Where Do We Go From Here? Part 3, The Bullpen

If you’re behind in this series, here’s a link for part 1 and part 2.

As fresh as the wound of being bounced from the postseason still is, the band-aid of getting to talk about constructing the 2021 roster is here to help. It may just be my previous suffering of dramatic playoff losses and sitting through teams like the 68-93 2016 Braves, but the offseason is my favorite time of the baseball year. The hope of a new season, free agent signings, trades, anything can happen!

How Do We Top 2020?

After finishing 2020 with a bullpen ERA of 3.50, nearly a full run lower than league average, it’ll be difficult to replicate in 2021. Going into 2020 the Braves had at least four guys with experience closing ballgames: Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Shane Greene and A.J. Minter. Two of those four are now free agents. Whether good for the Braves or not is yet to be seen, but MLB bullpens will go back to 8 men for 2021 with the rosters once again being restricted to 13 pitchers.

The Locks

Will Smith: Smith will make $26M over the next 2 seasons. As the roster stands currently, Smith is likely slated to be the 2021 closer. 2020 was kind of a rough season for Smith, who gave up 8 runs in 16 innings during the regular season. However, 7 of those 8 came via the home run. I attributed this cold start to Smith starting the year on the COVID list and missing Summer Camp. Playoff Smith looked like a return to the guy the Braves signed, until he allowed the Dodgers Will Smith to launch a 3-run homer off of him in game 5 of the NLCS, the lone blemish on his otherwise great postseason line. I expect more of 2019 Smith after a normal Spring Training and plenty of offseason rest.

Chris Martin: Martin was nails in 2020, allowing just 2 ER in his 18 IP. He was fantastic in the postseason as well, allowing 2 ER in his 8 innings pitched. The caveat here is he will likely be remembered for giving up the go-ahead homer to Bellinger that allowed the Dodgers to win game 7. Martin will make $7M next year in the final year of his contract, and should be lined up to fill a set-up type role.

Darren O’Day: O’Day has a $3.5M option for 2020 that is almost guaranteed to be picked up. O’Day was also amazing, giving up 2 ER in his 16.1 IP. He gave up 2 ER in NLCS game 2, but they proved insignificant. Braves fans should look forward to seeing the side-arm slinger with a career 2.51 ERA back in the Braves bullpen.

A.J. Minter: Even if all you saw of Minter was his 3 inning, 1 hit, 7 K start in game 5 of the NLCS, that should tell you all you need about Minter’s 2021 status. He gave up just 2 ER in 21.2 regular season innings. He also gave up the game-tying HR in game 7, but you can’t pin that all on him after the season he had. He clearly figured something out that allowed him to be even more dominant than he was in his fantastic 2018 season.

Tyler Matzek: Matzek was a heck of a pickup for the Braves. After bouncing around the MLB and being diagnosed with the “yips,” the Braves purchased his contract from the Texas Airhogs in late 2019. He gave up 9 ER in 29 IP and was able to pitch multiple crucial innings. In the postseason, he was brilliant. He gave up just 1 ER in 8.2 IP and struck out 14 batters. So much for the yips, he was able to perform on the biggest stage. The Braves still have Matzek under contract for 4 more seasons and he should be a lock for the Opening Day roster as he can fill the LR role and pitch in big spots.

The Fringe Options

Jacob Webb: I personally love Webb and if I were making the roster, he’d be a lock. He has plus pitches and has shown immense success in his small MLB samples. He gave up 0 ER in 10 IP this year and 5 ER in 32.1 IP in 2019. He was tagged for a 3-run homer in game 5 of the NLCS, but that seems to be his lone blemish on a bright young career thus far. He worked his way through the system after being drafted by the Braves in the 18th round of the 2014 draft. I love the kid and I’m excited to see him continue pitching.

Huascar Ynoa: Ynoa earned recognition as a potential NLCS MVP after throwing 4 1-hit innings in a blowout game 3 of the NLCS. If it weren’t for a few rocky outings, Ynoa had a pretty decent campaign in 2020. He certainly pitched his best out of the bullpen. I think Ynoa could slide nicely into the LR spot, a guy that can give you 2-3 innings facing the order once through and pass it to the next guy. Piggy backing him with a young starter in the 5th rotation spot could also be a viable option, albeit one I’m not sure the Braves would entertain with only an 8-man pen as it is.

