With Billy Wagner keen on retiring after the 2010 season, Frank Wren knew he would find himself this off-season once again shopping for bullpen arms.
Even with stellar rookie seasons by Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel out of the bullpen, Atlanta will seek at least one veteran arm to help out in late innings, as well as mentor the talented yet young relief corp.
Since the 2007 off-season, when the Braves traded for Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, Atlanta has been known around Major League Baseball for having outstanding bullpens. With Kimbrel and Venters coming off their rookie seasons in 2010, who will Frank Wren nab this off-season to help them out?
A former starter for the Cubs, Wood had a difficult start to the 2010 season with the Indians; he posted an earned run average of 6.30 with only 18 strikeouts in 20 innings pitched. However, after a mid-season trade to the Yankees, Wood regained his old form and ran out an earned run average of 0.69 with a much-improved strikeout rate.
Taking a chance on Wood would be a risk for a couple of reasons. First, he is very injury prone. Though moving to the bullpen seems to have helped him in that department, his arm is still very fragile. Second, Wood may require a salary that is north of 6 million a year. But at only 33 years old, Wood may try and sacrifice a bit of money for security.
Kerry Wood this off-season is not unlike Billy Wagner was last off-season. Billy ended the season red hot with Boston in 2009, while Wood did the same with the Yankees in 2010. We all know how big of a success that Billy was after signing last year year, so most Atlanta fans would not mind taking a similar chance this off-season. It is unseen what kind of contract he is going to demand this winter, but once talks about him begin to heat up, it would not be a surprise to see Frank Wren try and pull out a plum once again.
Chad Durbin's career took off the day he became a Philadelphia Phillie. With 6 unsuccessful seasons under his belt with the Royals, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Tigers, Durbin joined the Phillies just in time for their 2008 World Series run. After spending 3 successful years in the Phillie bullpen, Durbin may look to earn some more cash via free agency this off-season.
Durbin may accept arbitration, which would eliminate the chance of any team but the Phillies offering him a contract. The Phillies are a team that desperately needs quality pitchers in their bullpen, so they may be able to resign Durbin. If they are not, the Braves would likely look into vying for his services.
Though Durbin has put up good numbers for Philadelphia and will not require giving up a draft pick, he may not be the type of late-inning guy the Braves need. Durbin is more of a ground-ball pitcher, much like Peter Moylan, and not a strike-out pitcher like most setup men.
Jon Rauch got a chance to show that he was capable of being a closer this year. He saved 21 games and was the primary closer in the first half for the Minnesota Twins after Joe Nathan had to have surgery. Given the opportunity to close full time, Rauch showed that he can be a very valuable piece to anyone's bullpen. Though he doesn't throw hard, his 6'-11'' frame and huge hands help him to put difficult movement on the ball and baffle hitters accordingly.
Rauch has a lot of experience setting up for other closers, but it's unseen whether he will seek a club that will be able to offer him a full time closer's job or if he will go back to being a setup man. He showed this past season that he can step in and be a club's closer if needed. A person like that can be very valuable when you have a younger, more inexperienced pitcher throwing for you in the ninth. Rauch is a Type-B free agent and will not cost a draft pick to sign, so it is easy to see that he will be in hot-commodity this off-season.
Rauch appears to be a great option for the Atlanta Braves, as the need for a mentor in their young bullpen in clear to see. He may demand a salary more than $3.5M per year, and will likely ask for a 2 or 3 year deal. If Frank Wren sees the investment worth the cost, Rauch may very well dawn a tomahawk on his chest this spring.
Jason Frasor has had a very solid career, pitching all of it in the American League East. He has never had an earned run average higher than 4.58, which was 2007. Even with a downed year that season, he still struck out more than a batter an inning. Averaging about 93 miles per hour on his fastball, Frasor is easily a strikeout pitcher.
Spending his entire 7-year career so far with the Toronto Blue Jays, Frasor may have an itch to broaden his horizons a bit. Atlanta is always a safe place to do just that, as it offers a winning organization. Just coming off a playoff appearance, Atlanta would be an attractive place for someone like Frasor. Teams like Philadelphia or Los Angeles may be able to offer more money, but the Braves offer class.
As a Type-A free agent, signing him would mean giving up a first-round pick. In the Braves case, it is the 27th overall pick. With giving up their first rounder last year due to signing Billy Wagner, the Braves may decide to go a route that allows them to keep it this year. If Frank Wren decides that the exchange is worth it, he could find that Frasor is even more dominant outside of the hitter-friendly American League East.
Grant Balfour, a former non-drafted free agent, had a career year in 2010 for the Tampa Bay Rays. He Posted a 2.28 earned run average and cut his walks per nine innings from 4.4 down to 2.8. This change caused no decline in his strikeout rate, which would indicate he has turned his career around. Once a wild, fire-balling thrower, it would seem Balfour has now become a pitcher.
Balfour has spent the last 3 and a half seasons in Tampa Bay, pitching in the playoffs twice and the World Series once. Tampa Bay is cutting payroll this season, and will likely not be able to offer the money that other teams will. This leaves Balfour, after a very solid contract year, a chance to earn a raise.
Balfour also dons a Type-A free agent tag, which may hurt his case. Balfour is yet to show that he can consistently put up solid seasons, though his 2010 campaign was more successful than past seasons have been. He could help out a Braves club that need a right-handed strikeout reliever, but will they be willing to part with a first-round pick? Time will tell.
What would seem like a dream deal for the organization may not be that unlikely. It was rumored near the end of the regular season that Joakim Soria may be made available, and Atlanta could be a perfect match.
It is no bold statement to say that Soria has established himself as an elite closer. AT just 26 years old, he has already had 2 seasons in which he has has a sub-2 earned run average and at least 40 saves in the same season. Soria, a former Rule-5 draft pick of the Royals from the Padres, has had rich success playing for one of the least successful teams in the American League. He could easily have more save chances if he played on a winning team.
To acquire this guy, it would appear Frank Wren would likely have to tap into his pitching-rich farm system and give up either Julio Teheran or Arodys Vizcaino. However, many people said acquiring Dan Uggla would be easily, but Wren got away with giving up close to nothing. As well, Kansas City GM Dayton Moore loves to deal with Atlanta, and may feel more comfortable taking a handful of Atlanta's "B" prospects over 1 or 2 of another organizations "A" prospects. It could be a dream deal, but after the Uggla trade Frank Wren may be feeling a little greedy.
Kevin Gregg has had a bit of an odd career. After a difficult year pitching for the Cubs in 2009, Gregg found new life again pitching in the hitter-rich American League East. He set a career high with 37 saves, though allowing a lot of walks and constantly working with men on base.
Gregg hasn't been a setup man since 2006 with the Angels, but having him in the back of the bullpen to help mentor the younger relievers could really help the Braves in 2011. He seems keen on closing, but the possibility of playing on a playoff team for the first time in a while could be enough to lure him to be Atlanta's 8th inning guy.
Signing Gregg would not require giving up a draft pick, as he is a Type-B free agent. It is unlikely what kind of contract he will seek, likely a multi-year deal, but given his inconsistency it is not probable that he will receive one. A one year deal is likely for Gregg, who could be playing for his fourth different team for the fourth consecutive season. If Gregg wants to play for a championship, he will likely have to take a setup job somewhere. If he decides he is OK with being a setup man, Atlanta could be where he ends up.