Rebuilt bullpen key to Braves' revival
Full season of Wickman, new additions should improve relief
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Last year, the Braves entered the regular season with Blaine Boyer targeted to serve as their primary setup man.
Now, as they prepare to rebound from their first losing season since 1990, it appears their dramatically reconstructed bullpen won't have enough room on Opening Day to accommodate Boyer's live right arm, at least initially.
Boyer's likely assignment to Triple-A Richmond will be product of Braves general manager John Schuerholz's ability to construct a pitching staff that is considerably stronger than the one he built heading into the 2006 season.
"To repeat myself for the 100th or 1,000th time about the winter before last, we knew we needed a closer and that's why we tried to sign all of the top guys out there," Schuerholz said. "We couldn't get it done, and we couldn't make one appear out of the mist."
One year after being forced to begin a season with Chris Reitsma as his closer, Braves manager Bobby Cox now finds himself with a relief corps that includes three legitimate closers. Bob Wickman will primarily fill the role. But his top two setup men, Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, are also very capable of closing the door in the ninth inning.
"Who knows what's going to happen Opening Day?" Wickman said. "But if you ask me the question now for tomorrow, I'll say, 'Yes, this is the most [bullpen] depth I've seen.'"
Until Wickman arrived after the All-Star break last year, Cox found himself with one of the worst bullpens he's seen. Boyer's injured shoulder combined with Reitsma's inability to serve as a closer created a domino effect that led to the bullpen blowing 20 of its first 40 save opportunities.
By the end of the season, the Braves had blown 29 save opportunities and finished nine games back in the National League Wild Card race. The offseason acquisitions of Gonzalez and Soriano combined with the return of Wickman, who converted 18 of his 19 save opportunities with Atlanta, will likely prevent a repeat of last year's late-inning follies.
"What did they have, almost 30 blown saves last season?" Astros manager Phil Garner said. "They get just half of those and they're in the pennant race. I think they're going to surprise people."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Before last year, the Braves had won a record 14 consecutive division titles. Thus, with a sour taste in his mouth, Schuerholz entered this past offseason knowing that he had to erase the inexperience that existed on last year's pitching staff and replace it with proven arms.
Schuerholz's first move came in December, when he traded Horacio Ramirez to the Mariners for Soriano, an intimidating right-handed reliever who limited opponents to a .204 batting average in 60 innings last year.
One month later, Schuerholz traded power-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh in a deal that gave the Braves the services of the left-handed Gonzalez, who converted all 24 of his save opportunities for the Pirates last year.
Now, instead of rolling the dice with the likes of Ken Ray, Mike Remlinger and Reitsma, Cox will have the luxury of having Soriano, Gonzalez and Wickman available to protect his team's late-inning leads.
"I'm excited about this year," Chipper Jones said. "I really am. I'd love to be standing at the end of September out on some field in the National League as Eastern Division champs again and looking down at everybody, saying, 'Last year was a fluke.'"
While Jones may consider last season to have been a fluke, it was also one that provided the reminder of just how important bullpen construction has become. During the offseason heading into the 2006 campaign, Schuerholz tried to acquire the services of Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, Todd Jones and Wickman.
When he was unable to land any of those proven closers, he found himself with a bullpen that had zero room for error. Before he earned the closer's role by default, Reitsma had been targeted to fill the primary setup role that Boyer held until his shoulder imploded in the third game last season.
In addition, Joey Devine's injured back prevented the Braves from at least taking a gamble on his inexperience. The destructive trickle-down effect only proved the necessity of pitching depth within an organization.
Everybody knows the importance of having a legitimate closer. But as was proven in Atlanta in 2006, it's also vital to have a strong cast of middle reilevers who are going to ensure the closer has regular save opportunities.
"Organizations don't build themselves around a bullpen," Wickman said. "They fill in. They spend all of their money on their starting pitchers, the position players and then their closer. Then the other guys fill in."
Fortunately for the Braves, they were able to get top value without having the pay the high prices that relievers are commanding in the current market. Combined, Gonzalez and Soriano will cost just $4.35 million this year. And if they do what they've done in the past, they'll prove to be tremendous bargains.
With those two in the mix, Cox says he'll be comfortable using either of them to close on days when Wickman needs rest.
Initial stages of the bullpen reconstruction began last season, when Macay McBride, Oscar Villarreal, Tyler Yates and Chad Paronto each successfully matured during their on-the-job training assignments.
To begin the season, this quartet will likely fill the final four bullpen spots. And if any of them were to falter, the Braves would be comfortable bringing Boyer, Phil Stockman, Peter Moylan or Joey Devine up from Triple-A Richmond.
Each member of this quartet would likely find an Opening Day spot on many other Major League rosters. But such is not the case in their current positions as members of an organization that now owns what is arguably the game's deepest bullpen.
"Everybody looks good," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "We've got so many pitchers and not enough spots. Our Triple-A team's pitching staff is going to be unbelievable. That whole staff could probably pitch in the big leagues for someone."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.