Bradley’s Buzz: Braves’ bullpen remains a work in progress, as it needs to be

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker calls for a new pitcher while pulling starter Charlie Morton during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker calls for a new pitcher while pulling starter Charlie Morton during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Braves’ 26-man roster includes three pitchers who, as of Saturday, worked in other organizations. On Sunday, Daysbel Hernandez – a Brave since 2018 – made his big-league debut. For a team with MLB’s best record, that’s a slew of changes. It’s also a declaration of intent.

Everything this team does has meaning. These changes mean the Braves aren’t comfortable with their bullpen mix.

We stipulate that this bullpen has, in the main, been excellent. This collection of relievers has compiled the majors’ third-lowest ERA. That said, a playoff-bound team would want a clearer picture of who’ll be working what inning. Having done much already, Alex Anthopoulos still has work to do.

Though relievers will never lead a good team in WAR, most good teams will have a few relievers crack the top dozen. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, only one of the top 12 Braves is a reliever – Jesse Chavez, who ranks 11th and who last pitched June 14.

The COVID year of 2020 saw the Braves with five relievers – Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Tyler Matzek – among the team’s top WAR dozen. The 2021 World Series winners had three – Luke Jackson, Matzek and Will Smith. Last season’s 101-game winners had Collin McHugh and Minter.

With 63 games remaining, eight Braves relievers have made 25 or more appearances. Only Minter has more than 37. In 2021, four relievers worked at least 61 games. Those four – Smith, Jackson, Matzek and Minter – ruled the postseason. This team has found no such consistency.

Four relievers would be on pace to reach 57 appearances this season. We say “would be” because Minter and Nick Anderson are on the injured list. The other two: Kirby Yates and Joe Jimenez. Closer Raisel Iglesias has only two blown saves – that’s good! – but his ERA (3.94), WHIP (1.281) and batting-average-against (.248) aren’t the stuff of domination.

We pause to acknowledge the obvious: Any criticism of the 2023 Braves will seem a picked nit. That Anthopoulos, the general manager famous for dealing in deadline bulk, has already imported three pitchers – righty Pierce Johnson and lefty Taylor Hearn, plus righty sometime starter Yonny Chirinos – is a powerful indication he views the issue as more than trifling.

For deadline buyers, the idea is to leave as little to chance as is possible. (This being baseball, much will always be left to chance.) It’d be nigh-impossible to improve the Braves’ everyday nine. There’s enough starting pitching – assuming Max Fried is OK and Bryce Elder has something left – to win the World Series. To date, the Braves’ bullpen has been more than good enough. But is it October-good?

Minter figures to return soon, though he hasn’t been himself in 2023. Chavez and Anderson are on the 60-day IL. Hernandez struck out the side in his big-league debut; two nights later, he yielded three baserunners and two runs. We haven’t seen Johnson, Hearn and Chirinos as Braves, though the cost of acquisition – two middling minor-leaguers, cash considerations and a waiver claim – should temper expectations.

The Braves will play in October. The state of their bullpen figures to determine how long they stick around. (For the thousandth time: Postseasons come down to bullpens.) We’re six days from the deadline. The GM who found four outfielders in 2021 has ample time to land a half-dozen more relievers.

Slight exaggeration. But only slight.

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