Atlanta Braves fans have heard the recurring story over the past 6 months:
“We have an unlimited supply of money now! We can shop at any aisle that we need to improve our team!”
I’m pretty much paraphrasing the Braves front office as the 2018 season ended with their first division title in 5 years and after a three year run of a relatively painful rebuild.
Of course, the comment excited Braves fans on the idea of netting one, maybe two big name free agent stars, including Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and others. If not the big name stars, key free agents to bolster a solid, yet somewhat inexperienced rotation with no bulldog grinding pitcher (or a legit #1 ace) and most notably a massive upgrade to the bullpen.
Then the free agency period began. The Braves jumped on it early, signing former MVP Josh Donaldson on a 1 year, $22 million contract and bringing home former Braves star Brian McCann to split time with Tyler Flowers and end his great career to where he started. People went, “okay…the Donaldson move pretty much took out the idea of Harper and Machado, but if he’s healthy, he can rake. And yay, McCann is home! Maybe we can get a key reliever or two now and focus our money on that, or maybe a starter.”
Patrick Corbin…gone to Washington. JA Happ, stuck with the Yankees. Dallas Keuchel had a high salary demand which pretty much eliminated the Braves. “Okay, makes sense, we do have great arms all over the farm so I guess investing in a bulldog/ace guy is not THAT important. Let’s focus on the bullpen now. Hey, Craig Kimbrel is available! Bring him home like we did with McCann!”
Kimbrel, Joe Kelly, Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, etc. were on the market. Kelly goes to the Dodgers. Ottavino, Yankees. Miller, Cardinals. Wilson, Nationals (yes, I’m grasping at straws for this one, but is Wilson any worse than what the Braves have now in the bullpen?).
Kimbrel….due to either high salary demand, a loss of a draft pick to the team who signs him, north of 30, or how he had some struggles in October, hadn’t been signed. In February/March, rumors were sky high of Kimbrel and the Braves being very close to a deal. Fans, who were frustrated after the Donaldson/McCann signings as Atlanta passed on everyone, were excited on the hopes Kimbrel would be wearing that Tomahawk once more. And….nope. Fans went from being excited to mad. Listen to the sports talk radios in Atlanta and hear the arguing of them saying they lacked to go after bullpen arms after the promise of making a big splash in the hot stove market. The majority of the personalities were in agreement too. Even when former Braves great John Smoltz got on the local station to talk about Atlanta’s off-season, he was stunned the Braves hadn’t made key moves to improve the pen as well and probably set the team back from the rest of the NL East not named the Marlins.
Then the regular season began…the Braves get swept by the Phillies and the bullpen crashed and burned badly. The fans were livid, furious, and constantly barking about the bullpen. Of course, the Braves had the argument of “well, it’s only 3 games. R.E.L.A.X.” Then Atlanta rolls off a nice run of going 9-3. Of course, the Braves argument? “Hey, our bullpen did fine…no Kimbrel or otherwise needed!”
Then a sweep by the Diamondbacks at home where Atlanta surrendered late leads in the first two games while the last game the bullpen kept the team from getting into the game late…and we are back to square one. Adding on, their best reliever, the closer Arodys Vizcaino, is out for the season due to shoulder surgery. Fans who are pretty much donating their paycheck to SunTrust Park for a night are booing late in the games. Fans on social media and sports talk show hosts are constantly saying “bring in Kimbrel! We don’t care if it costs us a draft pick! You say you have the money! You have to overspend on players in baseball anyway!” (though the Braves probably made highway robbery on extending Ozzie Albies, but that’s another story)
The response from the organization about Kimbrel has been simple: “We are NOT going to give up our draft pick! We are not going to overspend on one guy! We like what we have for arms in our farm and we don’t need to make a trade! It’s a rough patch, but we will recover and compete in 2019!”
Fool me once…..
The Braves last year won the division with the offense and solid starting pitching. However, it wasn’t a dominant run from the starters and given how the NL East was last season with the Mets being injury plagued, the Nationals massively underachieving for all their talent, and the Phillies being a young bunch, it was really theirs because of the fewer gaping holes compared to the rest of the division.
Some said they were a year ahead of their target for contending thus spoiling Braves fans and that the “plan was in order.” Ironically those comments of “spending on whomever” were really made before the 2018 season.
There has always been a disconnect or at least for a while with the Braves organization and the fans. The front office has always had a “holier than thou” attitude towards the fans and that the Braves fan base should never question their decisions. Even with the bullpen woes this year, it has been “we are really feeling it will be fine and you shouldn’t worry-we have the arms” and as Braves announcer Chip Caray (who has no choice but to defend what the Braves do) said a few nights back that “if you look all over the Majors right now, bullpen woes are a constant all over.” That said, we hear from everybody how Atlanta has a bevvy of arms in the farm system and many are in Gwinnett, so why aren’t they here? One argument is that the arms they have are mostly starters. Is it too much to move a few as relievers? Or use it for a quality reliever in a trade?
One semi-fix is that Brian Snitker needs to extend some of his starting rotation arms. Part of the bullpen woes is because of they are constantly worked and at times overworked. Only twice so far Atlanta has sent a starter past the 6th inning and a handful of times the Braves starters have made it to the 6th, even if they have been pitching well before they got the handshake. Snitker may be playing the “third time around” and/or “the last guy got a good at-bat” bit and is trigger happy to go to the bullpen. In that case, then it has be on Snitker. He needs to give some of these players a rest.
The issue for the Braves remains and that is the bullpen. If the people who run the team either are too proud or just really are blind to it then it is going to be the downfall in 2019. There is not much margin for error as the Mets, Phillies, and Nationals made vast improvements in the off-season where the Braves made little. But if the Braves fail in 2019, the issue is not going to be the bullpen, but the inability to be proactive with making the right moves.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat