Fifth in an occasional series of analyses of the Braves' 2009 campaign, with an eye toward 2010. The first was on the end to our season, the second was about the pitching staff, the third was about the overhauled second half lineup, and the fourth was about the bench.
You might not realize it, but we had a pretty good bullpen this year, all things considered. We had the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 3.68 ERA in 476 2/3 innings. Because our rotation was so good, we also had the seventh-fewest bullpen innings, despite having four pitchers among the top 10 most-used pitchers in baseball: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, Peter Moylan, and Eric O'Flaherty. (They each had a lot more appearances than innings: despite each being in the top 10 in appearances, Soriano, Gonzalez and Moylan were 19th, 23rd, and 27th among relievers in innings pitched. Situational lefty O'Flaherty, with just 56 1/3 innings in 78 appearances, was the 9th most-used reliever in baseball, but had the 104th-most innings. That's reminiscent of Mike Myers.)
Of the Braves' four top relievers, Gonzalez and Soriano are both free agents, and considering the Braves' perennial search for a slugger in the middle of their lineup, it's likely the Braves won't try very hard with multiyear, multimillion dollar offers to bring either of them back. O'Flaherty has just over two years of service, so he's got one more year before arb eligibility; Peter Moylan, though he spent nearly all of 2008 on the DL, is arbitration eligible this offseason.
The two other returning relievers are both converted starters, Kenshin Kawakami and Kris Medlen, and their status depends on whether the Braves succeed in re-signing Tim Hudson -- and, if so, whether the Braves choose to deal some of their starting pitching depth for offensive help. Kawakami and Medlen both had fine rookie seasons, and neither is particularly suited to the bullpen -- with $13.5 million owed the next two years, Kawakami would be very expensive for a reliever who doesn't get many strikeouts, and Medlen was converted to starting in the minor leagues because of the depth of his stuff.
If there's only room in the rotation for one of them, as Tom has written, it's likely that Kawakami would get the nod. Kawakami's ten years older, about fifteen times more expensive, and was signed as a starter, while Medlen's ability to miss bats would be ideal for the back of the bullpen, especially with the departures of Gonzalez and Soriano.
So Medlen and Moylan would take the late innings, and O'Flaherty would do situational work in the 6th and 7th. Who else is there? Tom's a bigger James Parr fan than I am, and neither of us thinks much of Boone Logan or, Heaven help us, Manny Acosta. Buddy Carlyle, Jorge Campillo, and Vladimir Nunez are free agents, but the team can still offer them minor-league contracts. (In the cases of Campillo and Carlyle, I think they certainly should.)
Past them, however, we don't have a ton of organizational relief depth in the high minors or on the 40-man; instead, we've got guys like Luis Valdez and Stephen Marek, who've been hanging on for a long time without being able to make much of an impact. Cory Gearrin had a good year's end in Mississippi, but it's unlikely he breaks camp with the team.
And then there's Jo-Jo Reyes. I've been calling for him to go to the bullpen for well over a year now. It's possible that he finally will, as they really have nowhere else to put him. He'd at least be a better choice than Boone Logan. Unfortunately, he's not much more than a situational lefty -- in his major-league career, left-handed hitters are hitting .210/.291/.350 against him, and righties are batting .314/.394/.542 -- and O'Flaherty has that ground covered. But his minor league stats offer a bit more hope. In his career in the minors, Jo-Jo has a 3.53 FIP against lefties, 3.68 against righties. Righties are actually only batting .225 against him, while lefties are hitting .250 against him. He's flunked out of the starting rotation pretty decisively, but he could still be useful to the organization. Stick him in the pen and see if some low-leverage innings can help him rediscover the strike zone.
Of course, there's no chance that the guys we've got are all the guys we're going to see in February. Eric O'Flaherty was a waiver acquisition last November -- for what it's worth, that's the same month they signed Nunez -- and I fully expect Wren to stuff his stockings with other franchises' castoffs around the same time this year. The bullpen was a secret strength this year, and evidence is mounting that Roger McDowell might actually be a pretty good pitching coach. Bullpens are so unpredictable, and reliever attrition is so high -- particularly when Bobby Cox is the one pushing the buttons -- that it's very hard to build a strong bullpen in the offseason and have it perform according to plan. The best you can do is assemble a group of talented arms and then surround them with a ton of depth. Wren did a good job last year. Over the next couple months, we'll get to see how he's doing for next year.