With all of the profiles for bullpen candidates next season, we now have to look at the bigger picture. These are the relievers with a significant shot at the pen next season.
* Gonzalez is recovering from elbow surgery and won't be available until around the All-Star break
By my count, there are only a handful of players with options left from this list. They are Charlie Morton, Phil Stockman, and Manny Acosta (Update: I've been informed that Royce Ring and Devine both have options. Both have very good shots at making the pen so I don't think it will have that much of an effect). I've seen a couple mentioning that Devine still has one more option, and I may be wrong, however by my understanding, he has used all three up. This definitely makes the decision a little tougher for Bobby Cox since a few of the players he leaves off will probably be sucked up by another team.
The Braves' bullpen ranked second in the National League in ERA last season, behind only San Diego. Not too bad, especially considering that Bob Wickman was closing for half the year, both Tyler Yates and Rafael Soriano suffered through huge streaks of mind-numbing ineffectiveness, and a host of other problems. Why many Braves fans I've talked to our pessimistic about the '08 pen Bobby Cox will be turning to is beyond my comprehension.
Scanning down the list, the first thing I noticed was the ability of this group of pitchers. Gonzalez and Soriano both have closing experience, Moylan would be closing on most other teams, and Devine has been considered the closer of the future since the Braves drafted him in the first round of the draft. This bullpen has proven arms, young guns with incredible potential, and to think that some combination of these twelve hurlers won't carry on as one of the best bullpens in the game seems like unreasonable logic to me. No matter which way you look at it, this bullpen should be able to do everything asked of it. There are nine pitchers who can run their fastball up in the mid-90's, a luxury which the Braves in recent years, haven't had. The Atlanta relief corps has the great ability to ring up the K's, but just like every other Bobby bullpen, this one ha a ground ball specialist. However, unlike Kevin Gryboski or Chad Paronto, this Aussie is dominant and can do just about anything asked of him. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Peter Moylan, based on his versatility and dominance, is one of the top three most valuable relievers in baseball.
With all this said, how do I see the bullpen on opening day? Here's a preliminary guess.
RHP Rafael Soriano
RHP Peter Moylan
RHP Tyler Yates
RHP Joey Devine
RHP Blaine Boyer
LHP Royce Ring
LHP Will Ohman
Soriano, Moylan, and Ring are pretty much locks to land a spot in the pen. Yates, Devine, and Ohman also have very good chances, and Boyer is the one I'm going out on a limb with. He enjoyed a fantastic run back with team in 2005 before undergoing surgery in '06. The reason I include him instead of Manny Acosta is that a.) he's got fantastic stuff and potential and b.) he's out of options, while Acosta still has two left. The Braves have been high on Boyer this past year with quite a few positive reports coming out of the high-ups who saw him pitch, despite mediocre numbers at Richmond. He was utilized quite a bit as a starter this past season so he could be the one to occupy the long-relief role that Oscar Villarreal has held for the past couple seasons.
I know, a bunch of you guys are going to get on me for keeping Yates and leaving off Jeff Bennett, who is out of options. I was impressed with Bennett as well at the end of the season, but we've got to look at this realistically. His control and strikeout rate both dramatically improved after his jump to the majors. For a guy that really hasn't seen much major league action recently, that should be a big warning sign. He's got a nice sinker but with mediocre control and ability to blow one by hitters, he's going to have to prove himself in spring training. Something I don't think he'll do when up against Boyer or Acosta. There are tons of teams who will be looking for a fifth starter around that time so I'd expect him to be shipped off before the start of the season.
This is just a fantastic pen. You've got three guys in Soriano, Moylan, and Devine who have the potential to be dominant forces at the end of games as well as two more right-handers in Yates and Boyer who should be pretty dependable out of the pen. The left-handers are the question for me right now. Ring struggled last season in the majors with his command but I don't expect that to continue over the long-run. He won't be as good as Mahay overall, but should handle lefties better. Ohman, who was recently acquired from the Cubs, is the biggest question mark and the most likely to be looking for work elsewhere once Mike Gonzalez returns. His numbers away from Wrigley and against left-handers have been spectacular over his career so only time will tell what he can do in a different uniform and hopefully in a more specialized role. Bobby Cox's greatest strength as a manager has always been the ability to utilize relievers in a role that best suits their ability. That has led to well over a decade worth of scrap-heap relievers who became dominant bullpen arms out of Cox's pen. Ohman fits that bill exactly.
The addition of Tom Glavine is probably the biggest help to this bullpen though. For the first time in a couple years, the Braves have a true number three starter capable of pitching 200 innings next year. We're looking at 600+ innings from the first three starters in 2008 along with one of the better back-ends of a rotation in the NL. Don't doubt the bullpen. Even if the opening day pen has a weakness, there are enough mixing and matching options available that a decent reliever is bound to turn up somewhere in the organization.