Luke Jackson: After a breakout 2019 season, Luke reverted to his old form of “Puke Yakson” as I had coined him in 2018. He gave up nearly a run an inning and his K/9 fell from 13.1 to 6.8. Simply put, he was not the same pitcher. Luke may be a trade candidate going into the offseason if a team thinks they can tap back into his elite pitcher status from 2019, but there may be too many young arms clawing for a spot for him to make it into the pen in 2021.

Grant Dayton: Dayton pitched great in his 27.1 regular season innings, allowing just 7 ER. The problem here, his lone postseason appearance yielded 8 ER in 2 IP. Dayton is already 33 years old and has not surpassed 30 IP in any of his 4 MLB seasons. The small sample sizes have been good, I’m just not sure he makes the roster.

Sean Newcomb: I’m not really sure what the Braves plan to do with Newcomb. He showed promise as a reliever in 2019, but the experiment to let him start again seemed to fail rather miserably. With Davidson and Muller on the way and Minter/Matzek already locked in the pen, I’m not sure if there’s really a need for another lefty. Maybe Newcomb becomes trade bait. Could he be the piece used to unload Ender’s contract?

Free Agent Targets

Mark Melancon: Mark the Shark. Mark converted 11 of his 13 save opportunities, allowing 7 ER in his 22.2 IP. While the ERA may not be as pristine as some of the other guys, he was dominant nonetheless and a force at the backend of the pen. I’d love to see a veteran like Melancon come back, he knows what it takes to win and he’s hungry for a ring. It may take a bit more but something like 2 years for $12M may be enough to lure Mark back to Atlanta.

Shane Greene: Greene never really got to be the closer we thought he’d be when we traded for him at last year’s deadline, but he did what he needed to do: he was effective. I don’t think we’ll see Greene back in Atlanta due to price and his desire to close games, but if he somehow makes it back on the roster, I don’t think anybody would complain.

Josh Tomlin: Bringing Tomlin back would be strictly as a veteran presence. He wasn’t awful in his LR/starter role and it was a very weird season, but I think there’s young guys that would be a better use of the roster spot. I love Josh, but even at a price tag around $1M, I’m not sure he’s worth the spot.

Liam Hendriks: This won’t happen, but one can dream.

Pedro Baez: Baez has been a steady horse in the Dodgers bullpen over the last 7 seasons. He holds a career 3.03 ERA and is 33 years old. He made $4M last year and likely wants a raise, maybe he would take something similar to the 2/$12M I proposed for Melancon.  

Where Do We Go From Here?

With the 5 locks, plus Webb who I feel has a great shot to make the team, there’s two open spots. If I had to guess, I’d say one FA joins the stable whether that’s bringing Melancon back or bringing in someone like Baez. The last spot should be filled internally and I would give Ynoa the inside track, but anything can happen between now and opening day. The only thing that is certain, this bullpen should still be a force to be reckoned with in 2021.

Author: Matt P

Hello, I’m Matt Pocza! I am a 4th year finance and economics student at the University of Florida and I love the Atlanta Braves. I’ve played baseball my entire life, and I am a sidearm pitcher for the club team at Florida. I also enjoy scuba diving, football and business. Follow me on twitter @braves_rumors!

29 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? Part 3, The Bullpen”

  1. Thanks Matt. It’s hard to judge relief pitchers already because they throw so few innings, and this is only compounded in 2020. It’s wild to think that O’Day only threw 16 regular season innings, or that Melancon only threw 22 innings.

  2. I don’t understand the Webb love and would love to know why you have such affection for him, Matt — could you go into a bit more detail on what you see in him? I see him as a guy who could turn into an effective middle reliever but while he may have Shae Simmons’s injury history I’m not sure he’s got Shae Simmons’s stuff.

    I see him and Dayton in a similar category: they’ve got the potential to be valuable contributors, but I’m not fully convinced.

    Different story with Minter and Matzek — I’m fully convinced.

  3. @2, He has elite fastball spin, his pitches have a lot of life and movement and I like that he increased the use of his changeup which is an average of 11 mph slower than his fastball; that’s a big change of speeds out of a changeup and will make it hard for guys to wait on it. According to his quality of pitch report he’s about league average, but I think he can improve that and it’s small sample size. He could very well prove me wrong, but I think he has the “it” factor and just like watching the guy pitch.

