(Every now and then, we hold informal discussions on something related to the Braves. Today, Ryan Cothran and me, Tommy Poe, look at the bullpen in 2018.)
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like the Atlanta Braves won’t make the playoffs this season. And while it’s fun to talk about prospects like Kevin Maitan and Joey Wentz, there will be a major league season in 2018 and the Braves need to build a roster for it. On that roster, there will be a bullpen. So, let’s take a look at what that pen might look like.
Before we start, I have to admit something. For two consecutive years, I was sure the bullpen would be a strength and I was wrong. But I can’t be wrong three consecutive times, can I? 2018 has to be the year it all comes together, right?
To help answer that question, I want to look at where the bullpen is now and what the makeup might look like in 2018. We’ll cover some of the guys we want the Braves to keep, some of them that need to be moved, some of the guys coming up from the farm system, and any specific guys we would like the Braves to target in the free agent market or via trade. I’ll start.
| Vizcaino | By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) |
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I think the pen is a dicey position myself. It has a bullpen FIP that has often hovered around 5.00 since the All-Star Break (down to 4.61 now) and while we can blame Jim Johnson for much of that, others also struggled. Even some of the guys that have been so successful are players I’m not so sure I want to rely on moving forward. Jose Ramirez has a 2-run difference between his ERA and FIP and his xFIP is even higher. Can we really count on hitters becoming outs 8-of-10 times they put the ball in play moving forward as has happened for Ramirez this year (.209 BABIP)? Can we really count on Sam Freeman doing the thing he never did before – get left-hand major league hitters out – in 2018? Can we really count on Dan Winkler‘s arm not falling off from just signing an autograph?
It’s clear that I have my worries about this bullpen in 2018. That said, there are a few names that demand excitement. A.J. Minter has arrived and as long as he’s healthy, he’s probably the most dominant reliever the Braves have. Akeel Morris‘s incredible changeup will be in the mix as well – if the Braves remember he’s in the organization. Arodys Vizcaino continues to impress, though he’s given up a few too many homers. Still, I’ll take him compared to others. Later, I’ll talk about the two or three guys I really like coming up from the minors as well.
Generally, I’m seeing a bullpen that could go either way. Guys like Matt Wisler and Luke Jackson could finally get it. Winkler could stay healthy. Ramirez could continue to battle – and defeat – the SABR Gods. At the same time, there is a probably a better chance none of those things happen. So…that’s a downer.
Here’s how I currently fall on things:
Keeping: Vizcaino, Minter, Morris, Winkler (I do like the arm)
Trading: Ramirez and Freeman – if there’s anything decent out there.
Keeping, but on thin ice: Wisler, Jackson, Hursh – next spring is their last chance.
Gone: Johnson (trade, DFA, pretend he’s Akeel Morris and lose him, whatever it takes), Krol, Motte, Brothers
I got the four I am comfortable moving into 2018 with, the three who I will give the last chance to (plus, they have no trade value), and a couple I’ll trade if there’s a good deal out there. I’m dropping veterans like it’s hot. Regardless, this pen needs plenty of work. What do you guys think? Am I wrong to be this pessimistic? Or am I seeing it way too clearly?
Super-excited to be doing another Walk-Off Talk, especially one concerning the bullpen as I have a whole heck of a lot to say on the matter. First and foremost, I’ll say that I think we as Braves fans finally see the bullpen turn the corner in 2018. There’s fruit that is blossoming in front of our eyes, young men becoming staples in the ‘pen, old dudes getting squeezed out, and fringe guys looking bloody awful and naturally being pushed out of roles. While that all doesn’t sound good, there’s much research and evidence that shows you have to fail before succeeding. We’re there.
In the 1st section, I’m going to look at the guys that we’ve seen in 2017 1 by 1, try to find underlying reasons for their success or failures, and decipher whether I think they have a shot at the 2018 bullpen. Ready? Here we go! Who’s a KEEPER? Who’s a HEAPER?
