As we move to look at the bullpen in the next installment of the 2009 Atlanta Braves Preview, let's keep in mind that while they have many of the same players from last year, the new starting rotation should prove to be the biggest help.
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Mike Gonzalez will come into the season as the closer for the Atlanta Braves. And why not? The guy only has five blown saves in his entire six-year career. Last season, he was clearly not himself coming back from Tommy John surgery. His velocity wasn't the 96-98 mph we were used to seeing in his days with the Pirates. But don't worry, this isn't rare; most pitchers have problems coming back after being off and rehabbing for an entire year.
He was quoted on MLB.com saying, "I feel Atlanta hasn't really had a chance to see me at 100 percent. [My elbow] bothered me in Pittsburgh toward the end, and coming [to Atlanta], I didn't really get much of an opportunity to throw without the pain. I tried to throw through it, tried to tough through it and, obviously, it didn't work out too well."
This year, look for Gonzalez to be back to form. There's no reason this guy can't become one of the premier closers in the league, as he was well on his way to becoming one when he got hurt. I see him having an ERA around 2.30-2.70 (right with his career average) with 25-35 saves (of course, depending on how many chances he gets).
The eighth inning guy for the Atlanta Braves this year should be Rafael Soriano. Injured for most of last season, he is looking to come back strong and get things rolling as he did in '07, when he had a career high in innings (72.0). If his right elbow injury has healed up like we all expect, he should come in as a great setup guy going to Gonzalez.
The seventh inning and some of the eighth inning work will be going to Peter Moylan for most of the year. Keep in mind that the sidearm Australian isn't expected back until May, so it may be July before we can count on him consistently.
If the Braves can re-sign Will Ohman, they will have a proven lefty to bring in for the late innings for situational help against left-handers, and not have to worry about keeping him in against right-handed hitters.
Jeff Ridgeway may be another lefty worth looking at if we can't get Ohman. He pitched in a few games last season and had just a 2.08 ERA against lefties. But he also had a 5.06 ERA against right-handers. He may be an option to bring in when a lefty is announced, but I don't think he can be trusted staying in a game against right-handers.
If neither Ohman nor Ridgway, look for the late inning situational guy to be Manny Acosta. With his excellent change-up, he should be able to keep left-handed hitters in check more often than not. Being a righty, he will also have no problem staying in the game after a key out.
With only two or three more spots to fill (depending on if Bobby Cox wants to carry 12 or 13 pitchers), we will look at middle and long relief. The favorites for these positions seem to be Blaine Boyer, Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, and Jorge Campillo.
Blaine Boyer should look to be the middle guy to bring in for the fifth-sixth innings if needed. He looked really good most of the year last year, but throwing in 76 games caught up with him in August and September and ballooned his numbers.
Jorge Campillo should be the Braves' long-relief guy for the 2009 season. He has shown that he can be consistent and has great control, which is exactly what the Braves will need if they have to call on him in this role. If he can get a handle on that hanging curveball, he should pitch very well in 2009.
Buddy Carlyle and Jeff Bennett should get to battle it out for the final spot in the bullpen. Both showed some things last year and would be valuable. Jeff Bennett made spot starts and pitched in relief whenever he was asked, and who can forget those three innings Carlyle threw in extras against the Astros on July 6 in that 17-inning affair last season? Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that both will be on the Major League roster together.
The Atlanta Braves bullpen should be at or near the top of the league in most categories next year (hopefully, except for appearances). Gonzalez and Soriano should make sure of that with what they have already proven in their careers; and if Moylan is healthy and the Braves are able to sign Will Ohman, the Braves should have plenty of options when certain situations arise.