Relievers come and go, but Braves remain confident in bullpen

Not a sight the Braves want to see in 2021: One Will Smith - the Braves reliever - is dejected while the other Will Smith - of the Los Angeles Dodgers - trots by after his home run in last season's NLCS. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Not a sight the Braves want to see in 2021: One Will Smith - the Braves reliever - is dejected while the other Will Smith - of the Los Angeles Dodgers - trots by after his home run in last season's NLCS. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Even by the unstable standards of major league roster building, the bullpen is a wildly fickle subset. There is more turnover down there than a bus stop. Relievers come and go in bunches, names on a jersey that should be attached by Velcro.

In the case of the Braves, for instance, in the six seasons since parting with Craig Kimbrell, they’ve had five different saves leaders. They have ranged from Jason Grilli to Mark Melancon, with a Jim Johnson here and an Arodys Vizcaino there.

When it comes to middle innings, well, that’s just a mosh pit. Or a compost heap, according to how the season goes.

“That’s the one thing about bullpens in today’s game, you’re not going to have a lot of consistency. That’s just the nature of the business, the way the industry is,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

And someone else again will have to be the Braves’ saves leader in 2021, Melancon having skipped off to San Diego. Which leads to one of the few slightly heated questions for the team this spring: How will the roles of this bullpen shake out in the absence of Melancon, Darren O’Day and still free-agent Shane Greene; and who will it rely upon to apply the finishing nails in the ninth inning?

With those notable exceptions, the cast bears some resemblance to that of last season. Now, will its production be similar? There’s the rub. As constructed by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the ‘pen was a verifiable strength. It ranked fourth in the majors in bullpen ERA, 3.50, while accounting for 21 more total innings than the starting staff. How that balance will play out over a more normal season and a presumably steadier starting rotation remains to be seen.

Starter Max Fried certainly doesn’t believe he’ll be working without a net this season. “We still have a lot of those guys in the ‘pen,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have your stuff that day you know you have a lot of really great arms in the ‘pen that can back you up.”

Among those with arms raised to play a big part in hog-tieing those last precious outs:

Will Smith – 48 career saves in two seasons with San Francisco before signing a three-year, $39 million deal with the Braves in 2020.

Chris Martin – he pitched to a 1.00 ERA as a set-up guy last season, and he would rather eat kale than walk anyone (has issued only four walks in 35-2/3 innings with the Braves the past two seasons).

A.J. Minter – brought his considerable stuff to heel last year.

Tyler Matzek – best story on the team, a former Texas Air Hog who was the most versatile bullpen arm for the Braves. Matzek and Minter each finished in the top 10 among National League left-handed relievers in ERA and WHIP.

Add a Josh Tomlin who can throw in any inning ever invented. And there is promise in the likes of Grant Dayton (2.52 ERA in 32 appearances for the Braves the past two seasons) and Jacob Webb (10 scoreless appearances last season). And intrigue in Carl Edwards, signed to a minor league contract after putting up a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks over a sporadic six years in the majors.

And there is an entire spring for someone else to step up and surprise, as did Matzek a year ago. “We don’t even know who that is yet,” Snitker said.

That’s why they report to ballfields in Florida this time of year rather than pool bars in Cabo.

“We got dominant arms throughout this whole system,” Smith said. “I think guys will roll in, do their job and not really think too much of it.”

Then, in a flurry of fraternal nicknames, he added, “Webby showed what he could do last year with his fastball/change-up mix. We still got Matzy, Mint, Dayton. We got a bunch of guys down there who can get big outs in big situations, so hopefully it is a strength for us this year.”

The message here is that the Braves are going to be able to build a fine, sturdy bridge to the final inning with their current crew. What was a strength with this team can be a strength again.

Start with Smith and work backward from there. Everything falls nicely into place if he is able to return to the closing role. His issues with the long ball – eight of the 13 hits he yielded last season (postseason included) were home runs – were no secret.

“The balls just kept leaving the park,” he said, confident enough that he laughed Saturday as he said it.

In coronavirus quarantine, Smith missed all of July while baseball was restarting, and he was slow to return to form. Hard to work on the slider when throwing to the potted plants in your backyard.

He’s sugarcoating nothing coming to camp this time on time with everyone else. “I take pride in being a good self-evaluator, and I didn’t think I was very good last year. I guess I wanted to prove myself, show these guys what I could do and coming back from COVID and everything. I was trying too hard, too soon. I kind of fell into that trap,” he said.

The closer role is there for the taking, and certainly, as Smith said, “It’s obviously cool to be the guy who gets to shake the catcher’s hand at the end of the game.”

“But if we win and I throw in the seventh or eighth inning, I don’t really care,” he said. “Whoever gets those last three outs, let’s do it, man. We’re trying to win as many games as possible. If you check your ego at the door every day and get your outs, you’ll have a successful bullpen.”

“We have some good options in our ‘pen to close out games. How we’ll do that, we’ll just see how we get there,” Snitker said.

“We have two or three guys down there who have been through that and experienced it and see how it plays out. Might be we use two or three guys to close out games. Hopefully we need a bunch of them, we have so many leads. I’ve got every confidence in the world if we turn to Will to do that, he can handle that.”

No matter the ever-changing composition of that strange, separate world on the other side of the outfield gate, the Braves remain bullish on the bullpen.

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