Like sands through the hourglass, so are the arms of the Braves bullpen, apparently.
They welcomed another ingredient to their bullpen mix Monday, acquiring veteran righty Anthony Swarzak from Seattle in exchange for the lesser-needed duo of Jesse Biddle, who’d been designated for assignment, and Arodys Vizcaino, who was done for the season.
The Braves, as planned, have shuffled through a lengthy list of relievers over the first 47 games. Already we’ve seen expected contributors entering spring — Sam Freeman, Vizcaino, Biddle — jettisoned, while external adds — Josh Tomlin, Jerry Blevins — playing important roles.
Does this turnover surprise the Braves’ manager? No, and despite losing contributors from a season ago, Brian Snitker believes the group is beginning to solve its woes.
“We came out of spring with a bunch of young, inexperienced guys again,” Snitker said. “Guys with options. We told them the first day we met with them, ‘You guys have options. Don’t be surprised if this thing is mixed and matched a bit.’
“I feel like we’re quietly doing a pretty good job of trying some guys and finding out about some guys. Internally, I feel like we’re putting something together that can be pretty good.”
Part of the solution is Luke Jackson, the much-maligned righty who’s now closing games. That’s beyond surprising - in fact, following his opening-day shellacking, most wouldn’t have bet on him even being on the roster in mid-May.
Relievers can be likened to running backs. It’s a volatile position, often with a short shelf life and considered a ticking time bomb in free agency. Smart organizations will get the most they can from an accumulated selection of arms and avoid rewarding heftier deals for past performance, instead opting to take full advantage of pitchers with options remaining.
The Braves are a poster child for this, as are the Dodgers, whose front office included Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos before he took his talents south. That’s another reason why pleas for free agent Craig Kimbrel will likely go ignored. The Braves will think more along the lines of Swarzak-level acquisitions than premium investment in a player whose performance isn’t likely trending upward.
Justifiably, there’s a you-get-what-you-pay-for element to this line of thinking. But the Braves bullpen was relatively successful a season ago (until the end, when its key arms burned out) without notable names. Bullpens can make or break a season, yes — but building a successful one is more about fit and a tweak here or there that draws out a player’s best performance.
Which is where Swarzak comes in. No. 1, the Braves are taking a no-risk, moderate-reward flier here. Vizcaino wasn’t going to pitch for the team again, while Biddle had simply lost what made him successful a season ago. Swarzak, at worst case, answers fan demands for addressing a need. Trade season hasn’t yet sprung, so this time of add is realistically the best the Braves can muster at this time.
“He’s had success, he’s a major league reliever with experience,” Snitker said. “I look at him in the same way as when (Kevin) Gausman came (via trade last July). Maybe we get him in our system and some of the things they get on these pitchers nowadays, the TrackMan, things like that, maybe we can figure something out or have something to help him maximize what he’s got going on.”
Snitker also pointed to Jackson, who works out with Swarzak, as an example of an arm groomed by the Braves’ system. That organizational structure, of course, is centered on analytical adjustments and general culture.
The Braves are trying to become a destination franchise. Not necessarily in the sense of attracting free agents, but being a team where players can maximize their ability and rebuild their value. Whether or not Swarzak becomes the latest nod to that environment, there’s only one way to find out.
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