2020 Braves Positional Preview Series: Bullpen
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Grant McAuley’s 2020 Braves Preview Series breaks down a different position group as the club gets set for the regular season. While MLB continues to monitor the current coronavirus pandemic, this series offers an in-depth look at the men who will make up Atlanta's big league roster as well as candidates to contribute at some point this season.
Will Smith | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 3-years, $40 million
The Braves opened the winter with a bang, signing lefty Will Smith to a three-year contract that includes an option for a fourth year. With that, arguably the best reliever on the free-agent market was off the board as Atlanta continued to fortify a group that had already received a substantial makeover at the trade deadline. Smith, a Georgia native, comes home to pitch for the team he grew up rooting for. He posted a 2.76 ERA (3.23 FIP – 2.73 xFIP) with 34 saves in 63 appearances for San Francisco. Smith also set a career-high with 96 strikeouts across 65.1 IP, good for a personal best 13.2 K/9, the 12th highest in MLB.
As one might expect, he is death on lefty hitters, who managed a meager .395 OPS against Smith in 2019. Though he was the primary closer for the Giants, Smith’s responsibilities with Atlanta could see him serve in the same sort of hybrid role Andrew Miller once filled for the Indians, coming in for high leverage situations in the late innings. The traditional save chances are earmarked for Mark Melancon, a friend and former teammate of Smith while the pair were in San Francisco. Regardless of who leads the team in saves, Atlanta has built a deep stable of experienced relievers to help close games over the final few frames. That is a far cry from the group that broke camp with Atlanta in 2019.
Mark Melancon | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $14 million
One of several trade deadline acquisitions, Mark Melancon is an experienced closer who will get another chance to handle the ninth inning duties in 2020. Though he was initially expected to serve in a set-up capacity, Melancon stepped in to close after fellow righty Shane Greene faltered in his initial appearances for Atlanta. Despite one notably bad outing in Miami on August 10, Melancon performed well in the role. He owned a 3.86 ERA (1.83 FIP – 2.16 xFIP), was a perfect 11-for-11 in save chances and struck out 24 while walking just two batters in 21 regular season innings following the trade. Four of the nine runs he allowed came in that appearance against the Marlins, but overall Melancon allowed just a .580 opponents' OPS in 23 games with the Braves.
All of that good work gave way to a blown save in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, however. Following an eighth inning injury to Chris Martin, Melancon was tagged for four runs on five hits and two walks as the Cardinals rallied for a 7-6 victory. Though he would bounce back with a pair of scoreless appearances in the next two games, Atlanta’s inability to hold the lead in the opener was one of several missed opportunity to win its first postseason series since 2001. October misfortunes aside, Melancon paced the National League with a 62.1 GB% (ground ball percentage) and did a great job keeping the ball in the park (0.53 HR/9), two more factors that helped him both regain his prior form and earn the closer’s job to open the season.
Shane Greene | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $6.25 million
When the Braves sought to overhaul their bullpen, Shane Greene was perhaps the biggest of three swaps the club made prior to the July trade deadline. Greene was an All-Star for Detroit after posting a microscopic 1.18 ERA with 22 saves for the last place Tigers. His first handful of outings were a mix of bad luck and some regression that was perhaps to be expected. Greene allowed five runs, with a loss and a blown save in his first three appearances for his new club. Those five runs matched the same amount of earned runs he’d surrendered all season with the Tigers, hardly the first impression he was looking for.
Nevertheless, Greene turned things around nicely after swapping roles with Mark Melancon. After a bumpy start, Greene finished up with a 2.49 ERA over his next 24 appearances, holding opponents to a .591 OPS across the final 85 batters he faced. The Braves enter the spring with a trio of veteran relievers with closer experience to lean on this season. Greene’s role remains unchanged for 2020, though he could find some save opportunities if injuries or ineffectiveness strike Atlanta at some point. Greene's early spring results didn't look great, but the Braves are hoping he'll be locked in and ready to do his part when the bell rings.
Chris Martin | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2-years, $14 million
The third man in the trio of trade deadline acquisitions, Chris Martin may be one of the great what-ifs of the Braves’ early October exit. After providing quality relief in 20 appearances following his arrival from Texas, Martin strained an oblique warming up to pitch the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLDS. That injury set off a chain of events that saw Luke Jackson thrust into the game and Mark Melancon called upon earlier than expected as the Cardinals rallied from a 3-1 hole to claim an eventual 7-6 win over Atlanta. That turn of events was one of several scenarios Atlanta could not have accounted for yet contributed to a series loss.