- Jose Ramirez- KEEPER. 2.28 ERA through 59.1 innings. Like Jason Motte’s early “success” this year in which he was getting roped but the ball was hit right at fielders, ERA can be a fluke stat, especially when we’re talking relievers and 1-2 inning stints at a time. With Motte, every person watching could see it was only a matter of time before it blew up in his face. The day it blew up on him was our beloved country’s birthday and since then he’s had a 9.28 ERA. This brings us to Jose Ramirez. Like Tommy mentioned above, there’s a lot that’s went right for Jose this year: low BABIP, high LOB%, but there’s also a decrease in hard-contact as soft and medium contact make up for about 70% of the total while hard comes in at 32.3% – a serious decrease from previous years. It’s also worth noting that his groundball rate has increased significantly which, when adding in that his soft/medium contact rate has increased, bodes well for long-term success. Lastly, Jose’s had an increase in velocity as his average fastball is 97.3, when it was previously 95ish. It’s appropriate to taper expectations for Jose as asking him to duplicate his 2.28 ERA is wish-casting, but increased velo, softer contact, and the ability to keep more balls on the ground makes me think Jose can be a mid-3s ERA in 2018.
- Jim Johnson- KEEPER. This is tough. I don’t want to see Jim Johnson in a Braves uniform in 2018, but the reality is that it’s not that easy. He’s owed 5MM and the Braves at least need to give him a shot to rebound before throwing in the towel. Give him April in low-leverage situations and let’s see if he can make that sinker sink again – otherwise, his career will be the thing sinking.
- Arodys Vizcaino- KEEPER. While not as extreme, Vizzy has also benefited from a low BABIP and a high-strand rate, but unlike Jose he’s kept his BB-rate low and his K-rate above 9. He might not be able to sustain a sub-3 ERA yearly, but if I were betting on anyone to do so in 2018, he’d be there.
- Sam Freeman- KEEPER. The surprise of the bullpen in 2017, there’s not much fluke in Sam’s stat line as everything seems pretty normal. His fastball/slider combo has been downright filthy and he’s under control for 3 more years. No reason not to bring him back.
- Ian Krol– HEAPER. I’d like to believe that Ian Krol’s mishaps are all bad luck, but it’s just not true. The pitch that made him valuable last year (fastball) has stayed up in the zone this year and has gotten crushed. His K-rate has dropped, BB-rate increased, and there are at least 2 LHPs in front of him in the pecking order. He’d also be entering his 2nd year in arbitration and the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.
- Luke Jackson- HEAPER. Really, there’s not much to like here. He’s got a pedestrian fastball that has velocity and that’s it. Luke’s got a lot to figure out in AAA before he even becomes an average MLB reliever.
- Rex Brothers– HEAPER. Was super excited to see Rex signed this offseason as I’d pined for it. However, it’s just not worked out. His advanced metrics show he’s been really unlucky and hopefully, he can turn it around this last month. For now, like Krol, there’s just more effective LH options available. Like Krol, hopefully, the Braves can trade Rex for something of semi-value.
- Matt Wisler- HEAPER. For the 3rd year in a row, Wisler just isn’t missing bats. And really, it goes beyond that as he hasn’t missed bats since 2013, which was the last time his ERA was below 4. I don’t know what there is to figure out at AAA and maybe a change of scenery is needed.
- Jason Hursh– HEAPER.There was this one outing where Hursh was running it up to 96 and pitches were darting every which way. Aside from that, it was a step back year for the former 1st rounder. Like Wisler, his best opportunity might come in another organization.
- Akeel Morris- KEEPER. Must be the black sheep of the Braves 40-man roster as that is the only reason I see for him to not be in the bigs right now. Good K-rate, walks are coming down, and his 2-pitch mix looks pretty doggone good.
- Daniel Winkler- KEEPER. In my opinion, this dude’s stuff is downright filthy. I’ve wondered aloud whether Braves will keep him around due to injury, but if they do, I think he can be a serious 1-inning force.
- A.J. Minter- KEEPER. We are getting a taste of what he can do now and it’s delicious. A serious powerhouse lefty that’s capable of throwing high-leverage innings to any hitter.
We mentioned a few names that came up from the minors this season and, as you said, will probably be keepers in 2018. Of course, I’m speaking of Minter and Morris – if he ever apologizes for whatever great offense he did to the Braves front office. Seriously, do as I do with my wife, Akeel. Make your apology sound super sincere even when you have no idea why they are mad. And maybe break down and watch Empire with The Holy John Trinity. Perhaps that last thing only helps with my wife, but it’s worth a shot.
