Ten veteran arms the Braves should consider in their search for bullpen help
Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos continues to size up the market to improve his team this winter and there is one particular area of concern that even the most casual of observers would point to.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not an altogether bad collection of arms in 2018. Albeit, the frustrations were real and sometimes felt on a near nightly basis. Walks were a major problem and often fanned the flames for opposing teams looking to climb back into a game.
Here’s how the Braves bullpen ranked last season (NL/MLB):
4.15 ERA (10th/17th)
1.40 WHP (12th/24th)
.241 BAA (7th/12th)
273 BB (2nd/4th most)
51 HR (2nd/2nd fewest)
40 SV (8th/16th)
20 BLSV (8th/15th)
8.98 K/9 (7th/14th)
Put all of that together and you have a group that was fairly effective, though it felt like nothing was easy. Middle of the pack may be the best way to put it.
For Anthopoulos, there’s a clear need to supplement a bullpen that, as of now, could include Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Dan Winkler, Jesse Biddle, Jonny Venters, Shane Carle, Sam Freeman, Chad Sobotka, Luke Jackson and Darren O’Day (returning from injury) among others.
Short of a major change in direction and desire to return to Atlanta, a reunion with All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel is unlikely. He entered the winter aiming for a six-year deal which could eclipse $17 million per season. That would be a nine-figure deal for a closer. Whether or not he actually gets that contract is another matter entirely but suffice it to say that the Braves will not be approaching that number.
Proven veterans, preferably with closing experience, should be a primary target. With that in mind, here are 10 free agents who could help strengthen the Braves bullpen.
(Editor’s note: This list initially included Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly, but both men have reportedly found work with the Mets and Dodgers respectively.)
Zach Britton – At 31 next season, Britton is looking to regain his All-Star form. He was one of the best closers in baseball from 2014-2016 before injuries limited him to just 79 appearances combined over the last two seasons. Britton could certainly anchor the Atlanta bullpen, but there will be other clubs that may see value in attempting to entice him to sign a more palatable deal than Kimbrel is seeking. Expect the Phillies to be among the teams pursuing Britton, who finished last season as a member of an impressive Yankees bullpen and is one of the best left-handed relievers available. He should be able to drum up a nice market of contenders looking to build a super bullpen for a trip October.
David Robertson – The veteran righty took a unique chance and is representing himself this winter as he searches for a new contract. Robertson, who will turn 34 in early April, is a former All-Star who was most recently part of that monster Yankees firing squad. He has been an effective high-leverage reliever for eight seasons, averaging 12 K/9 over the course of his career and 11.8 K/9 over 69.2 IP in 2018. Robertson will attract plenty of suitors, but the Alabama native could be open to the opportunity to pitch meaningful innings for a Braves team that returned to October last season.
Andrew Miller – After emerging as one of the most effective relievers in the American League over the past five seasons, Miller was slowed by a litany of injuries throughout 2018. That is a risk for any club to consider, but Miller has an impressive track record of success that includes a 1.72 ERA and 421 strikeouts in 261 innings from 2014-2017. Knee, hamstring and shoulder issues combined to sap his effectiveness in 2018, but the upside of a Miller signing is intriguing. He is 33 years old and could bring October experience and instant credibility to a largely untested Atlanta bullpen. MIller is a bounceback candidate who should field plenty of offers this winter.
Adam Ottavino – If you’re searching for the most cartoonishly wicked breaking ball in the game, look no further than Adam Ottavino. His slider was darting from one batter's box to the next and missing plenty of bats in 2018. The Rockies reliever bounced back in a big way in 2018, racking up 112 strikeouts in 77.2 IP. In addition to averaging 13.0 K/9, Ottavino cut his ERA from 5.06 in 2017 down to 2.43 just one year later. He limits home runs and probably wouldn’t mind getting away from Coors Field altogether, though he was ultra-effective there last season. Ottavino, 33, will be an attractive free agent option as a versatile high-leverage arm. It would stand to reason that a team like the Yankees could look to add him to their considerable bullpen cache.
