Feb.17, 2021 –
BY KEVIN MCALPIN
680 THE FAN, ATLANTA – Pitchers and catchers. The words baseball fans long for during four long months of the offseason. Words that mean hope springs eternal across thirty camps, split among Florida and Arizona. As the Braves begin to file in for season number two in their beautiful new home in North Port, there’s certainly plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to the prospects of the 2021 club. Four months ago, it was a bitter ending as they had to watch the Dodgers clinch the National League and eventually go on to win the World Series title. But, there was plenty of positives and more importantly, room for improvement for the three-time Division champs. Over the next six weeks, we’ll look forward to how things shake out in the rotation, bullpen, lineup, defensive alignment and much, much more. For the next week or so, we’ll keep that focus squarely on those already in camp….the pitchers and catchers.
We know the bullpen has been an area Alex Anthopoulos and company have looked to improve upon over the last couple seasons. And last year, it’s hard to argue that this pen didn’t outperform even our loft expectations. Mark Melancon was once again terrific in the closers role. Shane Greene turned the corner and was more like the guy the team traded for in 2019. And veteran sidearmer Darren O’Day posted a microscopic 1.10 ERA in 19 appearances. However, none of the three aforementioned relievers are back with the 2021 club. Greene remains available on the free agent market, and could be a possibility once again in those high leverage situations. Meanwhile, Melancon is a Padre and O’Day landed in the Bronx over the last few weeks. So, how will the Braves fill some pretty big shoes in six weeks when they open in Philly?
For now, it appears as though Will Smith will slide into the closers role. AJ Minter, perhaps the biggest surprise in the 2020 bullpen (1-1, 0.83 ERA in 22 appearances) could find himself in a setup role. Chris Martin, Jacob Webb and even Sean Newcomb could also find themselves pitching in tight situations late in games. The veteran “Swiss Army Knife” Josh Tomlin is also back, and his role can’t be understated. Tomlin has done everything the team has asked of him over the last two seasons and has proven more than capable of tossing five innings in relief on a night where the starter struggles early. Can Tyler Matzek pick up where he left off in 2020? What about Luke Jackson? And how will the team utilize Huascar Ynoa? These are all questions that will be answered over the next month and a half.
Keep in mind too that this is not likely the final product when it comes to the pen. Players have opt-outs and others will be cut loose during camps. So, I’d certainly expect the club to make at least one or two moves to add other pieces to help fill the void left behind some extremely reliable veterans who have moved on since the end of October.
Kevin McAlpin has covered the Braves since 2012 for @680TheFan and the @BravesRadioNet.