When debating which bullpen is the best in Major League Baseball, the list for this mythical preseason title only includes a few worthy contenders. Among those candidates are the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and maybe the Texas Rangers or Cleveland Indians.
Full of youthful talent, depth and the ability to continually attack hitters with arms that can reach the mid-to-upper 90s, the Atlanta Braves bullpen is able to separate themselves ever so slightly from the rest of the pack.
The most predictable part of a big league bullpen from season to season is its unpredictability.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today summed it up best in a recent column, “Fifteen of the 30 major league teams might open the season with new closers. Outside of the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who hinted he might retire after 2012, no closer has held his job longer than four full seasons with his current team.”
Atlanta may have the core of relievers capable of defying such an unpredictable trend.
Speaking in terms of bullpen longevity, the chance of extended stability is in place considering none of the core members are eligible for free agency until the 2014 season. After Eric O’Flaherty reaches free agency in 2014, the next in line to file will be Jonny Venters (2016) and Kris Medlen (2016).
The most important factor in claiming the best bullpen in MLB is to have a shutdown closer. The moniker of “most intimidating” reliever in baseball will soon be passed from future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel’s first year in the major leagues was highlighted when he was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year award winner. While it’s always nice to be recognized by such an award, it only takes a quick look inside his numbers to realize that he could be the most dominant closer in the game already.
Venters (85) and Kimbrel (79) finished with the most appearances in MLB last season, causing many to wonder if that kind of heavy workload will affect them as it seemed to do in September, when they both struggled down the stretch.
In an attempt to make sure that doesn’t happen, both pitchers have changed their offseason routine to include less throwing, and more conditioning.
With job security for the first time, neither Venters nor Kimbrel are worried about being Opening Day-ready heading into spring camp in order to win a job. Being able to pace their throwing program early will pay dividends as the season progresses.
From the left side, Venters and O’Flaherty were just as dominant bridging the seventh and eighth innings as Kimbrel was finishing the ninth.
Venters relies heavily (73 percent of his pitches) on a 95-96 mph sinking fastball that allowed him to lead MLB with a 72.5 percent groundball rate.
Not always mentioned with the same praise as his late-inning colleagues, O’Flaherty made it hard not to notice him, with a career year in 2011.
He also made it clear he was not to be considered a left-handed specialist, as he faced twice as many right-handed hitters as he did left-handed hitters, and was equally effective.
The additions of Arodys Vizcaino and Kris Medlen to the bullpen for a full season will help ease the workload of the aforementioned trio.
Vizcaino has the talent to be a frontline starter, but a shaky injury history and the enticement of having another hard-throwing reliever will, temporarily at least, have him as a member of the bullpen.
He brings a two-pitch offering that is textbook bullpen material, in a fastball that can touch 96-98 consistently in short stints and a hard breaking curveball to counter.
Medlen basically missed the entire season recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery. Although his desire is to be a starter, he understands there is a line of impressive prospects competing for the final rotation spot.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez made it clear when speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as to his plans for Medlen entering spring camp, “He could jump in there as a starter if he needs to. So we’ll stretch him out, get to four or five innings there at the end [of spring training] like every other starter, and then if everybody is healthy – which is a good sign – then he’ll go to the bullpen and do whatever we want as far as those middle innings.”
The depth of this unit continues with Cristhian Martinez (0.97 WHIP), Anthony Varvaro (1.08 WHIP) and potential mid-season call-up JJ Hoover, who compiled 46 strikeouts in 33 minor league innings after moving into the bullpen.
This bullpen is not only ready to challenge as the best in baseball in 2012, but by season’s end could be the best in Braves history.
Jim Pratt is a Featured Columnist covering the Atlanta Braves for Bleacher Report, MLB contributor for MLBDepthCharts and BravesWire. Follow Jim on Twitter, @2OutSacBunt