Braves relievers embrace high expectations

Braves pitcher Mark Melancon delivers a pitch working from the mound during spring training on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in North Port.  Curtis Compton

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Braves pitcher Mark Melancon delivers a pitch working from the mound during spring training on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in North Port. Curtis Compton

If the Braves capture their third consecutive National League East title, if they finally reach that elusive NL Championship Series (or further), it means a well-compensated bullpen lived up to its billing.

This spring differs from recent years for reasons beyond Orlando versus North Port. The Braves came to camp with a bullpen mostly set, rather than rolling the dice and crossing their fingers that the unknown proves enough.

“It’s going to be (deep), we knew that coming in,” manager Brian Snitker said. “A lot of our offseason acquisitions were designed on strengthening the bullpen, and we did that. If we keep everybody healthy, we should be in good shape.”

Will Smith, Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and Darren O’Day are former All-Stars. Chris Martin is a command savant who avoids those pesky walks that have plagued the Braves in the past. Those five immediately provide resumes and credibility the Braves haven’t had during the first two seasons of their rebirth.

Strikeout-laden Luke Jackson can settle into his better-suited middle-relief role. Long-relief man Josh Tomlin was re-signed when pitchers and catchers reported to Florida last week. Both were unheralded heroes of last season, when the Braves won 97 games.

“It makes it a heck of a lot easier,” Martin said of the depth. “It takes pressure off guys. You can just go out there and focus on your inning wherever that’s going to be. Hopefully we feed off each other down there. That’s how a good bullpen works.”

If each of the aforementioned players make the roster, as expected, that’s seven relievers locked in. That leaves one spot up for grabs, perhaps for the promising Jacob Webb or, if the team prefers another lefty, Grant Dayton, A.J. Minter or Philip Pfeifer.

The Braves haven’t been a bullpen-enriched franchise since the Kimbrel-Venters-O’Flaherty days. Even in those days, the group wasn’t so set in stone. Bullpens usually draw complaints from the fans. The Braves hope theirs will warrant more praise.

“On paper, we can compete with anybody,” Greene said. “But we still have to go out there and get guys out.”

Speaking of what’s on paper, the Braves’ active winter resulted in spending over $40 million on the foursome of Greene, Melancon, Smith and Martin. That’s an unprecedented amount for a team often criticized for its spending habits.

They signed Newnan native Smith, an All-Star last season, to a three-year, $39 million deal with a club option for 2023. They re-signed Martin, acquired at the trade deadline, to a two-year, $14 million deal shortly thereafter. The deal materialized quickly, given that Martin thought he was headed elsewhere after seeing Smith had signed.

“I was like, ‘Dang, great addition. There goes my chances to go back to Atlanta,’” said Martin, who now wears No. 55 after Smith swiped his former No. 51. “But I guess they’re really bolstering that bullpen. It’s going to take pressure off guys.”

The Braves additionally kept Melancon ($14 million) and Greene ($6.25 million), also added last July. O’Day was retained for just over $2 million. As a result, the Braves can claim more closing experience than any other bullpen in the NL. They hope they’ll get what they paid for.

“To feel 100 percent comfortable with any of us, it’s cool,” Melancon said. “Baseball has gone that way with loading up the back end (of the bullpen), which I think is smart because we are valuable even though we sit 400 feet away and don’t get to chime in too much. Outstanding job by (general manager) Alex (Anthopoulos) and the group.”

Melancon, 34, still holds the “closer” moniker, though that means little in February. He stressed that roles are inevitable but flexible, especially with this crop.

“Can he do that role? Of course. Can I do that role? Of course. Can Shane do that role? Of course,” Melancon said. “We have Chris, too. Jackson has done it. We’re powerful down there. That’s the end of the story. We don’t need anything else. Roles are roles to know so you know when to be prepared. It’s all going to fit, match, it’s good to know roles, but we’re capable of mixing and matching.”

The Braves underwent a few renovations outside the bullpen, including adding Travis d’Arnaud at catcher and Marcell Ozuna in the outfield, but their relief additions are what could make them a more dangerous team than a season ago.

The club is also better equipped for the postseason – should it get there – with a significantly deeper bullpen than its past two October attempts. And that’s what it’s about with this year’s group: Figuring out how to get over the hump. Maybe a super-charged bullpen is the answer.