Braves Free Agent Preview: The Bullpen
The Braves may need depth, but return plenty of firepower
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At its best, the 2022 Braves bullpen was nearly, well, the best. They finished second in fWAR, fourth in ERA, and third in FIP. While different pitchers dealt with some lulls during the year, the core of the bullpen - especially after Raisel Iglesias was added - was truly excellent.
The good news is that much of that core is returning for 2023 even though the closer seems likely to move on. With some turnover, plus an injury to Tyler Matzek, the biggest question involving the Braves bullpen is whether they plan on making a bullpen splash or will be happy with their pitching depth - of which there is a lot.
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Let's take a look at it. Again, all arbitration numbers are courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors' prediction for said salaries.
2023 Relievers At A Glance
Raisel Iglesias - $16 million
Kirby Yates - $6 million
Collin McHugh - $5 million
A.J. Minter - Year 3 of 4 ($5 million)
Tyler Matzek - Year 2 of 3 (1.8 million) / injured
Silvino Bracho - Year 1 of 3 ($900K)
Jackson Stephens & Dylan Lee - Team-controlled ($800K each)
Prospect relievers - Indigo Diaz, Victor Vodnik, Brooks Wilson, William Woods
Free Agents - Kenley Jansen, Luke Jackson, Jesse Chavez, Darren O'Day
I'm not including starters that could be in the mix like Kyle Muller or Freddy Tarnok, but they could just as easily be leaned on for bullpen support. Regardless, this is a big group of options, but there is also room to add.
Before we get there, let's talk about the guys we can be fairly sure will be in the mix provided they are healthy.
A.J. Minter is really better than you think he is. He's been good before, but he became one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball in 2022. His 2.06 ERA was a new low (ignoring his pandemic-shortened effort of 2020). Even more impressively, he lowered his already-stout xERA to an elite 2.39.
Meanwhile, Raisel Iglesias was ridiculous once he came over from the Angels, allowing one earned run in 26.1 innings. With the Braves, they got him to use his changeup more at the expense of his slider. His off-speed pitch has always had a sick amount of movement and, with his slider not showing as much drop as previous years, it was a perfect choice. While Iglesias will be expensive in 2023, the smart money is that he'll put up the big numbers Atlanta is searching for.
In Yates and McHugh, the Braves have a pair of successful vets. Obviously, Yates was a disappointment as he tried to shake off the rust. But if Yates can get back 80% of the 2019 version (1.19 ERA, 2.22 xERA, 3.4 fWAR), he's a hell of a bargain. Brian Snitker didn't always seem to know how to use McHugh (was he the long guy? A high-leverage arm? A long high-average arm?), but regardless of the role, McHugh delivered a 2.60 ERA and 3.05 xERA. I am hopeful that we see significantly fewer outings with less than three outs in 2023. Eighteen of the 58 times McHugh came in, he recorded fewer than three outs. I feel that's a waste of what McHugh can do.
A Couple of Longshots
Not much was made of the Jackson Stephens signing last year and with good reason. But Stephens still delivered a nice 3.69 ERA and very comparable 3.86 xERA over 53.2 innings for the Braves. He won't strike out too many, but generally kept the damage to a minimal and freed McHugh from some of the wasted long relief outings Snitker called on from the former Rays reliever earlier in the season.
Lee had a bit of a roller-coaster 2022. He was excellent early, suffered a bit of a lull in the middle of the season from overuse, and then again excellent down the stretch. Overall, he posted 50.2 innings and a 2.13 ERA and 2.57 xERA. With the injury of Matzek, Lee is currently the second lefty in the pen.
Silvino and the Kids
Technically, Bracho is arbitration-eligible, but I believe the 30-year-old will be non-tendered or otherwise removed from the 40-man roster. Essentially, he was roster filler and even though he will be cheap in arbitration, I don't think the Braves want to keep the out-of-options right-hander.
Let's talk about the prospects, though. William Woods, a righty the Braves selected in the 2018 draft's 23rd round, appeared twice last season with solid results (2 innings, 2 K, 0 runs). Injuries have really hurt him the last two seasons, limiting the talented Dyserburg State Community College product 38 innings across two seasons and multiple levels. He is pitching currently in the Arizona Fall League, making him a two-time member of that special league. If right, Woods is an attractive arm who throws in the high-90's with movement. His slider induces a lot of flailing hacks and there's a changeup that could be useful. Overall, Woods looks like a power reliever who could push for high-leverage innings at his current pace. The bigger question lately is can he stay healthy?
Like Woods, the Braves thought so much of Brooks Wilson that they added him to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5. Wilson has largely been a reliever since being selected in 2018 outside of a brief cameo in 2019. He was on the right track to debut in 2022, but Tommy John ruined that. Likely to be on the mend during spring training, Wilson probably won't be an option until early summer. When he does get healthy, Wilson lives off a splitter that plays as a plus-plus pitch. It's so good that he can succeed with low-to-mid-90's velocity rather than need higher-end heat. His regular heater and curveball aren't great pitches, but his splitter is so good that they don't have to be. The command is good and, despite the fact he doesn't induce a ton of grounders, his homerun rate has been quite low. For comparison sakes, he's similar to Erik Swanson of the Mariners, a guy who had a 1.7 fWAR and 2.30 xERA in 2022 except Wilson lives off his splitter while Swanson uses it as an excellent secondary option.