All of that aside, Martin’s pinpoint control earned him a brand new two-year deal with the Braves. A well-traveled veteran who honed his craft in Japan for two seasons before returning to MLB with the Rangers in 2018, Martin owned a 3.40 ERA (3.25 ERA – 2.72 xFIP) and held an incredible ratio of 13 strikeouts to every walk issued in 2019. That was easily the best among relievers with at least 50 IP and tops in the majors over the last two seasons. Martin will be one of several weapons that the Braves can utilize to bridge the gap from the middle to the late innings. Martin looked sharp in the spring, but will have to ramp things up yet again when the regular season start date comes into focus.
Luke Jackson | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.825 million
No other member of the Atlanta bullpen experienced a ride quite like Luke Jackson in 2019. He served up a grand slam on Opening Day and appeared ticketed for a short stay in the majors. Little did anyone know that Jackson would end up being arguably the best reliever in the bullpen for a large chunk of 2019. Out of necessity, Jackson took over the closer’s role after almost every other option was either injured, ineffective or both. Jackson went 9-2 with 18 saves, posting a 3.84 ERA (3.24 FIP – 2.52 xFIP) and a 1.2 fWAR, highest on the team. His mid-90s fastball is complemented by a wipeout slider, giving him the arsenal to average 13.12 K/9. That rate was the 14th highest in all of baseball among qualified relievers and easily led the Atlanta staff.
Watching Jackson get the job done was edge of your seat theater at times. His .386 opponents BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and 3.22 BB/9 led to some high stress innings, but his contributions during the dog days made him one of the team's unsung heroes. With his ability to garner strikeouts at a high rate and 60.5 ground ball percentage, Jackson should be able to help strengthen the middle to late innings in 2020. He was strong in the spring, firing five scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts.
Sean Newcomb | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
I decided to cover Sean Newcomb here for two reasons. First, his return to the rotation is not a given. Second, he showed flashes of being a very effective major league reliever in 2019. Of course, that came after spending much of 2018 showing flashes of being a very effective major leaguer starter. Newcomb and the Braves will have to determine what role he’s best suited for again this season. After being demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett following a lackluster April, Newcomb returned three weeks later and flourished working out of the Atlanta bullpen. He posted a 3.04 ERA (4.26 FIP – 3.99 xFIP) across 51 relief appearances. Yes, he outperformed his peripherals, but most of the damage he incurred came during a two week stretch at the end of July and early August (11 runs, four homers in eight outings). Newcomb righted the ship thereafter and held opponents to a .215 AVG across 53.1 IP in relief, though he was sometimes homer-prone (8 HR in 223 PA out of the pen).
With all of the bullpen additions the Braves made at last year’s trade deadline and again this winter, it’s easy to see why they’d be open to stretching Newcomb out to compete for the fifth spot in rotation. However, with lefties at a premium and two already in the starting rotation (Cole Hamels and Max Fried), we could see Newcomb slotted into the bullpen when the club breaks camp. That move would add yet another layer of quality depth to a group that should be one of the club’s biggest strengths in 2020. For his part, Newcomb performed well in three spring training starts, posting a 2.00 ERA with just two walks against 11 strikeouts in his nine innings of work.
Darren O’Day | Age: 37 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.75 million
Some may have wondered if they’d ever see Darren O’Day pitch in a Braves uniform. After a brief outing in spring training, O’Day was shut down due to a forearm issue that would sideline him until late August. He finally got into some minor league rehab games and joined the big club when rosters expanded in September. The side-arming righty was charged with a run in his season debut, then tallied seven straight scoreless appearances. O’Day missed significant time the past two seasons but proved himself healthy and even earned a spot on the postseason roster.
His presence in the Atlanta bullpen was welcomed by teammates all season, even though he wasn’t able to pitch over the first four months. Given his successful tenure as a key member of the Orioles, O’Day was worth bringing back again this winter. A former All-Star, he enjoyed a nine-year run in which he posted 2.34 ERA. 1.0 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 9.4 K/9 in 5279 appearances. The only thing that slowed him down was surgery to repair his left hamstring in 2018. If he’s healthy and effective again this year, then O’Day is yet another experienced member of this revamped bullpen.
Jacob Webb | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
One of the pleasant surprises last season was the emergence of young righty Jacob Webb. Given all the turnover in the bullpen, the Braves were happy to see someone make the most of the opportunity to help out. Webb did just that, going 4-0 with a 1.39 ERA (4.30 FIP – 5.15 xFIP) across 36 appearances before an elbow injury shut him down at the All-Star break. He was able to limit opponents to a .205 AVG and strand 86 percent of base runners.
On the flip side, Webb averaged just 7.8 K/9, well below the gaudy 11.0 K/9 in his 177.2 minor league innings. If Webb can bring that strikeout rate up, he could prove to be even more of an asset. The loss of Webb further necessitated the need for Alex Anthopoulos to aggressively pursue relievers at the trade deadline. Now, Webb returned to a bit of a crowded house as he looked to prove himself healthy and earn a spot this spring. After a couple of rough outings, the Braves optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett where he'll attempt to shake off the rust and be ready to contribute when called upon.