Who might join Minter and Morris next season as young arms arriving in the bigs? Let me preface this by saying that I would love to include Kyle Kinman in this group, but coming off Tommy John surgery, I think that’s wishful thinking. Also, nobody knows where they put Armando Rivero so until we find him (I’ll check the couch), there’s no real reason to include him in this discussion.
|Clouse | By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff|
One name that pops out immediately is Corbin Clouse. He logged 41 games between Florida and Mississippi this year, finished with the fourth most strikeouts in the system from those pitchers who didn’t start a game, and hitters struggle to get the ball elevated against him due to a heavy 91-93 mph sinker and a wipeout slider. I’m sure this is going to be a common theme with these young arms, but in reference to Clouse, his control can waver from time-to-time. That said, when he’s on with his delivery and follow-through, he’s a nasty guy to deal with on the mound. Low-end projection, he’ll be a left-hand specialist. But I think his stuff plays up to the righties as well. I think he could be a left-handed and maybe a little less effective version of the Tigers’ Shane Greene.
Another arm that started in Florida only to finish the season in Mississippi was Devan Watts. Similar story to Clouse, except he’s right-handed and has flashed very good control. Same sinker/slider combo, but with a bit more velocity and holy crap, does his sinker move. I’ve also seen a changeup out of him, though I’m not sure if it’ll play in the majors. The Braves are downright scary with how they uncover these small college arms (Tusculum College alum) and develop them into relief prospects. He checks all the boxes you are looking for and should be in the mix come spring training.
Phil Pfeifer, unlike Clouse and Watts, has logged some time in Triple-A. He has a more prototypical heater, though this velocity won’t blow you away. He’ll mix in a changeup and a late breaking power curve. Sometimes, especially against right-handers, he’ll slow the curve down to give the hitter something else to look at as it drops in a more traditional loopy fashion. Picked up from the Dodgers last year, it all boils down to control for the southpaw. He’s quick through his delivery and gets a lot of movement on his pitches, though I sometimes feel like he’s trying to get through his delivery way too fast and would be better off slowing things down a touch. Either way, there’s a lot to like, but you can’t walk 16% of hitters in the majors and be an effective reliever.
Finally, I have to mention the guy who came over with Luiz Gohara – Thomas Burrows. The Braves were super cautious with the former Alabama closer (Tide Roll! – right?), but I imagine the dude will be on the quick track next year after spending his Age-22 season in Rome. He struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, got a heavy dose of grounders, and kept the walks to the minimal. Do I think he’ll jump from low-A to the majors this spring? No, but could he be in the mix by midseason? Oh, absolutely. He’s tried-and-tested in the SEC and has continued his success into pro baseball. And have I mentioned that he’s another sinker/slider pitcher. Seriously, with all these sinker/slider guys, we should have never let Roger McDowell go. He’d be giddy with this crop of relievers. Oh, well.
I know there are more arms I haven’t mentioned here. Why don’t you point them out, Ryan?
I will do just that, Tommy! But might I say that of the guys you mentioned above, Devan Watts really tickles my fancy. Some twitter guys had his velo up to 98 at the end of this year. Add to that a low-BB rate, high-K rate, and a 2nd pitch in a slider that varies in MPH and is more of a plus pitch than his fastball, and you’ve essentially got what the Braves wanted out of Shae Simmons without the arm injury history. I’m all-in on THAT!
But enough about you and your guys! What do you think this is, the Tommy show? I want to talk about my dudes! Ready?
Jacob Lindgren (LHP)- In this section, Lindgren, in my opinion, is by far the guy to be most excited about. But keep your pants on, Braves fans. He went under the knife last year with Tommy John surgery and has yet to pitch. Stolen from the Yankees, Benjamin Chase compares Lindgren’s fastball and slider to Jonny Venters, and from all the video I’ve watched, it’s on the money. Unfortunately, the pitch that likely aided in the injury is Lindgren’s calling card: a slider that simply disappears on hitters. Keep an eye on Lindgren this winter as the Braves could send him somewhere to get some innings in January, but more likely would be a return to action in Spring Training for an Opening Day audition.
