The Atlanta Braves were one of the surprises in baseball last season, arriving a year ahead of schedule to capture their first National League East division title since 2013.
With a slew of young stars like NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies joining franchise fixture Freddie Freeman in the lineup, the Braves rode a high-scoring offense and s surprisingly effective starting rotation into the playoffs, where they would lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
However, even amidst their success, Atlanta’s glaring weaknesses in the bullpen burned them repeatedly. Braves relievers combined for a 4.15 ERA in 2018, and ranked 19th in combined WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.
Things have only gotten worse in 2019. Atlanta blew a three-run lead after they handed the ball over to the bullpen in an Apr. 16 matchup against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Chad Sobotka failed to get a single out and was charged with three earned runs, while A.J. Minter gave up three runs in the ninth after the Braves had managed to tie the game in the seventh inning.
Atlanta is already without Darren O’Day and Jonny Venters due to injury, and just today closer Arodys Vizcaino was shut down for the remainder of the season following shoulder surgery.
The NL East got significantly better as a whole in the offseason, but Atlanta’s weakest unit is already getting even weaker.
Lack of urgency in the winter
As previously mentioned, Atlanta’s relievers ranked in the bottom-half of the majors in both ERA and WAR last season. So it would seem that one of general manager Alex Anthopolous’ priorities would be adding a few dependable arms, right? Wrong.
While Atlanta did make a splash in free agency, they did so in signing former American League MVP Josh Donaldson. The bullpen, meanwhile, saw no significant upgrades as Anthopolous stressed that the Braves had plenty of arm talent coming up the pipeline.
And while that is certainly true, guys like Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson and Touki Toussaint are all pegged as starting pitchers, not relievers. In other words, all of Atlanta’s top pitching prospects should be considered rotation pieces.
When discussing Vizcaino’s injury, Anthopolous tried to explain that some of the bullpen struggles stem from the fact that five guys whom Atlanta thought would break camp have either gotten injured or had stints in the minors:
"That's five guys that we thought we would've broke (spring camp) with if you asked us in the winter."@Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos discusses Arodys Vizcaíno's season-ending surgery, bullpen injuries and whether the team plans to add a reliever. pic.twitter.com/buUYRY5PW6
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) April 17, 2019
The problem is that Atlanta never had reliable bullpen arms in the first place. So how credible is this statement?
According to spotrac, Atlanta’s adjusted payroll this season is at just over $118 million, which is nearly $90 million below the first luxury tax threshold.
There is really no reason that a team coming off of a division title should have been so cautious with their payroll in free agency, particularly considering the amount of financial flexibility the Braves would seem to possess. And yet, Anthopolous was hardly active at all in the market for relief pitchers
Now, with their closer and arguably most talented reliever out for the remainder of the season, Atlanta’s bullpen is in shambles, and their depth has been depleted. If the Braves cannot find some stability at the back end of ballgames, they do not stand a chance at repeating as division champions.
Time to pursue Kimbrel
The Braves actually did engage in conversations with Craig Kimbrel’s camp in the winter, though a deal never came to fruition. But with their relief unit looking more and more tenuous, it is time to bring Kimbrel back to the place where his career first began.
Kimbrel established himself as the best closer in baseball in his first five seasons, leading the National League in saves (46) at just 23 years old and leading the bigs in saves in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Kimbrel posted a 1.43 ERA and 14.8 K/9 in Atlanta, absolutely overpowering opponents.
And somehow, the reliever with highest ERA+ in big-league history remains unsigned. Part of this hesitancy stems from Kimbrel’s reported asking price:
Free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel continues to seek a deal he believes to be fair and in the range of two recent free-agent relievers, Wade Davis (3 years, $52M) and Zack Britton (3/$39M), sources tell The Athletic.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 13, 2019
Another factor is the compensatory draft pick attached to Kimbrel’s name, which would remain a factor for any team looking to pursue Kimbrel until after the Amateur Draft in June.
However, multiple teams are growing more and more desperate for bullpen help. The Milwaukee Brewers are without Corey Knebel for the remainder of the season, and are still waiting on Jeremy Jeffress from injury. And there is also a possibility that the Washington Nationals could still be in play, seeing as the Trevor Rosenthal signing has not panned out and nearly every key reliever outside of Kyle Barraclough and Sean Doolittle has been a disappointment.
Atlanta should beat the competitors to the punch and get aggressive. Especially considering that they have locked up Acuna and Albies to long-term deals via recent extension as well as their payroll flexibility, they can afford to offer Kimbrel the kind of multi-year deal that he has been looking for since November.
The Braves already rank 28th in relief WAR as of Apr. 17, according to Baseball-Reference. Should they fail to make an impact move, their grasp on the division will slowly slip away, regardless of how many runs they score.
Given their injury situation as well as the quality arms that Atlanta already has in the rotation, they should make the move on Kimbrel while he is still on the open market.