  4. While I don’t have as much faith in Webb that Matt P has, Webb’s Barrel rate was 4% in 2020 and 6.7% in 2019, which is very much elite. His changeup showed elite makeup with a 45.2% whiff rate. For me, he’s either got to develop his curve a bit as it’s not a good 3rd pitch, or he needs to drop it and just go FB/CH combo which I wouldn’t mind.

    I also think that this year, good not great relievers will be a dime a dozen and Braves could fill the rest of their bullpen with guys they pay 2 million or less.

    But…I want Matzek to start.

  5. I’d say that a 6.7% barrel rate in 2021 is more than elite, it’s unbelievable :)

    But he literally threw just 168 pitches this year; he has thrown 704 pitches in his entire 42.1 inning major league career. I think it’s hard to draw conclusions in any direction.

  6. Between Ryan, Alex, and Matt, this has been a great series so far. Thank you.

    With an 8-man pen, the decisions get tough. While Melancon doesn’t have the shutdown stuff you’d like to see from a closer, the dude is a bulldog and seems to have an aggressive and positive impact on the rest of the pen. I’d love to bring him back. I think Greene is a goner. I agree with the locks: Smith, Martin, O’Day, Minter, and Matzek will be back. So that’s 6 guys you’d love to give the ball to.

    From the remaining options, I continue to love the upside of Newcomb as a reliever, especially at his cost. And the final spot would be for a multi-inning guy, so I think that would go to Jackson. While I also really like Webb, he like Ynoa have options, so they’d be on the Gwinnett shuttle. Ynoa would be a multi-inning option in the case of injury. Webb would be next in line to fill a key spot long-term. If Tomlin will sign a minor league deal and hang out for a while, great. If not, he’s no loss. Dayton is out of options, if I’m not mistaken, so he gone. Just too much cheap talent with options ahead of him in the pecking order.

    The bullpen was a key strength last year, and even losing Greene and others won’t hurt. Plus, at some point, you’re going to have to do the same thing you did with Newcomb by cutting bait as a starter and committing to them as a reliever with guys like Ynoa, Wilson, and Touki. So you have to keep some space available for guys like them to at least have some shot at an opportunity, otherwise you’ve wasted the secondary option for all of these prospects you acquired way back when.

  7. @6
    As Chief Editor here, I can make mistakes disappear.

    I also agree that there’s not much to conclude on Webb just yet, but we can’t just ignore an elite barrel rate as it’s a tell-tale sign of good things to come.

  8. On Webb, I have to say I too think he has some upside. He did look good in his limited innings.

    I agree with the 5 locks and also with Rob that Newk will/should be given another chance in the pen (but not as starter.) If not him, it will likely be Ynoa of the assets we control. That’s 6. There will surely be a shuttle between them. I agree that Greene is likely gone and while it would be nice to resign Melancon, I also agree that he is not your prototypical closer (and not getting any younger.) He will also likely cost $ that may be better spent elsewhere. Of the 5 above locks, outside of O’Day, I think any one of them could close (and most already have.)

    2021 may not show as an elite pen like this year, but we have or can get the arms to be nearly as close. Truly, the biggest issue here is finding the closer. The rest will likely sort itself out. Of the needs going into next year, I think this one is low on the list.

    ETA – And on Tomlin, sure give him an invite to Spring Training. If nothing else, he can start his coaching career.

  9. I would allow Melancon to move on. It seems when a team shows him they believe in him, he struggles. I’d rather see Minter, or one of those closers we’ve collected, move into the ninth inning. We got the good Melancon, kinda like the Pirates had before his travels began. Old closers are usually poor investments.

  10. If you gave Melancon a two-year deal, then his downside for those two years are probably that he is merely a setup man. If you avoid paying him more than $12M per, then I feel like the downside is palatable. But the upside of having a reliable late-inning reliever is really attractive. I also see Melancon giving us a bit of a discount, especially with relievers being really the only unit on the free agent market with a lot of options.

    We have a lot of money coming off the books — O’Day’s higher salary down to the club option, Melancon, Greene, Ozuna, Hamels, even Markakis — with less holes to fill than we did a year ago. I don’t know if it’s necessary to go from paying an absurd amount for the 2020 payroll to paying very little for the 2021 payroll. Plus, you have to spend the money somewhere, and there just aren’t a ton of good free agents out there. A generic MLB piece lists the following as the top 5 free agents: Realmuto, Bauer, Springer, Semien, and Ozuna. Besides Ozuna, the top guys really don’t interest me much.

  11. Random question: would Yasiel Puig have helped us in the NLCS? In an alternative universe where Puig doesn’t get COVID, Markakis probably doesn’t opt back in.

  12. I think Puig could have been better Duvall insurance than Camargo. But really, if we had Puig, I don’t think Duvall would have gotten his opportunity to break out. Not sure how much he really could have moved the needle, honestly.

  13. First off, the “Huascar Ynoa as dark-horse NLCS MVP candidate” thing needs to die. And since we lost, it certainly will. He saved like two innings of bullpen usage over the course of the series. I mean, let’s not be silly here. If we had won the series, he would’ve had virtually nothing to do with it (barring a potential alternate reality where he did, in fact, have something to do with it by pitching in extra innings of Game 7 or something). He walked four guys in four innings…meaning he didn’t really even pitch that well. I know this is an irrelevant argument, but it’s just bugged me every time I’ve heard it since Game 3.

    Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest…I think that a business end of the bullpen featuring Smith as the closer, Martin as the setup man, O’Day and Minter as the primary left/right middle relievers is perfectly serviceable. Not as good as this year, perhaps, but it’ll do fine. Throw in a free-agent signing or something of the like to get one more guy, and throw in Tyler Matzek (who I’d wait to see what he does next year before assuming he is what he showed this year) and Ynoa as a swing guy, and that bullpen should be adequate if we can find a back half of the rotation that can actually average five innings a start.

    P.S. I think Webb showed enough to be able to safely give him the Luke Jackson role. I’ve largely been a proponent of Jackson’s (though not as closer), but I think I’ve finally seen enough of him.

  14. @15 – I’m not sure who is making that argument. But Ynoa did fine work over the short season. I’m curious to see what he could do over 162.

    And yeah, I moved my thoughts from Puig the minute he tested positive for Covid. Good luck to him next year but he won’t be part of our plans.

  15. Duvall may not have broken out, but you’d have had Puig over Markakis, which I think would have been an upgrade.

  16. @17
    I’m not so sure that’s true. Puig could very well be an option should the Braves be strapped for cash. I’d keep Duvall, add Puig, then grab a LH bench bat like Matt Joyce.

    On relievers that could be considered for 1 year deals to replace Melancon or Greene, Kirby Yates is at the top of my list. He’ll likely be looking for a bounceback 1 year contract after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Seems like the type of deal AA makes.

  17. @18 – I hate to say this, because Neck surely is near ready for retirement, but his spot on the team meant a lot more to cohesiveness than Puig ever might have done. Puig might have been an upgrade on offense (debatable) but I doubt he would have found the same respect by the young guys, as far as that goes. Say what you will about Nick Markakis, but he showed his “professionalism” off the field as much as on (which we can all agree, was less than lights out these days.)

    And @19 – Sure, give Puig a shot. See what he has. He still has some talent, one assumes.

  18. Honestly, at this point, I think Puig helps because he can actually hit, and he fits out culture a little better than a stoic Greek who can’t hit.

  19. The stoic Greek
    turns the other cheek
    thanks you for your troubles
    though how about my 500 doubles?

  20. More doubles than Ruth.
    Ain’t that the truth?
    But fewer than Rolen?
    I’d better be goin’.

  21. I don’t know how good Neck is at coaching, but I’d be up for making him a minor league coach. Can’t be worse than Lil’ Jonny.

  22. A guy we have likely forgotten about but could be a LH bat option is Scott Schebler. It’ll be telling whether or not he gets added to the 40 man roster. Personally, I think he’d make a great 4th OF type.

  23. I’m not sure what we could have asked of Melancon that we didn’t get (seven appearances and zero runs in the postseason). The Braves seem to look at Smith as the closer of the future, but he sure didn’t show it in ’20. Maybe next year, but in the meantime, bring back the guy who simply gets people out.

  24. Melancon is definitely a throwback, sort of like a Rod Beck. Doesn’t appear to have overwhelming stuff, but he certainly can come in and throw strikes. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about him either way, but he’s generally been just what the doctor ordered for us.

    Ryan, I think you have been way higher on Schebler than I have ever since we brought him in. Same question as I asked Matt about Jacob Webb — could you tell me a little bit about what you see in him? Why do you like him?

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