2019 Braves Positional Preview Series: Bullpen
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Grant McAuley’s 2019 Braves Preview Series will break down a different position group. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 15 and their first workout is Feb. 16. Position players report on Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 21. The Braves begin Grapefruit League Play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets. Part 1: The Catchers Part 2: The Infield Part 3: The Outfield Part 4: The Rotation Part 5: The Bullpen The Atlanta Braves are returning many of the same faces who comprised the bullpen for their National League East winning club in 2018. If there was one area most assumed would be upgraded, the bullpen was definitely it. But after a quiet winter, Alex Anthopoulos will have to continue to monitor markets through spring training and in the lead up to opening day in order to find a possible fit. No, Craig Kimbrel did not walk through the door, despite many fans clamoring for a reunion with the All-Star closer. Instead, the Braves are hoping that the current group of relievers can make some strides, cut the walks and contribute more in 2019. Perhaps new pitching coach Rick Kranitz can aid that effort.
A.J. Minter | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration The hard-throwing lefty earned the opportunity to close games in 2018, flashing strikeout ability and serving as the Braves best reliever in 2019. A.J. Minter should find himself in a similar place in 2019, hoping to build off his first full season in the big leagues and turn his superior stuff into even better results. Minter posted a 3.23 ERA and 2.73 FIP (fielding independent pitching) while averaging 10.1 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) and holding opponents to a .242 AVG. All of that was good for a 1.4 fWAR, highest among Atlanta relievers and 23rd best in the majors last season (minimum 60 IP). Minter pitched better on the road than at SunTrust Park, where he allowed 17 of the 23 runs he surrendered. Much of that damage (11 ER) was done in four separate appearances sprinkled throughout the year. Minter has a closer's arsenal, with high-90s heat and a stellar breaking ball. He should get first crack at closing games again in 2019, though Arodys Vizcaino could spell him or get the call based on matchups.
Arodys Vizcaino | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4.8 million For three years Arodys Vizcaino has been the Braves best option to close games. After an arm injury put him on the shelf for an extended amount of time last summer, those duties passed to A.J. Minter. Now Vizcaino will try to earn some high leverage chances of his own as he attempts to stay healthy and productive for an entire season. Vizcaino made just 39 appearances, but turned in a career-best 2.11 ERA, outperforming his FIP (3.76) by a wide margin for the second consecutive season. Vizcaino averaged a career-low 9.4 K/9, but he finished 30 games and converted 16 of his 18 save chances. Those saves and his .213 opponents' average were both tops among Braves relievers with at least 30 IP. Armed with a fastball that approaches 100 mph and a sharp, breaking slider, Vizcaino profiles as a late inning reliever and has more closing experience that anyone in the Atlanta pen. Depending on how A.J. Minter performs, Vizcaino could force a timeshare or merely form an effective closer by committee, a term universally loathed by baseball fans.
Dan Winkler | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.61 million The Braves were witness to one of the great success stories as Dan Winkler established himself as a key member of the bullpen during the first half of 2018. Though his momentum would slow down the stretch, Winkler earned the chance to get some big outs for Atlanta last season. He finished with a 3.43 ERA (2.76 FIP) and 10.3 K/9 in 60.1 IP. All of this after overcoming both Tommy John surgery and a broken elbow to return to the mound in 2017. He is a true competitor and channeled that to overcome the odds and continue his major league dream. Winkler was ultra-effective against righty hitters, limiting them to a .501 OPS. Lefty hitters had a much more healthy .891 OPS, making Winkler something of a righty specialist if deployed effectively. There is something to be said for having that short reliever who can come in and get a big strikeout to bail the team out of an inning. That seems to be a role Winkler could run with in 2019.
Darren O'Day | Age: 36 | Contract Status: 1-year, $9 million
The grizzled veteran of the Atlanta bullpen, Darren O'Day did not throw a pitch after being traded to Atlanta while recovering from hamstring surgery last season, but he could be a factor in 2019. O'Day is submarine hurler who carved out a six-year run in Baltimore as one of the best set-up men in the American League from 2012-2017, including All-Star honors in 2015. In 371 appearances, he put up a 2.34 ERA and 10.1 K/9 across 354.1 IP. He can handle righties at a high level (.554 opponents' OPS) and does enough against lefties (.714 OPS) to avoid being limited to matchups. If healthy, O'Day should be able to contribute regardless of role. Given that he did not have to recover from an arm injury, the hope is that O'Day can pick up where he left off with the Orioles and serve as a stabilizing force in the bullpen while mentoring some of the younger, lesser experienced arms in the process.
Jonny Venters | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.25 million
If Dan Winkler was a comeback, then Jonny Venters may be the comeback of all comebacks. He did win National League Comeback Player of the Year afterall. The former setup man who dominated in his first stint with Atlanta, Venters overcame three Tommy John surgeries and a fourth elbow procedure in order to finally return to the majors with Tampa Bay last year. When he took the mound on April 25, 2018, it marked his first big league appearance since October 3, 2012 with Atlanta. That is some long road to travel. Not only did he return, but Venters was an effective option for both the Rays and Braves in 50 combined outings. He turned in a 3.67 ERA (3.45 FIP) with three saves and 7.1 K/9 in 34.1 IP. Though he may be best suited as a lefty specialist after holding same-handed batters to a .133 AVG and .400 OPS in 2018, Venters could see regular work in the middle innings if he makes the club this spring. His contract is non-guaranteed, but Venters seems a virtual lock to make the club if he's healthy and pitches well in the spring.
