Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Sunday, May 19, 2013
Braves' pen woes deepen, but they'll be OK

By Christina Kahrl


 
The Braves might be atop the National League East, the beneficiaries of Justin Upton's slugging largesse, and they just got Jason Heyward back from the disabled list after getting Brian McCann back in action earlier this week.

Yet for all that, the news in the bullpen seems dire after the past 72 hours or so. Start off with Jonny Venters' Tommy John surgery on Thursday: expected, but glum. Then, Jordan Walden landed on the DL on Friday. And then Eric O'Flaherty joined him there on Saturday -- with the always-ominous appointment with Dr. James Andrews to look at his torn ulnar collateral ligament and a likely Tommy John surgery in his future to look forward to.

How much can a team meaningfully prepare for losing just about everybody in your bullpen but your closer? The Braves had already insured themselves by dealing for depth, trading for Walden -- the Angels’ former closer -- during the winter and then adding Orioles veteran Luis Ayala last month.

This isn’t new territory for the Braves: They’ve seemingly used up top-shelf relief talent before, and they probably will again. They worked Aussie side-armer Peter Moylan hard in 2007; he blew out his elbow in 2008. Moylan came back to pitch 172 games combined between 2009-10, scragged his shoulder and hasn’t been the same since. But the Braves got three tremendous relief seasons out of somebody nobody else had even noticed -- and without spending top dollar to get it on the open market.

Brian McCann, Eric O'Flaherty
Just after Atlanta got Brian McCann back, it lost lefty Eric O'Flaherty, right -- perhaps for the season.
O’Flaherty had durability issues as a younger pitcher coming up with the Mariners, but after snagging him on a waiver claim, the Braves managed to get a pair of 78-game seasons out of him in the four seasons they’ve had him before 2013, and his only DL time on their watch was time lost to mononucleosis in 2010.

Venters threw 81 games (majors and minors combined) in 2010 before his league-leading 85 in 2011. He wasn’t the same pitcher last season. After he recovers from Tommy John surgery, we’ll see if he’ll ever be that rubber-armed shutdown reliever again.

But you can’t really put that on the Braves as instances of bullpen abuse. Would O’Flaherty or Venters or Moylan have ever amounted to as much? Would they have blown out their arms at some point? They were assets, and the Braves used them to good effect over multiple seasons. For all the advances that have been made in evaluating starting pitcher workloads, there’s still a relative lack of hard information about what’s possible out of the pen in terms of appearances and innings.

It’s also pretty clear that when it comes to ideal workloads, one size does not fit all, so even individual examples don’t form a basis for useful comparison. Not everybody should grow up to be Rollie Fingers or Dennis Eckersley -- pitching one inning and only one inning; not everybody who is left-handed could do what Jesse Orosco or Rick Honeycutt did, either. Not everybody could handle the kind of workload that Mark Eichhorn or Mike Marshall did. In short, managers and general managers are in a constant cycle of adapting to the talent at hand and adapting those to their teams’ needs.

So you can gnash your teeth over these losses, because if you’re a Braves fan, you have the right to be worried. But if anybody can cope, it’s the Braves. One of the most overused tropes about them throughout the '90s and on into the 2000s was that the Braves needed relievers, but whether it was a matter of fishing Kerry Ligtenberg out of the independent leagues, finding Moylan at the World Baseball Classic or investing their full faith in a journeyman like Mike Remlinger, few teams have been as consistently good at conjuring up quality relief help out of thin air to augment their bullpen as the Braves. O’Flaherty came over a waiver claim. They’ve made mistakes (Danny Kolb, anybody?), but they’ve rarely hurt them badly or cost them much.

So, if anybody is going to find quality help on the fly without having to spend top dollar, I’d bet on the Braves doing so in their moment of need. To put their problem in perspective, consider what they still have going for them: Craig Kimbrel owns the ninth, and even if he has had a moment of vincibility or two, he’s still arguably the best reliever in baseball right now. They still have a nifty situational side-arming righty in Cory Gearrin and another live-armed righty in Anthony Varvaro. Walden’s injury doesn’t appear serious; he’ll be back. So will Ayala.

On the other side of every ballgame, Atlanta has a rotation armed with four men who can consistently pitch into the sixth or seventh inning. In the fifth slot, the Braves have a top prospect in Julio Teheran, a live arm who, for his own workload as well as the team’s need for relief, stands ready to bump back into the bullpen once starter Brandon Beachy comes off the DL in a few weeks.

In the aggregate, they’ll be fine if they keep their heads and stick with what they have. What the Braves will need with an eye toward high-leverage matchups later in the season will be a top-shelf lefty, because that’s where they’ve been truly spoiled by having both Venters and O’Flaherty around. If (when) Joe Beimel disappoints, Braves general manager Frank Wren could settle for dealing a Grade C prospect for a similar vet at the deadline. But if he decides to replace like with like and aim for better southpaw support, it’ll be interesting to see whom he targets. The Angels’ Scott Downs or Sean Burnett? Matt Thornton of the White Sox? J.P. Howell of the Dodgers? All it takes is a little bit of big-budget heartbreak and a visible white flag, and those will be run up in good time. The Braves can supply a suitable semi-promising Grade C prospect not yet on the 40-man roster to make it all seem reasonable.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.