest of the season.
Braves after 16 games. Up a creek?
Maybe they should have seen some of this coming – more about that in a bit – but no team sets its 25-man roster with the expectation that its closer will throw his last pitch April 7. Had the Braves known that Vizcaino’s shoulder was damaged to this extent, they’d surely have non-tendered over the winter, as opposed to handing him $4.8 million to avoid arbitration. Remember, though: This is the Vizcaino who was touching 98 mph in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Said general manager Alex Anthopoulos, speaking Wednesday: “For what we went into the offseason with, just the available relievers going into spring training, we viewed coming out of spring in some capacity with Darren O’Day; Sam Freeman pitched really well for us at the end of the year and changed his arm action in the spring (and has since been cut); obviously Viz being down; (Dan) Winkler was optioned; Jonny Venters is hurt now and was really having success early. That’s five guys we thought we could have broken (camp) with. There’s been a ton of turnover there. … I think it goes without saying we’re going to look to do what we can, internally and externally.”
No duh. But even if we ascribe Vizcaino’s loss to the vagaries of the human arm, which cannot always be predicted, was some of what ails this bullpen … er, predictable? Winkler and Freeman didn’t make the postseason roster. Neither did Shane Carle nor Luke Jackson. (Touki Toussaint and Max Fried, now in the starting rotation, were preferred as October relievers.) Venters is 34 and has had, in his words, 3-1/2 rounds of Tommy John surgery. O’Day is 36 and missed the second half of last season with a torn hamstring; he’s now suffering from forearm tightness.
Anthopoulos: “The last two months of the year, we were slightly above average in MLB in terms of bullpen ERA. We were 13th after the trade deadline, middle of the pack in the NL. We felt like there would be some upside to some of the young guys, who would continue to come on and emerge.”
Then: “It’s too early to tell ultimately about the free-agent market this past winter, what it’s going to look like at the end of six months. A reliever has one or two bad outings and that ERA ends up getting inflated. We explored a lot of things. We elected not to pursue some things for various reasons, which unfortunately I can’t get into, whether it would be health, makeup, term (of contract) – all those things. But we definitely look back. It’s too early right now to say, ‘You know what? This is the one guy we should have (gotten).’ You ask me in June or July, I’ll probably have a more detailed answer.”
The Braves have a mostly excellent everyday eight and two super-utility guys in Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson. They’ve had to mix and match to fill out their rotation, but they have enough good arms to keep them afloat deep into games. But what happens then? Their bullpen has already blown three saves and suffered three losses. Their relievers’ ERA is 5.43, more than a full run worse than the starters’ 4.20. And now there’s no Viz to work the ninth.
Holy. And moly.
Said manager Brian Snitker, speaking of the relievers he has left: “They all have the stuff to do this job. They all have the weapons and the ability to do it. You’ve got to have the skin of an alligator; you’ve got to have a short memory. You’ve got to go out there and trust what you have going for you, that the reason you’re here is going to be good enough. Again, that’s easy for me to sit here at 4:30 (p.m.) and say. At 9:30, it’s a completely different animal. But the only way we’re going to know is to put them out there in these situations and see.”
Then: “We’re going to keep running guys out there, but where do you plug them in?”
Let’s say A.J. Minter, who yielded the game-losing runs in the ninth Tuesday in a non-save situation, assumes Vizcaino’s role. Who works the eighth, or the seventh, or the sixth? And if the guys currently viewed as relievers can’t do the job, do the Braves try to turn some of their young starters into non-starters? Could Toussaint be redeployed? Could Sean Newcomb, who throws hard but was just demoted for a lack of command?
Now to those two loaded words.
There’s a reason the great closer is unemployed. His asking price was too high, and every MLB club noted his dip in velocity and spike in walk rate toward the end of last season. Even if he has indeed lowered his demands, both in dollars and length of contract, there’s always the example of other big-ticket relievers who’ve turned out to be busts. If they don’t pan out for you, you wind up eating the contract and cutting them, which no team is eager to do. (Also: If Kimbrel signs before the June draft, the team that signs him will lose a draft pick.)
This you should know: The Braves are fully aware that Kimbrel is out there. There’s a chance he could end up back here. It’s not apt to happen tomorrow or next week, but it could happen. Desperation can make for strange bedfellows. The Braves tried hard Wednesday to act as if they’re not desperate, but they could be soon.
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