Arodys Vizcaino’s decision to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery only magnifies the Braves’ apparent weakness. The bullpen, down its co-closer and other expected contributors, is enigmatic in ways that could spoil the team’s postseason run.
The Braves didn’t address their relief group this winter, drawing the ire of their fan base, instead prioritizing the offense. They signed Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, the former of whom pushed Johan Camargo into a utility role that strengthened the bench.
After considering the pluses and minuses of several pitchers, the Braves opted against investing resources – be that money or prospects – in relievers. By their view, they had admirable depth with young starters. The prices didn’t align for another move, a less-than-ideal but acceptable outcome given where the Braves believed they were.
What they didn’t expect: They’d be down five guys by mid-April. Darren O’Day has yet to pitch and currently is shut down. Sam Freeman altered his arm action in the spring, dipping his velocity and leading the Braves to jettisoning him from the mix (he’s now with the Angels). Jonny Venters had a terrible start and now sits on the injured list. Dan Winkler had a tough spring and just came back up. Vizcaino is finished for the season.
“That’s five guys we thought we would’ve broke with if you’d asked us in the winter,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “There’s been a ton of turnover there. We’re going to look to do some things if we can.”
One potential help perpetually screamed from the rooftops: free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Fans have clamored for the All-Star and beloved former Brave since the winter, especially since the team re-signed Nick Markakis and declared its now infamous “financial flexibility” to improve in other areas.
But the Braves aren’t in a sentimental business. Signing Kimbrel, who’s attached with a qualifying offer, would cost them the 60th overall pick and the roughly $1.115M bonus pool slot money. Given the franchise’s severe limitations in the international market until 2021, that selection and its slot are of even more premium value.
In that case, it’s hard to imagine the Braves signing Kimbrel before June’s draft. If he signs afterward, he won’t cost his new employer a pick. That’s significant for small-and-mid market clubs, especially in this unique circumstance.
Aside from the collateral effects, there’s a reason Kimbrel hasn’t signed. The Braves and other teams haven’t met his demands, and at this point a Kimbrel reunion still seems unlikely. Reports have indicated the righty still wants three years, which is a commitment the Braves won’t make.
A match would require his asking price, in terms of money and years, to dip into the Braves’ range; thus far, that hasn’t been the case, and with other contenders as desperate for bullpen help, it seems far-fetched Kimbrel will ultimately settle for what the Braves would propose.
Outside of Kimbrel, there aren’t any clear candidates to improve the bullpen from the outside. A.J. Minter, who gave up the game-winning homer Tuesday, likely will get most of the closing chances. But he won’t handle that role exclusively, and the Braves simply need their own pitchers to produce.
“It’s definitely more challenging (to add guys in April),” Anthopoulos said. “We’ve had a lot of turnover there from what we thought we’d break with. … It goes without saying, we’re going to look to do what we can, both internally and externally.”
Chad Sobotka has the stuff of a closer, but inconsistency has plagued his season. Jesse Biddle a similar story. Luke Jackson has improved since opening day, but it’s OK to be reluctant to buy-in. Shane Carle struggled mightily before going to Triple-A Gwinnett. Wes Parsons has been a pleasant surprise, but a relative unknown nonetheless.
O’Day still doesn’t have a timetable. Luiz Gohara is again obsolete. Grant Dayton eventually will factor in, though he’s another unknown. In other words, even if they land Kimbrel, the bridge getting to him is still shaky.
The Braves presumably will try to add from the outside, and eventually trading for help feels like the likeliest outcome here, but they’ll sink or swim with in-house arms for now. That might be a scary proposition, but it’s the current state of affairs.
“You hope guys step up and take advantage of the opportunities they’re going to get,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s how you find people, find your next wave of guys. You give them the opportunity. A.J. has done it before. But we’re going to have to be careful with him and not ride him too hard. So that being said, there will be opportunities for other guys to try it out.”
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