By most any measure, the Atlanta Braves bullpen has had a terrible performance in 2015. The collection of rookies, castoffs, and grizzled veterans have combined for a 4.81 ERA, which ranks 30th in baseball. If, like me, you don’t believe that ERA tells the entire story much of the time, then have no fear: FIP (a measure of those things that only the pitcher controls and eliminates good and bad defenses from the equation) also has them dead last in baseball, at 4.62. Regardless of what measure one uses to grade it, the Atlanta Braves bullpen has been horrid so far this year. For a team that was expected to be terrible this season by most analysts, every blown save and lost win is doubly disappointing. Improving the Braves bullpen may not make the team much better, but it may well keep the interest of fans who have so far been impressed with the competitiveness and ‘fire’ exhibited by the team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the readily available options for the Atlanta Braves bullpen.
By readily available, I am referring to pitchers who are available as free agents or who have recently been Designated For Assignment (DFA) and can be easily had. There are far too many options available to consider trades among all the other teams. We know that the Braves are looking to bolster the bullpen via trade, but given that they reportedly are reluctant to part with good, young (controllable and cheap) talent or take on significant money, we can probably say that relievers via trade are not ‘readily available’.
#Braves are trying to trade for reliever(s), but won’t give up young talent or pay big $ to do it.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienAJC) June 4, 2015
So, who are some options for the Braves bullpen?
The New York Yankees designated David Carpenter for assignment on June 3rd, and speculation immediately began about a potential return to Atlanta. The news was met with raucous applause from Braves’ fans, if for no other reason than it was someone they had heard of before. Carpenter, a former member of the Braves bullpen, was not particularly effective in New York, posting a 4.82 ERA in 18 2/3 IP. His peripherals suggest that he actually was pretty bad as a Yankee. He notched a 5.32 FIP, and his rate of 5.3 SO/9 was a career low and is almost half of his career average.
Looking at Carpenter’s games pitched, however, it seems his season numbers are somewhat inflated by two appearances totaling 1.0 IP. On May 15th against Toronto, Carpenter entered the 9th with a 6-0 lead. He gave up a leadoff home run that didn’t hurt, and then recorded two quick outs. A walk, defensive indifference, a high-hop ground rule double, and a single made it a quick three run inning. And a month earlier, on April 15th, Carpenter was charged with three runs in 1/3 IP, despite being in the shower when two of the runs scored. Carpenter entered in the 6th inning with a one run lead and promptly gave up a tying home run. The next batter singled, and then moved over on a sacrifice. Yankee manager Joe Girardi intentionally walked the next batter to set up a double play and pulled Carpenter in favor of ground ball specialist Justin Wilson (no, not the Cajun guy). Wilson gave up a single and a double to clear the bases of all of Carpenter’s runners and one of his own.
Without that combined one inning, Carpenter has an ERA of 2.03 and has a job. Those appearances happened, and we must consider them in evaluating his performance, but the two big innings seem to have skewed an otherwise relatively good year into a poor one for Carpenter. His significant drop in K-rate is concerning, but his velocity is consistent with his career norms (94.9 MPH). His first-pitch strike rate is down and fewer pitches are in the zone, indicating he may be getting into predictable hitter counts on occasion.
The Braves could probably obtain Carpenter fairly cheaply. Provided he doesn’t cost much to acquire, the Braves should target him. He had 22 appearances this season, and was largely effective in 91% of them. Carpenter would probably be a welcome addition to a beleaguered Braves bullpen.
Likely Cost: The Braves could probably acquire Carpenter for a minimal prospect, and would only be on the hook for a pro-rated portion of a MLB minimum contract.
David Aardsma opted out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, choosing to become a free agent. Aardsma had a provision in his contract that required him to be on the Dodgers’ 25-man roster within 72 hours of June 1st or he could opt-out. Los Angeles chose to leave him at AAA affiliate Oklahoma City, despite a successful season as their closer. Aardsma was 0-1 with a 2.41 ERA (2.24 FIP) and 15 Saves in 18 2/3 IP. He managed a rate of 11.09 K/9 in his stint at Oklahoma City. Aardsma is a ‘proven closer’, having saved 69 games with a 2.90 ERA (3.44 FIP) in his two seasons as the Seattle Mariners’ closer in 2009-2010.
However, Aardsma last pitched in the big leagues in September of 2013, and has only pitched 40 2/3 MLB innings since September of 2010. He has battled hip and elbow surgeries (yes, Tommy John surgery) that have slowed his career, But, he has been able to work his way back, pitching 65 appearances with the Mets and Marlins organizations in 2013, and 35 games with the Cardinals organization last season.
