The Braves’ bullpen: Weakened, but not nearly weak

Three relievers who work for the Atlanta Braves — Jonny Venters, Jordan Walden and Eric O’Flaherty — received deflating medical news over the course of three days last week. Given that the Braves have had baseball’s best bullpen the past 2 1/4 seasons, we wonder if eminence has exacted too great a cost.

And yet, even as we ask if the Braves work their relievers to the point of injury, we must also pose the follow-up question: If overworking the bullpen is the price of winning games at a high rate, what’s the alternative? Resting relievers and being out of contention by Labor Day?

The Epic Collapse of September 2011 was made complete when the bullpen, by far the best part of those Braves, wobbled just enough — the great Craig Kimbrel blew three September saves — for St. Louis to pass them at the wire. It was widely noted that Venters, the All-Star set-up man, led the majors in appearances in 2011 with 85; Kimbrel tied for second-most with 79.

Damning as they were, those numbers didn’t tell the entire tale. The 2011 Braves played 55 one-run games, which tied for second-most in the National League, and 26 extra-inning games, which led the majors. Which winnable June games should have been sacrificed for the sake of freshness? Would being out of the playoff chase by Sept. 15 have been preferable to elimination after 13 innings of Game No. 162?

When the issue of bullpen overload is broached, manager Fredi Gonzalez jokes that some night he should walk on the field and announce: “We’re not going to try to win tonight because we’re resting guys. Hope that’s OK.”

Said Frank Wren, the Braves’ general manager: “If Fredi would bring in his 12th pitcher and say, ‘I’m saving these guys,’ the question for Fredi would be, ‘How long do you want to keep this job?’”

Yes, there are limits. The Braves try not to use a reliever four days running. (The plan for Monday night was to rest Kimbrel, who saved three weekend games against the Dodgers. Julio Teheran went 8 1/3 innings, giving everyone except Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin the night off.) And the Braves did exercise more caution last season: Only Chad Durbin logged more than 66 games. Then again, they played only 38 one-run and 13 extra-inning games.

Said Wren: “If you look at our numbers, they aren’t much different from anyone else’s. If you’re in a winning environment, which we are, guys will get used a lot. That’s part of the game.”

Gonzalez: “You feel bad when guys go down, sure. But there are only a certain amount of bullets in each arm. When it goes, it goes. It’s like Brandon Beachy. Did we overwork him?”

Beachy’s high for innings as a minor-leaguer was 119; his high in the majors was 141. (Washington shuttered Stephen Strasburg after 159 innings.) Beachy was leading the majors in ERA last summer when an elbow ligament came unstuck. Tommy John surgery was the result. Venters just underwent his second such procedure; O’Flaherty is facing his first.

(Asked Monday if he’d heard a report on O’Flaherty’s visit with the famous Dr. James Andrews, Gonzalez said: “I haven’t given him enough customers yet to get the direct line. I think you have to have 15.”)

It was odd that a week that left the Braves strapped for relief saw the visiting club wish it had what the Braves have, even in their depleted state. Three times the Dodgers hauled in a lead into the late innings; three times their relievers handed it back. Said Gonzalez, speaking of the Braves’ bullpen setup: “We’ve had a perfect world the last two or three years. There aren’t many perfect worlds.”

A bit of imperfection has bared its teeth. Two key left-handers are gone for the season. Wren believes the rookie right-hander Cory Rasmus, who throws a changeup, can get out lefties. At some point the Braves will surely make a move for another left-hander — just not yet.

“It’s too early,” Wren said. “There are usually guys like that available, and multiples available.”

The Braves should be able to find someone to work the seventh and another someone to handle the eighth. The product might not be as boilerplate as in the recent past, but the closer remains robust. Amid all the handwringing, let’s not forget that.

Let’s also keep sight of this: If you plan to win in 21st century baseball, you’d better have a good bullpen and you’d better use it. Resting guys is a noble idea, but it flies in the face of a greater reality: You play to win the game. Not tomorrow’s game. Not some game three months hence. The game you’re playing.