Cody Allen – The other half of Cleveland’s late-inning tag team with Andrew Miller, Cody Allen hit free agency after a down year in 2018. Now 30 years old, he was one of the better relievers in the American League from 2013-2017 as he posted a 2.59 ERA (2.86 FIP) and averaged 11.9 K/9. Allen may not have the name value of some of the other closers on the market, but he is the Indians’ franchise leader in career saves with 149. Allen’s effectiveness is due in large part to his spiked curveball, but his average fastball velocity dipped to a career-low 93.5 mph in 2018. If he can reverse that trend and continue missing bats, Allen figures to be a prominent addition to some club’s bullpen for 2019 and perhaps beyond.
Joakim Soria – If Atlanta is looking for a veteran arm with closer experience who could make the bullpen stronger even if he’s not slamming the door, Soria might just be the guy. Over the past two seasons, he’s seen his strikeout rate approaching his early career All-Star form. Soria, 34, split 2018 with the White Sox and Brewers, turning in a 3.12 ERA (2.43 FIP) and 11.1 K/9 in 66 appearances. He has logged postseason innings and been a consistent performer for over a decade. That kind of experience was lacking in Atlanta’s bullpen a season ago. Unlike some of the names on this list, he may be available on a one-year pact.
Greg Holland – One of the strangest tales of last winter’s free agent freeze was Holland. The All-Star closer racked up 41 saves for Colorado in 2017 but could not find a multi-year offer. He signed a one-year/$14 million deal with the Cardinals on March 31 but was so ineffective that St. Louis ultimately designated him for assignment in late July. Holland, 33, landed with the Nationals and seemed to regain the form that helped make him one of the better relievers in the American League with Kansas City from 2011-2015. He finished the year with a 0.84 ERA (2.97 FIP) and 10.5 K/9 in his 24 appearances for Washington. It’s fair to wonder if not simply assume that skipping spring training ultimately derailed Holland’s 2018 season. He'll be looking to build on his late season success with the Nats and get his career back on track in 2019. Another one-year deal seems likely.
Hunter Strickland – A somewhat surprising non-tender by the Giants, Hunter Strickland was one of many things that did not go according to plan for San Francisco in 2018. Strickland entered the season as the primary closer, but his temper cost him and the team two months after he broke his right hand by punching a door following a blown save in mid-June. Strickland, 30, posted a 2.91 ERA, 3.1 BB/9 and 8.4 K/9 in 226 IP over parts of five seasons with the Giants. His mid-90s fastball is accompanied by a changeup and a slider which he perfected by working with Braves great John Smoltz. Though Strickland had a somewhat mercurial stay in San Francisco, he could be a useful reliever for any number of clubs in 2019 and is less likely to leverage a multi-year commitment.
Kelvin Herrera – One of the first relievers traded to a contender last summer, Kelvin Herrera saw his season cut short thanks to a torn Lisfranc ligament in his left foot. That injury required season-ending surgery and has cast some doubt on his availability to begin the 2019 season as well. Herrera is heading into his age-29 season and was one of the better relievers in baseball over the course of his eight-year career. He owns a 2.82 ERA (3.26 FIP) and 8.9 K/9 across 460 IP, but his average fastball velocity fell to a career-low 96.5 mph last season. That's still plenty good, but Herrera also increased his slider usage for the third consecutive year while averaging a career-worst 7.7 K/9 in 2018. Those trends and recovery from injury may force Herrera to take a one-year deal to reestablish his value next winter.
Tony Sipp – The Braves’ collection of lefties was a mixed bag in 2018. Sam Freeman took a step back while Jesse Biddle and others had at least some difficulty neutralizing left-handed hitting. Tony Sipp, 35, would be the perfect LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy). The 10-year vet has been a valuable contributor to the Houston bullpen for the past five seasons and held lefty bats to a .191/.263/.294 line in 2018. Sipp had a 1.86 ERA (2.41 FIP) in 54 appearances last season for the Astros. He averaged 9.8 K/9 and allowed just one home run in his 38.2 IP. Sipp is also effective against righties, but if Atlanta is looking for a guy to come in and record an important out or two against a lefty threat, then this is the kind of arm that would help win those matchups. He could command a multi-year deal and be a popular name for teams looking to finish off a bullpen assortment.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com.