Aardsma would be a reclamation project, but he would also be a cheap acquisition that would not cost any of the prized prospects that the Braves have stockpiled. Braves’ pitching coach Roger McDowell has had success with reclamation projects in the past (David Carpenter, Eric O’Flaherty, Anthony Varvaro). He would likely not get anything more than a pro-rated MLB minimum deal, or perhaps slightly more. With a very limited downside and a decent ceiling, Aardsma could be worth a spot in the Braves bullpen. But fans should note that he does have a career ERA over 4.00 in the big leagues, so his AAA numbers should be viewed with caution.
Likely Cost: Aardsma is a FA and will not cost anything to acquire. He shouldn’t receive anything other than a 1-yr deal near the league minimum.
Rafael Soriano, also a former member of the Braves bullpen, is available and will be working out for teams on June 10th, according to his new representation. The former Scott Boras client moved to Octagon Baseball last week, apparently frustrated that he still remained unsigned at this point in the season. Despite remaining unsigned, Soriano has drawn interest from teams this season. The Marlins worked him out, but felt that he would not be an upgrade to anything they already had. Soriano is another ‘proven closer’, and there has been some speculation that one reason he remains unsigned is because former agent Scott Boras was seeking a contract comparable to other top closers. While no specific contract offers have been made public, one might find it reasonable to believe a pitcher of Soriano’s caliber could have signed already, if it weren’t for a high salary demand.
Like the others, there are reasons to be cautious with Soriano. Buster Olney of ESPN wrote that many scouts were wary of Soriano after he appeared to tire in the second half last season. Soriano posted a 6.48 ERA (4.05 FIP) in the second half, in which he also saw his WHIP double to 1.60. He is also 35 years old and has lost 1.5 MPH off of his career average velocity.
With more injuries happening every day in MLB, and with no Scott Boras to deal with, it’s likely that Soriano signs a contact in the next couple of weeks. He’s a proven late relief option, and, even if he isn’t the Rafael Soriano of 2009-2010, he would still be an upgrade to the Braves bullpen.
Likely Cost: Soriano has a proven pedigree as a late inning reliever, so there will be some salary involved. Something along the lines of a 2-yr/$10M deal is what I expect, although given his age, I would prefer a 1-yr/$6M offer from the Braves.
Ryan Kelly is a feel-good story for the Braves. A former 26th-round pick who was on the cusp of the majors, Kelly was released and signed with the Braves as a minor league free agent in 2014. He essentially started his career over at A+ Lynchburg, and he has been outstanding in the Braves organization. At all levels (A+, AA, and AAA) in 2014-2015, Kelly has posted an ERA of 2.00 (FIP ~2.80), with a 10.0 K/9. In 2015, he’s been stellar, posting a line of 2-1/0.39 ERA/11 Saves in 23 total innings pitched at AA and AAA.
Weber signed with the Braves after being their 22nd round pick in 2009. He functions much like Kris Medlen did early in his career, serving as short relief, long relief, and spot starter as needed. Overall, Weber’s minor league career hasn’t been particular noteworthy, with a career 4.07 ERA in seven minor league seasons. but he has been quite effective in 2015, recording a 0-2/2.12 ERA/1 Save line at AA/AAA. Where he seems able to help the most is in his control. Weber is not particularly a strikeout pitcher, but he doesn’t walk people. He has a career 1.5 BB/9 rate in his 7 MiLB seasons, and has a 0.5 BB/9 rate this season. He has struck out 27 batters with only two walks on the year. For comparison, Grg Maddux walked 1.8 batters per 9 IP in his career.
This is a different David Carpenter than the one mentioned above. This David Carpenter (henceforth known as Carp #2) signed with the Braves after they traded away the one above. Carp #2 has MLB experience, having pitched 43 innings over three seasons with the California Los Angeles of Anaheim in Orange County Near Disneyland Angels. In 22 innings at AAA Gwinnett in 2015, Carp #2 has an ERA of 0.82 (FIP 2.75), although his 3.7 BB/9 does give pause. Carp #2 has MLB experience and is managing to record outs, so perhaps his presence can solidify the Braves bullpen.
Promoting Ryan Kelly and signing/acquiring David Carpenter are two moves that are low risk, low cost, and potentially very high upside for the Braves. The Braves are still technically in the hunt for a Wild Card or Division playoff spot. It is possible to overcome three game deficits this early in the season. And, looking at the games lost by the bullpen (and adjusting for ones they kept the Braves in), the Braves could realistically be tied with the Nationals for the Division lead. Taking measures to improve the bullpen could keep the Braves competitive and in the playoff hunt (something that John Hart has said they would strive for) while also keeping fans excited and tuned in during the “retooling” of the team.