Sam Freeman | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.38 million
Perhaps no reliever exemplified Atlanta's bullpen frustration more than Sam Freeman. After an effective 2017, Freeman battled his way through a challenging campaign last year. He finished with a 4.29 ERA (3.66 FIP) but saw his walk rate climb to 5.7 BB/9. That was the highest rate of any NL reliever with at least 50 IP in 2018. Despite a career-best 10.4 K/9 and keeping his hit and home runs rates the same as the prior year, it seemed nothing was particularly easy over his 63 appearances. The Braves opted to tender Freeman a contract and avoided arbitration with him as well. Freeman is a low-cost left-handed option with big league experience. Though he had control problems in 2018, he could be at least serviceable if he can bring those walks back down to even 2017 levels (4.1 BB/9). The Braves will have several left-handed options in camp this spring, so Freeman will have to demonstrate he can be effective in order to make the opening day roster and guarantee his contract for 2019.
Jesse Biddle | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves found a diamond in the rough in Jesse Biddle. the former Top 100 pitching prospect who was originally a Phillies farmhand. Biddle was acquired from the Pirates while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and converted to relief in Atlanta's minor league system. He made his major league debut by picking up a win against the Mets on April 21, 2018 and went on to become a bullpen regular for Atlanta. Biddle's rookie campaign included a 3.11 ERA (3.88 FIP) in 60 outings, averaging 4.4 BB/9 and 9.5 K/9 over 63.2 IP. He has a fastball that hits the mid-90s to go with a slider and curveball that helped him settle into the big leagues to stay. Though lefty hitters had early success against him, Biddle was able to bring his splits more in line as the season wore on. He should be able to provide one-inning stints, though he is particularly tough on righty hitters (.586 OPS). Biddle seems primed to carve out a meaningful role in the Atlanta bullpen in 2019.
Chad Sobotka | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
A power arm who could get a big chance in 2019, Chad Sobotka arrived late in the season and gave the Braves reason to believe they'd found a valuable bullpen piece. Atlanta selected Sobotka in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of the University of South Carolina. He had a breakout season across three levels of the minors, combining to go 4-3 with a 2.03 ERA and 11 saves in 44 appearances. Sobotka jumped to the majors turned in a 1.88 ERA and 13.2 K/9 in 14 appearances. The Braves could look to work Sobotka into various roles, but his high-90s stuff and ability to pile up strikeouts may make him an appealing option for high leverage situations if he replicates the success he found in 2018.
Shane Carle | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
One of several surprising contributors to 2018, Shane Carle was picked up in a trade with the Pirates just before spring training. He made the club and spent much of the year pitching meaningful innings for Atlanta. Like many members of the Braves bullpen, Carle had some ups and downs, but his 2.86 ERA (3.54 FIP) in 63 innings were valuable. He does not strike out many batters, just 6.1 K/9 against 3.9 BB/9, but opponents batted just .221 against him and his righty-lefty splits were virtually identical. Though Carle was able to hold down a spot for the entirety of 2018, he did have a stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation in the second half. He'll have some competition in camp this spring.
Luke Jackson | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves have given Luke Jackson quite a few opportunities over the past two seasons. Jackson turned in a 4.43 ERA (3.55 FIP) with a career-best 10.4 K/9 in 35 appearances in 2018. He also walked 21 batters in 40.2 IP, a recurrent and unfortunate theme in the Atlanta bullpen a year ago. Jackson was shuffled onto and off of the big league roster several times throughout the season, but always seemed to find his way back. Like every club, Atlanta needed to maintain some depth to account for injuries and attrition of the 162 game marathon. Given the other relievers coming to camp and the possibility Atlanta could add arms before opening day, it would appear that Jackson could have an uphill battle on his hands as he attempts to break camp with the big league club.
Grant Dayton | Age: 31 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves stashed lefty Grant Dayton in hopes he could get back and contribute in 2019. Now they'll find out if that play was worth it. Dayton had an effective rookie season in 2016, posting a 2.09 ERA to go with 39 strikeouts in just 26.1 IP as a rookie. That's an impressive 13.3 K/9. Arm injuries cropped up in 2017 and eventually led to Tommy John surgery that August. Dayton may be a long shot to make the opening day roster, but Atlanta has an intriguing lefty option to explore this spring if nothing else.
Jacob Webb | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
A successful Triple-A season has Jacob Webb in position to contend for a big league job this spring. He was added to the 40-man roster in November after combining for a 3.15 ERA and 10.4 K/9 in 51 appearances between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett last year. Webb was an 18th round pick by Atlanta in 2014. He underwent Tommy John Surgery which cost him the 2015 season, but Webb returned as a reliever and blossomed into an arm worth considering for a role in 2019.
Down on the farm: Atlanta has a couple of arms coming to camp vying for a spot in the bullpen. Corbin Clouse, 23, is a lefty who has built a solid minor league resume. Last year, he combined for a 1.94 ERA with 25 walks and 83 strikeouts in 65 IP between Mississippi and Gwinnett. He will likely open 2019 in Triple-A, but could be one of the first arms called upon if Atlanta needs bullpen help... Fellow lefty Thomas Burrows, 24, put together a standout season in 2018 and should move up the ladder with a chance to reach Atlanta this summer. Burrows pitched at three levels last season and combined for a 2.66 ERA and 11 saves with 36 walks and 86 strikeouts in 65.2 IP. He finished with Mississippi, but could open the year with Gwinnett as well.