The 2020 season is rapidly approaching and the Atlanta Braves need to decide on who will be the primary closer. Let’s explore four options for the role.
Last season the Atlanta Braves saw themselves lose plenty of games due to lack of quality relief pitching. They remedied the situation by trading for three pitchers at the 2019 deadline.
The first move they made was to trade for Texas Rangers relief pitcher Chris Martin. They received him in exchange for minor league pitcher Kolby Allard.
Martin was a good option for the Braves’ bullpen because he rarely walked anyone with the Rangers (four total walks). The Atlanta bullpen walked too many batters last year and many thought he was going to improve that for them. He lived up to that billing as he did even better with the Braves, walking one batter in 17.2 innings.
With that done, the Braves went out and paid up for former Detroit Tigers’ closer Shane Greene. Greene cost them the most of the three pitchers they acquired last year. They had to move minor league pitcher Joey Wentz and minor league outfielder Travis Demeritte.
However, even with those two involved, it was seen as a massive Braves’ win when it happened. At the time, Greene had a 1.18 earned run average (ERA) and 22 saves in 38 games.
His play declined with the Braves for a while before rebounding in the last half of his time with them. Greene finished with a 4.01 ERA and just one save over the course of 27 games. After blowing a couple of saves and giving up the lead a few times, Atlanta eventually demoted him to a set-up role and a different newcomer stepped up as the closer.
A little later on the same day they traded for Greene, Braves’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos made another big move. He traded for ex-San Francisco Giant Mark Melancon.
They acquired Melancon pretty cheaply in the way of prospects. They only had to part ways with reliever Dan Winkler and minor league starter Tristan Beck.
In 43 games with the Giants, Melancon carried a respectable 3.50 ERA and one save in 46.1 innings pitched (IP). Melancon was quite good for the Braves in 2019, converting all 11 of his save opportunities en route to a 3.86 ERA.
Even with the additions via trade last season, Anthopoulos recognized the bullpen needed another top tier reliever. He made sure to address that early on in the offseason as he signed Will Smith to the team. Smith signed a three-year, $40 million contract with a club option for 2024.
In 2019 Smith pitched for the Giants and served as their primary closing pitcher. He is the favorite for that same position with the Braves in 2020.
With the Giants, Smith tossed the baseball in 63 games for 65.1 IP. Over that time he accrued an excellent 2.76 ERA and finished with 34 saves over 38 chances.
It’s unlikely that Martin gets a real shot at the role because the other three are better suited for it and have the experience as well. That narrows it down to Greene, Melancon, and Smith.
Greene struggled when given the chance by the Braves and performed much better when not trying to close out the game for Atlanta. He can still serve as an occasional closer when the primary one needs rest or is injured, but it seems that the best thing for Greene is to serve as an eighth-inning set-up pitcher.
Melancon was great as the closer for the Braves, with a 100% conversion rate in save opportunities. Smith was very good with the Giants converting all but four of his opportunities.
When looking at their pitch repertoire, Melancon’s options seem to be the best suited for the closer role. Melancon primarily brings a cutter and knuckle-curve to the mound but also mixes in a four-seamer and splitter occasionally.
Smith brings with him a four-seam and slider primarily, with a curve and change-up thrown in some. They both throw around the same speed, but Melancon’s pitches are better suited to getting swings-and-misses and is also good at getting ground balls.
Given his success with the Braves last year and his better pitch options, Melancon should get the first crack as the closer for the Braves. Smith will be right there with him though and the Atlanta Braves could choose to start the season using a dual-closer system.
This would be where they split the closing opportunities between Smith and Melancon for the first month or so and see who does better, thus winning the job. For now, though, Melancon should go into the 2020 season as the closer based on his pitch repertoire and success in the role as a Brave last year.
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