A.J. Minter | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
One of the biggest disappointments in the Atlanta bullpen had to be the performance of A.J. Minter. Expected to at least share the save opportunities with Arodys Vizcaino, Minter dealt with shoulder inflammation following a minor car accident during the spring. That set him back and seemed to really derail the lefty’s entire season. Rushed back without a minor league rehab assignment, Minter struggled to find the strike zone all season and was eventually demoted to Triple-A in May. He finished with a 7.06 ERA (4.61 FIP – 5.32 xFIP), all negatively affected by the 7.1 BB/9 and 11.0 H/9 that fueled his 2.01 WHIP.
About the only good news was that Minter still racked up strikeouts at an encouraging clip (10.7 K/9), but he did not resemble the reliever who carved out a late inning role for himself in 2018. Given the results last season, Minter had to compete for a job this spring. One advantage he had is being left-handed, but that did not stop Atlanta from optioning him to Triple-A prior to the spring shutdown. Minter will begin the year in Gwinnett and will have to put the ball over the plate in order to regain his previous form. He was brought along slowly and made just one appearance before being cut from the spring roster.
Grant Dayton | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $655,000
The Braves waited a while for Grant Dayton to finally take the mound for them. Acquired as a waiver claim in the winter of 2017, he missed most of two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery. About the time Dayton was getting reacquainted with the big leagues in 2019, he suffered a fractured toe while playing catch over the All-Star break with Chad Sobotka. Some folks just can’t catch a break. That aside, Dayton did not return to Atlanta until mid-September. His long road to the majors and subsequent injury history made him arbitration eligible for the first time this winter.
Dayton inked a modest contract to return to the Braves and perhaps earn a spot in the bullpen. He owned a 3.00 ERA (6.21 FIP – 4.70 xFIP) in his 14 big league outings in 2019, posting 3.0 BB/9 against 10.5 K/9 across just 12 innings. When healthy, he’s been a strikeout machine, punching out 39 batters in 26.1 IP during his rookie season back in 2016. At this point in his career, Atlanta would be happy to see a healthy and productive Dayton making contributions to the middle innings. If he’s not one or both of those things, it could be a short stay again this season. Dayton had a rough run of things in Grapefruit League play, posting an 11.12 ERA across five appearances, allowing eight runs on 10 hits and three walks in 5.2 innings.
Also in Camp:
The Braves have several veteran relievers in camp this spring. Righty Josh Tomlin signed a minor league deal as pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 12. The 35-year-old posted a 3.74 ERA (4.49 FIP – 4.95 xFIP) in 51 appearances for Atlanta in 2019, walking just seven batters against 51 strikeouts in 79.1 IP as the team's long man. He'll be looking to fill a similar role in 2020. Veteran lefty Chris Rusin is also on a minor league pact. With few southpaw options in camp, he will get a look this spring, but this signing is more in the organizational depth category. Rusin, 33, pitched seven years for the Cubs and Rockies in a big league career that began in 2012. He enjoyed career year in 2017, posting a 2.65 ERA in 60 appearances. Rusin spent the first two months of 2019 on the shelf with a strained back and made just two appearances for Colorado before being designated for assignment. Career minor leaguers Chris Nunn, a lefty with strikeout numbers in the Dodgers system last season, is another arm ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett this season. Thomas Burrows is the other left-hander who could make an impression in camp. He owns a 2.96 ERA in 146 career relief appearances, though he struggled some with Gwinnett last year. The strikeout numbers are encouraging (11.6 K/9) but the walk rate (4.0 BB/9) is a bit of an issue. Among the minor league relievers who also received big league camp invites are Ben Rowen, a side-arming righty, and Kurt Hoekstra, who transitioned to the mound last year after spending six seasons in the Braves organization as an infielder. Righty Connor Johnstone put up solid numbers in the Arizona Fall League, but has yet to get clearly defined role throughout his three-year stint in the organization.
Down on the farm:
A handful of young arms could make the big league club at some point in 2020 to help out in the bullpen. There are some familiar names like Touki Toussaint, Chad Sobotka and Jeremy Walker, as well as others like Phil Pfeifer, Huascar Ynoa and Patrick Weigel, all looking to carve out a spot on the major league roster. With the exception of Sobotka, all of the aforementioned men have starter's experience. However, Atlanta will keep an open mind if injury forces a change of plans at some point in 2020. The Braves are spending a substantial amount of money to address the prior bullpen issues, to the tune of roughly $40 million on Smith, Melancon, Greene and Martin. With a rotation that still has a question mark at the back end, the Braves will need to find the answer to that this spring.