Reynaldo López happy to join ‘great vibe, atmosphere’ of Braves’ organization

Cleveland Guardians relief pitcher Reynaldo López throws against the Detroit Tigers in the eighth inning of a baseball game, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Detroit. The Atlanta Braves signed right-hander Reynaldo López to a $25 million, three-year contract on Monday, Nov. 20, that includes an $8 million club option for 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Credit: Paul Sancya

Credit: Paul Sancya

Cleveland Guardians relief pitcher Reynaldo López throws against the Detroit Tigers in the eighth inning of a baseball game, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Detroit. The Atlanta Braves signed right-hander Reynaldo López to a $25 million, three-year contract on Monday, Nov. 20, that includes an $8 million club option for 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

As a boy, Reynaldo López grew up playing baseball on modest grass fields in the Dominican Republic. He had only one pair of tennis shoes. He played every day.

His family didn’t live a lavish lifestyle. His road wasn’t easy.

And yet, on Monday, López sat at Truist Park and addressed local media over Zoom after signing a three-year contract worth $30 million guaranteed with the Braves, who will have World Series expectations next season and beyond.

“Being (from) humble beginnings, it’s a blessing to be able to do this,” López said through interpreter Rafael Becerra. “Looking forward to what’s coming. But very, very fortunate to be in this position with my family.”

López, who turns 30 years old in January, will make $4 million in 2024, and $11 million in each of the following two seasons. And, yes, he has agreed to donate 1% of his salary to the Atlanta Braves Foundation.

He brought his family with him to Atlanta because this, he said, was a big day. The contract became official.

In López, the Braves are getting a terrific late-inning reliever and another power arm in a bullpen that is now full of them.

But wait.

Actually, he might be more than that.

Perhaps he can also start games for them. We’ll get to that.

But first, this: López is the first significant free-agent splash for Atlanta this offseason – not including the relievers the Braves re-signed. More moves could be coming, as Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has been active thus far.

“It’s a competitive team,” López said of the Braves. “I always looked at it as I knew that they’re competitive about this. There’s a great vibe and atmosphere of wanting to win. People that I spoke to – my inner circle and friends – and when my agent said that there was an opportunity, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Bullpen and rotation

López is a shutdown reliever but the Braves also have a need in their rotation. They think he might be able to help them in both ways.

Lopez will prepare as a starting pitcher this winter. In spring training, the Braves plan to stretch him out as a starter. By the end of spring, they’ll decide on a role that best helps them.

“I was open to both options,” López said. “If somebody was looking for a starter or a reliever, both options were open.”

The Braves like López’s versatility. In 2018, he made 32 starts for the White Sox, then backed that up by logging 32 in 2019. So he possesses durability. But his stuff has also improved since his days as a full-time starter.

López had a 3.27 ERA this year. While pitching for three teams, he fanned 83 batters in 66 innings. Over his career, which began in 2016 for the Nationals, he has a 4.32 ERA.

López features a fastball that averages 98 mph, and mainly complements it with a hard sider. He also throws a changeup and a curveball, but doesn’t use either much. His 29.9% strikeout rate this season ranked in the 10th percentile in baseball, according to Baseball Savant.

From 2016 through 2020, López had an ERA around 5.00 over 490 2/3 frames.

Since then?

A 3.15 ERA over 189 frames. He throws harder. He strikes out batters at a higher rate. He walked too many hitters in 2023, but traditionally has not walked a ton of guys.

“I’m a different person from when I started,” López said. “A lot of it has been focus, the mindset, and also just the player maturity, being here for a bit now.”

The Braves have Max Fried, Spencer Strider and Charlie Morton locked into their rotation for 2024. They need starting pitching this winter, but the market is sure to be competitive. Aaron Nola, for example, has already re-signed with the Phillies.

Before signing López, Anthopoulos, through trades and non-tenders, opened 10 spots on the 40-man roster. The Braves seem poised to be aggressive in free agency and the trade market. They should have more money to spend. (A note on that: López’s $4 million salary could give them extra flexibility this season before he makes more the next two years.)

Perhaps López is part of the solution in the rotation for Atlanta. If so, the signing would look even better.

If not, then, well, the Braves still brought in a nasty late-inning reliever.

Anthopoulos’ takeaway

On his Zoom call after the season ended, Anthopoulos said something interesting.

“As I sit here today – I’m not gonna share it, just because from a competitive standpoint, it’s gonna shape our offseason and some of the things that we do – but I definitely have a specific takeaway in terms of how we might approach the offseason, what we might do,” Anthopoulos said.

The Braves’ offseason isn’t over yet, but it’s fair to wonder: Could that takeaway be that his team needed more velocity and stuff in its bullpen?

Maybe it is something different, but the Braves have been aggressive in ensuring they have a great bullpen next season and beyond.

The Braves’ bullpen performed well in the National League Division Series against the Phillies, but the Phillies’ bullpen – full of high-velocity arms – neutralized Atlanta’s offense. A terrific bullpen can be a great equalizer, or a separator, during the regular season and in October.

Telling numbers: In 2023, López threw 740 pitches that registered at 96 mph or harder. The Braves’ relievers, on the other hand, ranked 28th in the sport (for bullpens) with 543 such pitches.

Immediately, López gives the Braves more velocity and stuff – two key qualities, especially in the postseason.

López joins Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, Pierce Johnson and Joe Jiménez as relievers who throw hard. Aaron Bummer, acquired last week, has shown an ability to get ground balls and strikeouts.

The Braves left this season searching for answers on their second straight first-round exit. They have a championship-caliber roster. They have said payroll will increase, which should help them in their pursuit of another ring.

This is a new situation for López.

He debuted with the Nationals in 2016. He then pitched for the White Sox until last season, when the Angels acquired him. Then Cleveland claimed him after the Angels placed him on waivers.

Finally, he will pitch for a contender. (We should note, though, that the 2016 Nationals won the National League East crown.)

“It’s very different,” López said of his new situation. “This past season I faced them, and they just looked like they knew that they wanted to win at all times. Now to be on this side and be part of it, looking forward to it and can’t wait. The vibe around the whole organization is positive. It’s great to be part of that, and can’t wait to get out there.”

Humble beginnings

In a 2018 Chicago Tribune story, López talked about his humble beginnings. He said his grandfather once surprised him by buying new baseball equipment with money earned by selling the family’s two cows.

His grandfather died four months ago, but his grandmother made the trip to Atlanta with the rest of the family as López’s contract became official.

“We’re very, very, very grateful,” López said Monday at Truist Park.

When López was younger, a coach noticed something in him.

He began as a catcher. Then he pitched. Eventually, he signed with the Nationals out of his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.

He always grew up a huge baseball fan.

“I watched the game, I watched Pedro Martinez (and said), ‘I want to be that guy’ and just worked over the years,” López said.

It led him to Monday, when he signed a multi-year deal with one of baseball’s best teams.

Marcell Ozuna and López are both represented by the same agent at Creative Artists Agency. After the season, Ozuna reached out to their agent.

“Hey, we need him on this team,” Ozuna told their agent.