It feels like forever ago that the Braves landed Victor Vodnik in the 14th round. The now 23-year-old was moved to the bullpen exclusively in 2022 and the strikeouts saw a noticeable boost. Vodnik is still a major work-in-progress and the Braves have been deliberate and careful with him (he's only thrown 140.1 innings since he was drafted). There are two big questions for Vodnik - can the slider become a more consistent option to go with his other excellent secondary option, the changeup? And will he throw enough strikes? Much of the latter question will resolve itself if his delivery becomes more consistent. His hard fastball, which can touch triple digits, opens eyes. If the undersized righty can check off a few more of the still-working-on-it checklist, he could excel when he gets the chance.
Indigo Diaz's star was so bright in 2021 that you couldn't even look directly at him. He K'd 16.6 per nine and dominated nearly all 45 innings he threw for both Rome and Mississippi. A lackluster Arizona Fall League followed and a disappointing full season at Mississippi in 2022 has took some of the glow away. It's not that he was bad in Pearl last year. He finished with a 3.08 ERA and 63 K's in 49.2 innings. It's just that we saw so much more the previous year. Diaz gets by despite not having the best velocity because of his crazy movement. He combines the fastball with a slurve/slider that needs more consistency. Overall, Diaz is an advanced arm, but needs to be a bit more pinpoint with his command to avoid the issues he had in 2022.
The Braves have a small group of pending free agents who will garner some interest for re-signings. While Alex Anthopoulos has said all the right things in regards to Kenley Jansen coming back for a second season, I don't find it likely. Not because of anything he necessarily did. His 2.34 xERA was his lowest since 2017. Yes, he walked the tight rope from time-to-time and the homers weren't great, but overall, once the knee-jerk reactions went away, it's hard to say Jansen had anything more than a good year. The problem is with a $16 million arm like Iglesias already in the fold plus significant salaries for McHugh, Yates, and Minter, it just doesn't make a ton of sense to bring back Jansen at a high salary.
Of the group of free agents, I think Jesse Chavez and Luke Jackson make the most sense if the Braves bring someone back. Chavez continued to excel with the Braves, following up a 2.14 ERA in 2021 with a 2.72 ERA in 2022. We just ignore the other teams he played for. The Fedora one was highly valuable as a second long guy even though he did get a few high leverage chances (most holds since 2016). Jackson sadly missed 2022 after Tommy John surgery. The team loves him and he's a glue guy that keeps the team loose. That said, the last thing to typically come back for Tommy John patients is control and Jackson's control was the one real criticism to begin with.
Darren O'Day is still alive. Congrats!
What Else Is Out There?
There is a plethora of older closer-types joining Jansen like Aroldis Chapman (barf), Craig Kimbrel, Will Smith (lol), and the always hurt Zack Britton. And then you have stealer-of-souls, Edwin Díaz. While it would be fun to watch Mets fans lose their minds if the Braves added Díaz and had ALL THE TRUMPETS, the chances of the Braves being the one who convinces Díaz to sign for a ridiculous sum isn't high.
One name that could make some sense for the Braves is David Robertson. Finally healthy, the former Yankees closer had a 2.40 ERA and 3.05 xERA over 63.2 innings. He'll probably be looking for a one-year deal, preferably with a contender, in 2023 and the Braves might be searching for a similar fit. Archie Bradley is still just 30, but after breaking his elbow tripping over the rail to get into the big Angels/Mariners brawl earlier this season, he never pitched again. A late-season rehab got short-circuited by a two-word phrase that scares fans: "forearm strain."
Adam Ottavino makes a lot of sense in the same way Robertson does. Coming off a great season (2.06 ERA, 2.35 xERA), looking for a one-year contract preferably with a contender, and can provide high-leverage depth at a value price.
Perhaps a lefty is more needed with Matzek out. Taylor Rogers had a very disappointing season after a deadline move to the Brewers. Prior to that, he had a 2.34 FIP with the Padres. Former Cleveland closer, Brad Hand, had a 2.80 ERA, but the 4.40 xERA is concerning. He's always out-pitched his metrics, but the peripherals have been fairly bad the last two years. Andrew Chafin has a player option for 2023, but might he want to consider the market after a 2.92 xERA in 57.1 innings? Did you know Matt Moore re-invented himself as a lefty reliever and had a 1.95 ERA in 74 innings with Texas?
Want to bring back a World Champion? Chris Martin just pitched 56 innings with a 3.05 ERA and a 2.55 xERA. Yeah, I didn't know he was that good either. What about making Mets fans sick and bringing an older face like Rafael Montero to Atlanta? He's still playing for the Astros, but during the regular season, he had a 2.70 xERA over 68.1 innings with 14 saves. And if Dansby Swanson does leave, why not bring back Shelby Miller? He struck out 14 in seven innings with the Giants.
This is really just scratching the surface. As always, the relief pitcher market is robust and ripe for the picking.
In Iglesias and Minter, the Braves have two excellent arms for the late innings. McHugh and, if he's right, Yates provide next-level middle relief options. Dylan Lee was a solid lefty last year and that will hopefully continue in 2023 while you can do much worse than Jackson Stephens as your long guy.
The question after those six is where do the Braves go? My bet is that we see one big signing and a few minor league fliers, leading to a fight for the final bullpen spot. As I mentioned in my column on the starters, I also really like the idea of unleashing Kyle Muller as a bullpen arm.
But what do you think? Do the Braves need to really push to add more depth here or are they spending too much money on the bullpen already and should invest their remaining resources elsewhere?
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