Although the Atlanta Braves have led the NL East comfortably all season long and currently have a nice cushion over the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals, they are far from a perfect team. Atlanta hitters strike out far too often and there is a definite lack of speed, but the team's true weakness lies in the bullpen.
The Braves bullpen has been a major strength in recent years, but due to injuries to key hurlers such as Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, the Braves are suffering from a severe lack of depth in that area. Luckily for the Braves, though, there are plenty of quality bullpen arms available on the trade market, so they should be able to address that deficiency in the coming days.
Here is a complete breakdown of the top available options that Atlanta should consider as it loads up for a run at the World Series.
Back in 2004, Oliver Perez seemed to be developing into one of the best young starting pitchers in the game. The lefty was dominant for the Pittsburgh Pirates that year as he posted a 12-10 record to go along with a 2.98 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 196 innings. Perez never again approached those numbers though, as a combination of injuries and inconsistent play pretty much wiped him off the map. After a year out of the major leagues, Perez found his niche with the Seattle Mariners last season.
Serving as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen, Perez managed a 2.12 ERA in 33 outings. He has built upon that this season with an even better campaign. In 39 appearances, Perez has a microscopic 1.98 ERA, and he has struck out 50 batters in just over 36 innings. With Luis Avilan as the Braves' only left-handed reliever once Alex Wood enters the starting rotation, Perez is one of many lefty middle men that the Braves are targeting, according to ESPN's Jim Bowden.
There are plenty of lefty relievers on the market, but few possess the type of dominant stuff that Perez does. Not only can he neutralize left-handed batters, but Perez is capable of preventing them from even putting the ball in play. Perez is also familiar with the NL East, as he pitched for the New York Mets for parts of five seasons, so Perez should top Atlanta's wish list.
Another lefty reliever who would fit in well to the Braves' plans is James Russell of the Chicago Cubs. Russell doesn't have as much experience as Perez since this is just his fourth season in the big leagues, but he has developed into a reliable lefty specialist. The Cubs haven't exactly featured many bright spots this season, but Russell has executed his job. His 2.70 ERA doesn't leap off the page, but it would definitely be beneficial to Atlanta's pen.
According to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, Russell appeals to the Braves due to his dominance against lefties. Russell struggles against right-handed batters, as they are hitting .316 against him, but left-handed hitters are batting just .189 with a paltry .218 on-base percentage. Perez has a power arm, which allows him to handle hitters on both sides of the plate, but Russell is a traditional matchup guy who should only be used against the opposition's top lefties.
While Avilan's 3.38 FIP suggests that his 1.40 ERA is due to come up in the near future, he has proved to be a valuable pitcher for the Braves. Because of that, Avilan could continue to be Atlanta's primary lefty out of the pen with Russell acting as a supporting specialist. Even though Russell is still fairly young at 27 years of age, he would likely come cheaply. If the Braves want to improve their bullpen without mortgaging the future, Russell is a solid target.
While he has never really been recognized as such, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Scott Downs has been one of the league's premier lefty relievers for the past seven seasons. The 37-year-old veteran is arguably having the best season of his career this year as he boasts a 1.24 ERA in 42 appearances. The Angels are once again performing well below expectations this season, but Downs has held up his end of the bargain as he almost always comes through when called upon.
Downs is another reliever who is in the Braves sights, according to Bowman, but it's possible that he will cost the most. Downs is a free agent at the conclusion of the season and it's hard to imagine the Angels making the playoffs this year, but they seem to have delusions of grandeur. If they continue to believe that they can make a run, then they'll probably ask for a king's ransom in return for Downs. His production suggests that such compensation is fair, but the Angels would be wise to give a little slack.
If the Braves can find a way to pry him away from L.A., then their pen will be instantly improved. Downs has never had an opportunity to pitch in the playoffs, so there is little doubt that he would be energized in Atlanta. It's nearly impossible to replace the likes of Venters and O'Flaherty, but Downs can come close, as he would provide the Braves with a much-needed weapon.
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