As the season approaches, we will look at the 2021 Atlanta Braves possible Opening Day bullpen. In a shortened 2020 season where the Atlanta Braves starting rotation was mired down by injury and poor performance, the bullpen stepped up and helped lead the Braves to their third consecutive NL East title. The year-to-year volatility of a major league bullpen is no secret, and while some key pieces are returning to the 2021 Atlanta Braves, there are still some question marks that must be answered.
2021 Atlanta Braves: Returning Bullpen Pieces
There are five guys who are essentially a lock to make the 2021 Atlanta Braves Opening Day bullpen. Whether or not these five will be on the big league roster later in the season remains to be seen, but as of right now it is almost a guarantee (barring injury, off-field issues, etc.) for these guys to make the roster:
Will Smith was signed during the 2019-2020 offseason for four years, $40M over the first three years and the fourth year being a $13M club option or $1M club buyout. Smith spent the prior two-and-a-half years in San Francisco as the de facto closer for the Giants, but was less than stellar in the 2020 shortened season.
Smith did start looking much better towards the end of the season, and it is worth noting that just 20 days before the July 24th start, Smith tested positive for COVID-19 and did not make his Braves debut until August 9. Due to the money committed to him and his track record outside of the odd COVID-19 season, Smith is a lock for the bullpen.
For those who may not remember, Chris Martin was acquired from the Texas Rangers before the 2019 trade deadline. After the season, the Braves signed him to a two-year, $14M deal, making 2021 the last year of Martin’s contract. Martin was nothing short of spectacular for the Braves in 2020. Over 18 innings, Martin only gave up two earned runs, one of which was the only home run he allowed all season. He continued his dominance in the postseason, leaving 90.9% of runners stranded and only allowing two earned runs again for a postseason ERA of 2.25. The Braves will look for Martin to again be a cornerstone in the bullpen.
In four seasons with the Braves, Minter has seen the highest highs and the lowest lows. He broke out in 2018 posting the 25th best fWAR (1.4) among qualified relievers (one spot higher than former Braves great Craig Kimbrel) and struck out 10.13 batters per nine over 61 ⅓ innings. In 2019, Minter slipped and posted a -0.1 fWAR and 7.06 ERA over 29 ⅓ innings.
Many wondered if Minter would be a one-hit-wonder, but in 2020 Minter showed us he can bounce back from a poor season, posting a 0.83 ERA over 21 ⅔ innings and a career-high Left on Base % of 92.9%. It’s safe to say that barring unforeseen circumstances, Minter will be in the bullpen hoping to repeat his 2018 and 2020 success.
Tyler Matzek was the welcomed surprise of the 2020 bullpen. Drafted as the 11th overall pick by the Rockies in 2009, the last time Matzek had pitched in the Majors was in 2015 over just 22 innings. After an interesting journey, the Braves took a chance on Matzek and it paid off big time. In 29 innings, Matzek struck out 13.34 batters per nine innings and allowed one home run all season posting a 2.79 ERA and a 1.92 FIP. Whether or not Matzek can repeat his comeback success is yet to be seen, but he will surely be given the chance.
Without question, Luke Jackson is the most polarizing player in the bullpen and possibly the whole roster. But, love him or hate him, his 2019 performance still has the Braves ready to take a chance on what could be.
His first two seasons in Atlanta showed Jackson could be a fairly reliable middle relief guy, not someone who you would put in high-leverage situations but an average to a slightly above-average reliever who Liberty Media wouldn’t have to pay much. That changed in 2019 when a lackluster bullpen caused Luke Jackson to become the closer. Braves fans may remember ninth innings in 2019 because it was edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting stress every time Luke Jackson was on the mound. Still, over 72 ⅔ innings Jackson had a win-loss record of 9-2 (tied for third-most wins amongst relievers) and 18 saves.
From the highest highs to lowest lows, Luke Jackson in 2020 posted the worst ERA of his career (6.84) in a season in which he pitched more than 12 innings. But it seems Jackson will get another solid shot at the bullpen due to his wipe-out slider that is consistently elite in terms of horizontal movement and being in the 95th percentile for barrels allowed in 2020.
2021 Atlanta Braves: Remaining Bullpen Options
The 2020-2021 Offseason has seen the Braves acquire many pieces who have the chance to make the Opening Day roster, but none are guaranteed. Rather than deep dive each and every one, we’ll look at the options and then I’ll list my projected eight-man Opening Day Bullpen.
It’s also worth noting that the lack of a 2020 minor league season will have a notable effect on who makes the Opening Day roster. Just because they aren’t part of the Opening Day bullpen doesn’t mean they won’t contribute at the big league level at some point during 2021.
Dayton has been with the Braves the last two seasons, and his stat line is nothing if not interesting. In those two years, Dayton has posted a 2.52 ERA, but a 4.72 FIP and 4.95 xFIP. It seems a regression should be coming any day for Dayton, but right now he’s a bullpen possibility due to his results outperforming his peripherals.
Edwards Jr. was part of the Cubs bullpen that won the 2016 World Series and was a bullpen staple for them in 2017 and 2018. His performances from 2019-2020 were lackluster, but considering his past success and the fact that 3 of the 5 locks for the bullpen are southpaws, the Braves brought Edwards Jr. on this spring to compete for a spot as a right-handed reliever.
Nate Jones has a long nine-year career of ups and downs in the bullpen. Much like Carl Edwards Jr., the Braves are hoping this right-hander can find some success like years past.
Braves fans are very familiar with Newcomb. Joining the Braves as the key trade piece that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels, Newcomb was slated to become part of the Atlanta rotation when he reached the big leagues, but the competition for rotation spots among young prospects pushed Newcomb out of the starting role and to the bullpen in 2019. Newk performed well in the bullpen in 2019 but made it clear to the organization he wants to be a starter. He was given that chance in 2020, but after four starts and an 11.20 ERA, he was sent to the alternate site. Newcomb will most likely be given an opportunity to start this year at the Triple-A level in Gwinnett.
Tomlin has served the Braves the last two years as the de facto long man, and a long-man was much needed in a 2020 season where starters could barely make it out of the third inning. With younger options that have less mileage on their arms, I would be surprised to see Tomlin hold down the back end of the bullpen for all 162, but there’s a real chance he rounds out the bullpen to start the season.
Touki, much like Newcomb, was a prospect acquired with the hopes he would become a piece in the starting rotation. He’s been less than stellar in his big league appearances, but as a right-hander with a lively fastball and a curveball that was in the 80th percentile for whiff percentage in the 2020 MLB season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Touki get some big league innings out of the bullpen in 2021.
Jacob Webb only has 42 career big league innings, but he has been part of the Atlanta farm since 2014. Since then, he has climbed the ranks and made his debut in 2019. His minor league numbers as a whole look promising, and he has out-performed his peripherals in those 42 innings with a 1.06 ERA, 3.92 FIP, and 4.89 xFIP. He only pitched 10 innings in 2020 due to elbow issues, and most believe his elbow will be the only thing keeping him out of the 2021 bullpen.
My Predicted 2021 Opening Day Bullpen
Will Smith, LHP- Closer/Setup
Chris Martin, RHP- Closer/Setup
A.J. Minter, LHP- Middle Relief/Setup
Tyler Maztek, LHP- Middle Relief/Setup
Luke Jackson, RHP- Middle Relief
Jacob Webb, RHP- Middle Relief
Nate Jones/Carl Edwards Jr., RHP- Middle Relief
Grant Dayton, RHP- Middle Relief/Mop Up
If you want to see a prediction of the full Opening Day roster, you can find that here.
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