COMMENTARY | When the Atlanta Braves learned Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters would both be lost for the entire 2013 season, the first thing everyone thought was, 'At least we still have Craig Kimbrel.'
While it is true Kimbrel is quickly becoming one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball, the loss of his two lefty set-up men may make getting him the ball slightly more challenging. Case in point, the Braves were clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning against the woeful New York Mets on Sunday, May 25, only to have the new patchwork bullpen give up three runs to make Kimbrel irrelevant and end the Braves' eight-game winning streak in its tracks.
With the three-headed monster of O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel closing out games, the Braves simply needed to get through the sixth inning with a lead to ensure victory, but that luxury is now a thing of the past. If the Braves do not make some moves to acquire dependable bullpen arms, they will run the risk of giving away far too many close games down the stretch.
Here are five realistic relievers the Braves could target.
If we are going to make a wish list, we might as well start at the top. Luke Gregerson's 0.87 ERA ranks No. 4 in all of baseball among qualified relievers with at least 20 appearances. Opponents are hitting just .116 off of him, and his WHIP (Walks/Hits per Innings Pitched) is a microscopic 0.68. The Padres are currently sitting in fourth place in the NL West 5 ½ games behind the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. If San Diego falls even further out of the race, they could become sellers very quickly.
After ineffectiveness from Carlos Marmol, and an injury to Kyuji Fujikawa, Gregg took over the closer's role for the Cubbies to near perfection. In 14 appearances out of the Chicago 'pen, Gregg has six saves and a 0.00 ERA. While his career 4.04 ERA might worry some, Gregg has been lights-out in 2013.
The Cubs have been good trading partners with the Braves in the past. Just last season, the Northsiders gave the Braves a dependable left-handed starter, Paul Maholm, and super-utility outfielder Reed Johnson in exchange for minor-league prospect Arodys Vizcaino. Chicago is firmly ensconced in rebuilding mode, so unloading a veteran reliever for more farmhands would likely appeal to them very much. If Cubs' VP Theo Epstein could get Atlanta to take back the expiring $9.8 million contract of Marmol too, this deal could be done today.
Joe Thatcher, LHP, San Diego Padres
If the friars of So. Cal are unwilling to part with Gregerson, perhaps they would feel differently about relinquishing the rights to Joe Thatcher. The Braves desperately need another left-handed arm in their bullpen. With the injuries to O'Flaherty and Venters, Atlanta is down to Luis Avilan as their only southpaw. Thatcher has a 1.76 ERA and 10 holds for San Diego this season. Left-handed batters are hitting higher than Atlanta would like to see against a lefty specialist (.281), but his 25 percent strikeout rate and zero home runs given up are numbers they can certainly work with. In the month of May, Thatcher has a 1.23 ERA and has only allowed opposing hitters a .167 average.
Mike Gonzalez, LHP, Milwaukee Brewers
The Braves may find some good luck returning to a familiar face. Gonzalez pitched with Atlanta from 2007-2009 where he amassed 26 saves and 22 holds while acting as a part-time closer and set-up man. This season, for the 19-29 Milwaukee Brewers, Gonzalez has made the most appearances of any left-handed reliever (27) and has posted 12.98 strikeouts per nine innings of work. Gonzalez is a free agent after this season, so the Brewers could look to dump him off to a contender for a younger arm they can add to their franchise's reclamation project.
Rounding out the scavengable carcasses of MLB's cellar-dwelling elite brings us to the Minnesota Twins. The 19-28 Twinkies are all but out of the race already. Jared Burton has accumulated 10 holds as Minnesota's set-up man, and has a nice 2.38 ERA to show for it. The 31-year-old right-hander is due $3.25 million next season, however, his contract does contain a buyout clause for just $200,000 in 2015. The Braves could pick him up with very little obligation for the future, but still have him wrapped up for two additional seasons if he pitched well. The Twins have other bullpen arms which also might appeal to the Braves. Atlanta may be able to go after left-handers Brian Duensing or Glen Perkins if the price was right.
Help Is On the Way
The Braves could always choose to stay the course and try to fix their bullpen issues in-house. Cory Gearrin and Luis Avilan have been mostly good, and Cristhian Martinez, Jordan Walden and Luis Ayala should be off of the disabled list very soon. Brandon Beachy's impending start to the 2013 season will also provide the Braves the opportunity to move a starter to the bullpen, and minor leaguers, such as J.R. Graham, are just itching for their chance in the bigs. However, Atlanta would still be very short on left-handed relievers.
Whatever the ultimate choice may be, the Braves cannot afford to keep blowing Kimbrel's chances to save a game because they are unable to get him the ball with a lead.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
- Sports & Recreation
- San Diego Padres
- Craig Kimbrel
- Joe Thatcher
- Luke Gregerson
- Kevin Gregg