Wes Parsons (RHP)- Wes has been in the organization since 2013 and at one point was a top-10 prospect in a very weak system. Now that the Braves have the best farm in the Majors, Parsons has been a bit of an afterthought as he’s been moved full-time to the bullpen. However, it seems to have done him a whole lot of good, revitalizing what seemed to be a dead career as a starting pitcher. Parsons has added a couple MPHs (tops out at 96) to his fastball and rebounded to a 3.15 ERA across 2 levels with healthy. For me though, I’d file him under the same headline as failed starting pitchers turned fringe MLB relievers with Matt Wisler and Jason Hursh. Parsons has a chance to be a good relief pitcher, even if it’s just a sliver of hope.
|Biddle | By Jeff Morris. Follow him on Twitter @AtlBravesJeff|
Jesse Biddle (LHP)- Before Lindgren, there was Biddle. Claimed from the Pirates prior to the 2016 season, Biddle was another guy that the Braves got for nothing due to recovering from Tommy John surgery when the Pirates tried to sneak him through waivers. In his first year of on-field action with the Braves, Biddle worked exclusively out of the bullpen and put up good numbers through 49.2 innings at AA. The BB-rate was below 3 per 9, the K-rate was above a K per inning, and the ERA sub-3. What’s bizarre is the fact that he’s on the 40-man and yet the front office didn’t bring him up for a cup of coffee. There are some undertones in this statement and maybe none of these are correct but I think Braves either don’t see him as a real piece, want to limit his innings, or dislike something in his demeanor. He seems like he could be a useful Major Leaguer and hopefully, he gets his shot next spring.
Caleb Dirks (RHP)- Dirks was in the Braves system, traded to the Dodgers, and reacquired last year. Dirks is known for his deception as both video and scouting reports show jerky movements before delivering the ball, which has Benjamin Chase comping him to Jordan Walden. The problem is that is where the comp ends. He doesn’t have electric stuff, nor does he have electric velocity. In my opinion, there’d have to be a whole lot go right for him and wrong for others for Dirks to get a shot in the Braves bullpen. Like many fringe guys, his best path to the bigs will likely be outside this pitching-heavy system.
Love “The Strikeout Machine.” Lindgren and Minter together are going to be hell on the opposition – especially the poor left-handed hitters they leave in their destruction.
Moving on, let’s talk about a couple of guys that might benefit from a switch. Specifically, Mike Foltynewicz and Lucas Sims. I’m glad I can address this subject again because Stephen stole my thunder awhile back with his column on Folty from the beginning of August and I want it back. He pointed out something that many Braves fans rather disagreed with, but that I have had a sinking feeling would be the inevitable conclusion on Folty. Simply put, he’s miscast as a starter. That isn’t to denigrate Foltynewicz, but over more than 350 innings, we have witnessed a few things about Folty that seem impossible to disagree with. One, he’s got lethal stuff. Second, he’s in stagnation since joining the Braves. He’s improved, sure, but only incrementally. To put it another way, he’s gone from a bad rookie pitcher to a mediocre third-year starter. And sure, we can sit here and condition this by saying Folty is really in his first full season as a major league pitcher after spending ten starts in the minors in 2015 and working his way back from injury last year, but that excuse only gets us so far.
It’s not that Folty isn’t useful in his current role – only that he’s not best suited to be a starter. I was doing a Saturday Stats Pack less than a week before Stephen’s article where I pointed out that since 2015, only two pitchers (the washed up version of Adam Wainwright and the journeyman Jeremy Hellickson) had higher line-drive rates against them. Line drives turn into hits nearly 70% of the time and many of them also become extra bases. Some, you can argue some of this is due to the fact that Foltynewicz has thrown his fastball nearly 65% of the time and it’s a hard fastball. Fair enough, but even the most optimistic fan has to be worried about that line drive rate.
Foltynewicz simply doesn’t have the offspeed pitch to keep hitters honest. Once they time his fastball, they don’t have to worry about being fooled by a changeup. They can then sit dead red and react to the slider and curve, which both are better since his rookie year, but both suffer from repeated viewings of the pitch. Further, as Stephen said a month ago, Folty has never been able to get out lefties. Perhaps if they didn’t see him multiple times in the same game – and he was given a chance to unleash his heater at full strength with either of his breaking balls – Foltynewicz could have more luck.
