After trades and injuries, Braves bullpen has fallen hard

CHICAGO – It’s been a long time since the Braves looked as bad as they do right now or since they’ve had a bullpen as diminished and ineffective as the current unit.

When the Braves blew a 7-3 lead in Saturday’s 9-7 loss to the Cubs, it was the the sixth time they lost a game after holding a lead of four or more runs, tying the most such defeats in the majors. It was also the most such losses for the Braves in any season since 1987.

The last three of those runs came on solo homers against a pair of Braves relievers – rookie left-hander Matt Marksberry gave up the tying run on a homer in the sixth, and journeyman Edwin Jackson served up homers on consecutive pitches in the eighth to put his former team ahead, 9-7.

Braves rookie starter Williams Perez was bad Saturday — six runs in 4 2/3 innings — but the loss went to Jackson on another rough day in a brutal season for a patchwork bullpen. Braves relievers had a major league-high 21 blown saves in 58 chances before Sunday’s series finale against the Cubs, and their 43 homers allowed was the second-most among NL bullpens, one fewer than the atlitude-challenged Rockies (44) hads allowed.

The Braves’ 4.29 bullpen ERA ranked 26th in the majors and was second-highest in the NL, better than only Colorado’s 5.05.

It’s been a steep decline for a Braves bullpen that was second in the majors in bullpen ERA in 2012 (2.76) and led the majors in 2013 (2.76). Braves relievers slipped to 11th in the majors with a 3.31 ERA last season, and the organization’s winter and spring overhaul included trading away closer Craig Kimbrel along with setup men Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and relievers Anthony Varvaro, left-hander Chasen Shreve and swing man David Hale.

In almost every case those relievers were traded as part of deals that brought prospects, moves the Braves are confident will put the organization in better position in coming years. But the immediate effect has been hard to watch.

The Braves have a handful of relievers in Florida now, rehabbing from surgeries, and they are counting on most or all of them to be cogs in next year’s bullpen. Among them: Rule 5 pick Daniel Winkler, recovering from Tommy John surgery, had a 1.41 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 70 innings last season with the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate; Chris Withrow, recovering from TJ and back surgeries after posting a 2.73 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 56 innings over parts of two seasons with the Dodgers; and lefty Paco Rodriguez, who has a 2.53 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings with the Dodgers over parts of the past four seasons and could join the Braves in September.

Other Braves pitchers injured this season who should factors in next year’s bullpen: Shae Simmons and lefty Brady Feigl, who had Tommy John surgeries in February and April, respectively; and Brandon Cunniff, who impressed early this season before shoulder problems.

The Braves also plan to add an established veteran or two this offseason, probably along the lines of last year’s signings of Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson.

The Braves signed a handful of veteran relievers last winter to help get them through this season, but none of the lesser ones signed to minor league contracts worked out. The two still-effective relievers they signed to bigger contracts, Grilli and Johnson, met or exceeded expectations in the first half of the season, but in July Grilli sustained a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon and Johnson was traded to the Dodgers.

Lefty Luis Avilan was also traded to the Dodgers in that deal, which made it all five of the Braves’ top relievers from last season who’d been traded since October, along with several other contributors.

What’s left in the aftermath is a bullpen made up almost exclusively of rookies or well-traveled journeyman.

The Braves have used an astounding 29 pitchers in at least one relief appearance this season, and 13 of them have ERAs of 5.40 or higher as relievers, including 10 at 6.46 or higher. Twelve have an opponents’ batting average of .300 or higher as relievers, including five at .385 or higher.

They have three lefties in the bullpen for the first time in recent memory, but those lefties – former starter Ross Detwiler, rookies Marksberry and Andrew McKirahan – have a combined opponents’ average of .487 (19-for-39) in the late innings of close games, including McKirahan’s 10-for-20 and Marksberry’s 6-for-12 with four doubles.

Marksberry, who started the season at Single-A Carolina, is 0-2 with a 5.73 ERA in 11 appearances for the Braves, with two blown saves and a couple of incidents at first base where he was late covering or out of position. He’s been solid against lefty batters (.174, 4-for-23), but right-handers have torched him at a .409 clip (9-for-22).

“It’s like thrown into the fire, I guess you could say,” Marksberry said. “Keep working. I mean, metal is forged in fire, you know?”

Last week, Marksberry said in a Tweet that he couldn’t believe how much hatred there was on Twitter. He’s been the target of harsh criticism there.

“For me, I’m just going to keep doing my job, not worry what people say,” he said. “Worry about what the organization says, not worry about what fans or whatever say. I’m just going to go out there and do my part, try to do better and help the club out. Because I want to be part of this future, and I feel like if I keep my head on straight and look forward instead of focusing on the negativity and stuff behind me, and the two bad outings I had, keep plugging forward and try to get better each day. If I can look back at the end of the season and go, hey, I did everything I could. I didn’t have the (statistics) that I wanted, but I did everything I could, then I’ll be happy with it.”

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