Alex Anthopoulos hopes quantity turns into quality for Braves bullpen

Atlanta Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos delivers the State of the Team Address in The Roxy at The Battery in Atlanta, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.  Branden Camp/Special to AJC

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Atlanta Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos delivers the State of the Team Address in The Roxy at The Battery in Atlanta, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Branden Camp/Special to AJC

The Braves can’t bank on another Tyler Matzek-style ascension, but a good story or two would do wonders for the bullpen.

After boasting an excellent reliever group in 2020, the Braves enter this season with a little more uncertainty surrounding their bullpen. Accomplished veterans Mark Melancon (Padres), Darren O’Day (Yankees) and Shane Greene (unsigned) left via free agency, putting a dent in what arguably was the deepest reliever ensemble in the majors.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos, discussing the bullpen during an interview Friday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, acknowledged it will be difficult to replace that trio.

“Melancon, O’Day, Greene, what they’ve done in their careers - you start to look now at the seasons they had,” Anthopoulos said. “O’Day had a 1.00 ERA. Melancon was the closer for us and did a really nice job. It’s tough to replace that.”

If the Braves are going to maintain a top-tier bullpen, they’re going to need production from lesser-known sources. They don’t have the experience or numbers that they had a season ago, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a substantial drop-off. Still, it puts the club in a worse position. The Braves’ biggest offseason bullpen addition was retaining long-reliever Josh Tomlin. They added several low-cost relievers worth a look, but none would be deemed an equal to Melancon or Greene.

The bottom line: Entering the season, the Braves simply don’t have the number of reliable relievers they did last season. That’s understandably concerning for a team with World Series aspirations.

“You always want more,” Anthopoulos told The AJC. “You want it to be eight deep, nine deep (in the bullpen). So we need some of these other young guys to take a step the same way (A.J.) Minter bounced back. Whether that’s a Sean Newcomb, a Jacob Webb or a (Touki) Toussaint or some of these other guys, the (non-roster invitees) in camp. Someone comes up and takes a spot.”

The veteran departures increase responsibilities for some of the remaining players. Matzek goes from an unexpected contributor to a necessary component. A.J. Minter, who rejuvenated his career last season, goes from a luxury to a crucial piece. Chris Martin needs to continue staying in the strike zone, as he’s done his entire Braves tenure. But the most important individual is lefty Will Smith, who’s coming off an underwhelming season in which he was delayed from the get-go by COVID-19. He must recapture his 2019 All-Star form as he shifts into the primary closer role.

Anthopoulos said getting more out of Smith should “take some of the load off” other pitchers. But Martin, Minter and Matzek will be almost as important.

“Those guys all get elevated now into more important roles,” he said. “So now everybody moves up a little bit. In terms of late-inning guys we’re counting on, Matzek, Minter, Martin, Smith and some of the years they had, those are the four. Can we get a fifth or a sixth? Will someone else emerge and do well?”

That’s the biggest question, and one Anthopoulos himself can’t yet answer. The Braves, operating with a smaller payroll, invested most of their offseason resources into the rotation and slugger Marcell Ozuna, putting the bullpen further down the list of priorities. It’s led the Braves to hoping that somebody like Webb or Newcomb – or perhaps a non-roster invitee such as Carl Edwards or Nate Jones – can contribute beyond expectations.

Whether a pitcher or two blossoms in the bunch will determine the bullpen’s fate. Anthopoulos has stated numerous times he doesn’t want to be in a position where he’s scrambling at the trade deadline to address a need. There’s a risk he’ll be in that position in July, but he’s optimistic somebody will make the most of their opportunity.

“You look at what Jacob Webb did for us in 2019, he had a 1.00 ERA until he got hurt,” Anthopoulos said. “He finally made it back and made it to the playoff roster for us. So maybe he continues to come on. Sean Newcomb, his first outing in spring training he was 94-97 mph. He looked great. He did a nice job for us as basically a full-time reliever in 2019. Maybe he ends up being the guy who’s going to emerge. I remember we had Brett Cecil in Toronto (when Anthopoulos was the Blue Jays’ GM) who was a starter for a long time, up and down, and finally when he was converted to the bullpen full-time, he emerged and became a really good reliever. I don’t know that that’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

The Braves are left crossing their fingers, hoping individuals rise to the occasion and/or an avenue to upgrade presents itself. Realistically, not every area of the team can be fully addressed in the offseason. The Braves have a nice base with their four most important relievers, and they’re hoping there’s another Matzek or Minter around the corner.

“We’re going to need some good stories there to have a deep group,” Anthopoulos said.