I know it’s unpopular, but in my book, it’s time to embrace the inevitable here and turn Folty into the Braves’ version of Chris Devenski. Like Folty, Devenski has amazing stuff and he’s given the opportunity to unleash it without the fear that he needs to hold back for the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. Moving Folty to the bullpen could hurt a rotation that appears wide open already, but a sign of good management is put your player in the best position to succeed. With Folty, I believe that he’ll succeed the most coming out of the bullpen.
On the flip side, Lucas Sims has always had an arm scouts raved about, but the results haven’t been equally as impressive. He seemed to take a step forward this season with the lowest walk rate of his career in his second try at answering the Triple-A question, but also threw a lot of grooved fastballs that were hammered to deep Estonia. The strikeouts were there, but like we’ve seen with Sims, it was two steps forward, another step back. His first taste of the majors as a starter has been Matt Wisler-like. He’s still avoiding the walks, which plagued him the last two years, but he’s looked exceedingly meh. If that’s possible.
One of the thing that stands out to me the most about Sims so far has been the inability to induce a swing-and-a-miss. The major league average is 10.3%. Sims, as a starter, had a 7.8% swinging-strike percentage. Hitters are making too much contact and those balls are screaming around the park.
The Braves have already announced that Sims will work out of the bullpen for the rest of the season and that might be for the best moving forward. We haven’t seen a lot of Sims just as as a reliever, but the early returns are promising. Sims doesn’t have the same kind of electric stuff as Foltynewicz does, but he does have lively movement on his pitches when he can repeat his delivery and arm slot – something that is easier said than done with him. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
If he cleans that up, his fastball location should be better. Because his curveball is so good, he only needs to be able to locate his fastball and good things will come. In my opinion, that will come in shorter stints – the kind of appearances he had in the Arizona Fall League last year when he reestablished his value.
Kudos on that, Tommy! I think we all at Walkoff Walk can agree that Folty would be better served to unleash all that holds him back 1 inning at a time. Could you imagine a bullpen that featured Folty coming in throwing triple digit heat? I need to see more at the MLB level on Sims, but I have a hard time distinguishing between what he brings and what Matt Wisler brings. At one point, I thought Wisler could be a stud bullpen piece with a couple of ticks in added velo. Now, not so sure. Hopefully, you’re right and Sims will take to a role in the bullpen.
But now that we are done with the in-house guys, it looks like we have enough candidates to make a pretty good bullpen. However, we all know that if a team starts the year with 15 candidates, they’ll be looking for more come April. So, is there anyone out there on the free agent market that could prove valuable in a 2018 Braves bullpen? You bet there are and I want to take a look at some of those options.
With Minter, Clouse, S. Freeman, Lindgren, and Biddle, I think the Braves have the LH relievers in-house that they need, but there’s a few free agent RH that I’d like to see the Braves go after for 2018, but before that, let’s make a mental note: I think there’s a really big chance Craig Kimbrel comes home for the 2018 season, therefore the guys I’m looking at aren’t the top-tier, but right below that. Also, it’s worth noting that the guys I’m looking at carry a low-BB rate which is very much needed in a bullpen chock full of young, wild electric arms.
Anthony Swarzak– Fastball has picked up velo and has been downright dominant this year. Having the best year of his career and a good time to do it.
Addison Reed– In a walk year, Addison Reed is pitching well for the 3rd consecutive year and inducing ground balls at a 40% rate.
The bad contract swap route?
A while back, I posted a waiver trade idea between the Braves and Orioles in which the Orioles brought home Nick Markakis and Jim Johnson. With Johnson tanking, I think that deal as it was is dead and gone. But Markakis? That could still be something the Orioles are interested in this coming offseason. But maybe the Braves can knock off most of Jim’s contract and send him to them? Here’s the proposal:
Braves get Darren O’Day
Orioles get Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson, and 3MM dollars
O’Day has rebounded from his atrocious start in which his ERA approached 7 close to the midway point. Now, it’s a respectable 3.86. Still, he’s owed 18MM through 2019 and the Orioles could look at this as a peace offering to their fan base to start their rebuild. They’ll clear all of O’Day’s 2019 salary and pay JJ and Kakes 13MM for 2018.