In a city where fan allegiance is fleeting and job stability is scarce in sports organizations, Fredi Gonzalez and the Atlanta Braves have shown more promise than anyone thought was possible coming into 2015 MLB spring season. Using a smaller, less powerful lineup with more defense oriented players and a revitalized starting rotation, the Braves have posted a 26-28 record and are third in the NL East.
Relying on solid hitting from Nick Markakis (.307 BA .397 OBP .376 SLG .773 OPS), Freddie Freeman (.303 BA .367 OBP .529 SLG .896 OPS), Cameron Maybin (.280 BA .360 OBP .420 SLG .780 OPS) and the addition of Juan Uribe, playing small ball, and a veteran pitching rotation with a shot of youthful energy, the has created something that most Braves fans can give a silent nod of satisfaction to, something to respect but not get excited about.
However, a chink in the already shabby armor has found its way into the team’s roster, something that hasn’t plagued them for a long time: a lack of quality relief pitching. Last night, the Braves jumped out to an early lead, had rookie starting pitcher Williams Perez cough up the lead (which doesn’t come often from the rookie right-hander), regained the lead, only to have the bullpen give up six runs from a combined four relievers and ultimately lose 8-10. As a fan, this is incredibly frustrating to watch your team get the lead, lose it, fight back for it, just to have bum pitchers cough it up faster than people cough up candy to kids for Halloween! This isn’t the first time the bullpen has been an embarrassment; in the last three games the ball club has played, they have lost all three due to bullpen chokes from multiple pitchers.
By the Numbers
While I have only mentioned three games for sample size, this bullpen inconsistency has been a problem for the Braves since the beginning of the season. For starters, the team only has seven pitchers with ERAs below 4.00, with 20 pitchers being on the active roster. This includes four starting pitchers and three relievers. The pen has a combined 4.19 ERA, are 2nd in the league in runs allowed, and have the worst combined bullpen ERA in the MLB. The Braves bullpen blues is so bad that it even has starting pitchers Julio Teheran in a funk, posting a 4.87 ERA in six starts.
So, what is wrong with the Braves pen? Why are these relievers looking like hot garbage? Well it could be one of two reasons:
1. Too Much Youth
Sounds agonizingly simple doesn’t it? Many of the Braves pitching staff are rookies brought up from double and triple A in an attempt by management to unclog the pipes down there on the farm. Problem is, now that the Braves actually have a chance of competing in the NL East, the trades the Braves made to have the ability to fix the farm system (Craig Kimbrel ring any bells?) are seriously biting them in the butt. And with injuries and suspensions coming to significant pitchers in the pen (Peter Moylan, Andrew McKirahan, Arodys Vizcaino), they have had to rely on the young guns from the minors to satisfy the bullpen’s needs. While in some cases this has worked (Mike Fultynewicz and Williams Perez), in most other cases it has absolutely crashed and burned.
2. Wrong Guys Out There
This sounds harsh, I know. But as a player myself, I’ve found out that whether rookie or vet, some guys just don’t have the mental toughness to pitch in tight situations. Eric Stults and Donnie Veal have been great examples of this. Even Julio Teheran has lost some of the aggression that made him one of the Brave’s aces for the past two seasons, as admitted by Fredi G. The thing is, there really is no fix for this. These guys are major league pitchers making major league money. If you can’t handle the pressure, find a yoga teacher or something or just don’t play the game! Especially with a fan base such as the one in Atlanta, when the team does return to prominence, there is no room for error.
Now, fans are trying to figure out how to fix the team (or if you know Atlanta fans they are rioting in the streets for a new front office). There really are only two options for the Braves at this point in the season: Free Agency and making trades. The Braves recently signed veteran reliever David Aardsma to a minor league deal. Also, there is an agentless Rafael Soriano still on the market (although the Braves front office hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for going after the righty, who will be 36 come December. As the season continues there will be many more free agents to reach the top of the Braves hit list, and will hopefully be able to make an immediate impact on the team’s future.
The other option, trading for pitching, is more complicated and highly unlikely. The Braves front office has made it clear that it isn’t looking to spend big bucks to acquire a team-changing piece. Besides that, requesting trades will always be difficult for a team below .500, unless they are willing to trade Freeman or Nick. This is very, VERY unlikely, as the team can’t afford to give up any more quality bats.
Right now, the Braves can only keep hoping for a lucky break. The only ways the team could interest other organizations in trading big pieces for the mediocre ones they have is if a mediocre piece like Maybin began playing like a superstar, in which case I’m sure the team would attempt to find better players to trade for him in a heartbeat.
They could also go on a lengthy winning streak. I’m going to keep this option short, as it’s probably not happening and needs no further analysis.
The Braves final hope is the trade deadline. There will be plenty of teams looking to get rid of players at the last-minute, some being more desperate than others. The Braves could truly capitalize on this advantage if they could turn a blind eye to the team’s historic moral standard and go after whatever option fits best. The key isn’t for the team to make a playoff run, but to show prospects and potential 2016 free agents that this is a desirable place to play, and with the creation of the new Braves stadium in Cobb County plus a team with a winning record, it shouldn’t be that hard!
At the end of the day, the team still has plenty of season to go. For all we know, the Mets and Nats may tank and the Braves could be in first by the All-Star Break. Baseball is an unpredictable game. If the Braves decide to fix the problem immediately which, unlike times in the past, the front office is making a great attempt at doing, the Braves will have a greater chance in the Russian roulette that is the NL East.