As fresh as the wound of being bounced from the postseason still is, the band-aid of getting to talk about constructing the 2021 roster is here to help. It may just be my previous suffering of dramatic playoff losses and sitting through teams like the 68-93 2016 Braves, but the offseason is my favorite time of the baseball year. The hope of a new season, free agent signings, trades, anything can happen!
How Do We Top 2020?
After finishing 2020 with a bullpen ERA of 3.50, nearly a full run lower than league average, it’ll be difficult to replicate in 2021. Going into 2020 the Braves had at least four guys with experience closing ballgames: Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Shane Greene and A.J. Minter. Two of those four are now free agents. Whether good for the Braves or not is yet to be seen, but MLB bullpens will go back to 8 men for 2021 with the rosters once again being restricted to 13 pitchers.
Will Smith: Smith will make $26M over the next 2 seasons. As the roster stands currently, Smith is likely slated to be the 2021 closer. 2020 was kind of a rough season for Smith, who gave up 8 runs in 16 innings during the regular season. However, 7 of those 8 came via the home run. I attributed this cold start to Smith starting the year on the COVID list and missing Summer Camp. Playoff Smith looked like a return to the guy the Braves signed, until he allowed the Dodgers Will Smith to launch a 3-run homer off of him in game 5 of the NLCS, the lone blemish on his otherwise great postseason line. I expect more of 2019 Smith after a normal Spring Training and plenty of offseason rest.
Chris Martin: Martin was nails in 2020, allowing just 2 ER in his 18 IP. He was fantastic in the postseason as well, allowing 2 ER in his 8 innings pitched. The caveat here is he will likely be remembered for giving up the go-ahead homer to Bellinger that allowed the Dodgers to win game 7. Martin will make $7M next year in the final year of his contract, and should be lined up to fill a set-up type role.
Darren O’Day: O’Day has a $3.5M option for 2020 that is almost guaranteed to be picked up. O’Day was also amazing, giving up 2 ER in his 16.1 IP. He gave up 2 ER in NLCS game 2, but they proved insignificant. Braves fans should look forward to seeing the side-arm slinger with a career 2.51 ERA back in the Braves bullpen.
A.J. Minter: Even if all you saw of Minter was his 3 inning, 1 hit, 7 K start in game 5 of the NLCS, that should tell you all you need about Minter’s 2021 status. He gave up just 2 ER in 21.2 regular season innings. He also gave up the game-tying HR in game 7, but you can’t pin that all on him after the season he had. He clearly figured something out that allowed him to be even more dominant than he was in his fantastic 2018 season.
Tyler Matzek: Matzek was a heck of a pickup for the Braves. After bouncing around the MLB and being diagnosed with the “yips,” the Braves purchased his contract from the Texas Airhogs in late 2019. He gave up 9 ER in 29 IP and was able to pitch multiple crucial innings. In the postseason, he was brilliant. He gave up just 1 ER in 8.2 IP and struck out 14 batters. So much for the yips, he was able to perform on the biggest stage. The Braves still have Matzek under contract for 4 more seasons and he should be a lock for the Opening Day roster as he can fill the LR role and pitch in big spots.
The Fringe Options
Jacob Webb: I personally love Webb and if I were making the roster, he’d be a lock. He has plus pitches and has shown immense success in his small MLB samples. He gave up 0 ER in 10 IP this year and 5 ER in 32.1 IP in 2019. He was tagged for a 3-run homer in game 5 of the NLCS, but that seems to be his lone blemish on a bright young career thus far. He worked his way through the system after being drafted by the Braves in the 18th round of the 2014 draft. I love the kid and I’m excited to see him continue pitching.
Huascar Ynoa: Ynoa earned recognition as a potential NLCS MVP after throwing 4 1-hit innings in a blowout game 3 of the NLCS. If it weren’t for a few rocky outings, Ynoa had a pretty decent campaign in 2020. He certainly pitched his best out of the bullpen. I think Ynoa could slide nicely into the LR spot, a guy that can give you 2-3 innings facing the order once through and pass it to the next guy. Piggy backing him with a young starter in the 5th rotation spot could also be a viable option, albeit one I’m not sure the Braves would entertain with only an 8-man pen as it is.
Luke Jackson: After a breakout 2019 season, Luke reverted to his old form of “Puke Yakson” as I had coined him in 2018. He gave up nearly a run an inning and his K/9 fell from 13.1 to 6.8. Simply put, he was not the same pitcher. Luke may be a trade candidate going into the offseason if a team thinks they can tap back into his elite pitcher status from 2019, but there may be too many young arms clawing for a spot for him to make it into the pen in 2021.
Grant Dayton: Dayton pitched great in his 27.1 regular season innings, allowing just 7 ER. The problem here, his lone postseason appearance yielded 8 ER in 2 IP. Dayton is already 33 years old and has not surpassed 30 IP in any of his 4 MLB seasons. The small sample sizes have been good, I’m just not sure he makes the roster.
Sean Newcomb: I’m not really sure what the Braves plan to do with Newcomb. He showed promise as a reliever in 2019, but the experiment to let him start again seemed to fail rather miserably. With Davidson and Muller on the way and Minter/Matzek already locked in the pen, I’m not sure if there’s really a need for another lefty. Maybe Newcomb becomes trade bait. Could he be the piece used to unload Ender’s contract?
Free Agent Targets
Mark Melancon: Mark the Shark. Mark converted 11 of his 13 save opportunities, allowing 7 ER in his 22.2 IP. While the ERA may not be as pristine as some of the other guys, he was dominant nonetheless and a force at the backend of the pen. I’d love to see a veteran like Melancon come back, he knows what it takes to win and he’s hungry for a ring. It may take a bit more but something like 2 years for $12M may be enough to lure Mark back to Atlanta.
Shane Greene: Greene never really got to be the closer we thought he’d be when we traded for him at last year’s deadline, but he did what he needed to do: he was effective. I don’t think we’ll see Greene back in Atlanta due to price and his desire to close games, but if he somehow makes it back on the roster, I don’t think anybody would complain.
Josh Tomlin: Bringing Tomlin back would be strictly as a veteran presence. He wasn’t awful in his LR/starter role and it was a very weird season, but I think there’s young guys that would be a better use of the roster spot. I love Josh, but even at a price tag around $1M, I’m not sure he’s worth the spot.
Liam Hendriks: This won’t happen, but one can dream.
Pedro Baez: Baez has been a steady horse in the Dodgers bullpen over the last 7 seasons. He holds a career 3.03 ERA and is 33 years old. He made $4M last year and likely wants a raise, maybe he would take something similar to the 2/$12M I proposed for Melancon.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With the 5 locks, plus Webb who I feel has a great shot to make the team, there’s two open spots. If I had to guess, I’d say one FA joins the stable whether that’s bringing Melancon back or bringing in someone like Baez. The last spot should be filled internally and I would give Ynoa the inside track, but anything can happen between now and opening day. The only thing that is certain, this bullpen should still be a force to be reckoned with in 2021.