The problems the Atlanta Braves had in the starting rotation last season also created havoc for the bullpen. With fewer innings by the starters, the relievers had to pick up the slack. And by midseason, some of the relievers were already out of gas.
But with three new starting pitchers, two of whom are noted as being very durable, the 2009 Atlanta bullpen should not be as overworked as last season.
“All of these guys are going to be eating up innings,” said closer Mike Gonzalez. “They go deep into ballgames and they’re going to give us a chance to be nice and fresh and be ready to go.”
Gonzalez returned last June after having Tommy John surgery on his elbow in May of 2007. His 14 saves would lead a bullpen that had only 26 for the season, the lowest number in the major leagues.
Despite a lackluster spring for Gonzalez, where his velocity was surprisingly lower than normal, the Braves are confident the 30-year-old will be effective at the end of games. And if Gonzalez’s two main setup men can stay healthy, the bullpen could have a very dangerous trio.
Right-handers Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan both missed most of 2008 with elbow trouble. Soriano had an ulnar nerve transposition and a small bone spur removed in August, while Moylan had Tommy John surgery in May.
Soriano missed part of spring training with a respiratory infection, but when he returned he did not allow an earned run in five games. Moylan pitched in seven Grapefruit League games and had a 2.57 ERA. Both convinced the Braves they would be ready to start the season.
It’s unclear, however, how quickly both will be able to pitch in back-to-back games, which will make the other middle relievers very important early in the season.
Blaine Boyer is well rested after a heavy workload last year. No other pitcher took the abuse of the rotation troubles more than Boyer, who had a 3.93 ERA in 51 games before the All-Star break and an 11.17 ERA in 25 games after the break.
Boyer was outstanding this spring, posting a 0.87 ERA in nine games. He’s using a slider now, which he believes could help his arsenal.
“I think it gives me another option, another bullet,” Boyer said. “If my curveball is inconsistent that day I can go back to more of a power offspeed pitch, which is going to do wonders for me on the mound.”
Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, and Jorge Campillo will give the Braves versatility in the pen. Each pitcher can start, pitch in middle relief, or help out in the late innings.
The second southpaw in the pen will be Eric O’Flaherty, who was acquired off waivers from Seattle over the offseason. The Braves love O’Flaherty’s stuff and believe he can be effective facing left-handed hitters, which is crucial in a division that includes Phillies’ sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
Until Tom Glavine makes his debut as the fifth starter in two weeks the Braves will go with eight relievers. The Braves are happy with the group’s versatility and its leader hopes the bullpen will surprise people this year.
“You’ve got some great arms out there,” Gonzalez said. “They took their lumps last year, but I think they’re ready to go out there and compete and show what they’ve got. I really feel we’re going to be one of the best bullpens in the league.”
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at email@example.com.