Where Should the Braves Turn for Bullpen Help?
In the past week, the Braves learned that both Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty would need Tommy John surgery (Venters' second such surgery) and will be out for a year. This is a blow to a bullpen that has been a strength for the Braves for the past two seasons. Venters and O'Flaherty teamed with all-world closer Craig Kimbrel to form a lethal late-inning trio. The Braves will now almost surely be looking to upgrade the pen by the trade deadline.
Give Me Some Southpaws
The big problem is the abject lack of lefties in the bullpen. Currently, Luis Avilan is the team’s best LHP option, and he has all of 53 innings of big league experience. He has been good against righties so far in his career, posting a .228/.298/.274 slash line against. But he weirdly does not strike out right handed batters very often. Against righties, he has a 5.04 SO/9 versus 9.26 against lefties. He is more of a situational pitcher than a high-leverage, shutdown type.
The Braves traded for Jordan Walden in the offseason precisely to provide bullpen depth. But he’s off to a seemingly rocky start, with a 4.85 ERA which isn’t great for a starter, and is disastrous for a reliever.
Yet Walden has a huge disparity between his ERA and his 1.50 FIP, which suggests he has been extremely unlucky. His .436 BABIP also supports this theory. He hasn’t given up a home run, his line drive rate is exactly in line with his career average, and his fly ball rate is 10 percentage points higher than his career rate, so he’s probably just seeing a bunch of balls fall for hits. He is striking out batters at his career rate and has actually cut down on his walks, so look for him to bounce back over the course of the season.
Cory Gearrin is the proud owner of a shiny 0.87 ERA, but he has already surpassed his career high in innings pitched. Knowing the way Fredi Gonzalez manages his relief pitchers, and given the current state of the bullpen, expect Gearrin to throw a ton of innings this year. It’s tough to predict how he’ll hold up pitching so much more often than he ever has.
Gearrin is also a righty specialist, not a top-shelf eighth inning guy, the role he’s currently playing. Against lefties, he’s been terrible in his career, with a .289/.385/.470 line against. If he continues to get the call for high leverage situations, regardless of matchup, look for him to get hit hard.
The Braves definitely need to pick up a left hander who can shut down lefties. They do not need to be overly concerned about getting a shutdown eighth inning guy. Walden should win that role back once his luck starts to turn around.