Solving the Braves' bullpen issue
There are a lot of ways to evaluate talent, and maybe the worst is the good old-fashioned "pulse of the room" check. But you walk into the clubhouse and the Atlanta Braves are loaded.
Freddie Freeman, 23, sits at his locker and chats with the Justin Upton, 25, and Jason Heyward, 23 -- and you realize these three players already have a combined 6,500 career plate appearances. They are just getting started.
Craig Kimbrel walks by. In 2012, he recorded one of the greatest seasons of relief pitching in history, becoming the first pitcher ever to strike out more than half the batters he faced. Kimbrel is 24 years old. Mike Minor has been one of baseball’s best pitchers over the past 10 months; he’s 25 years old. Kris Medlen is 27 years old, Julio Teheran is 22.
A veteran player in the room acknowledges the potential of the group with a nod and a laugh. “Dude, we are goooooood," he said quietly, emphasizing the potential with that long, understated syllable.
The first time shortstop Andrelton Simmons realized that he had an unusually strong arm, in his life experience, was when he was an 8-year-old pitcher and he felt the gawks of opposing hitters and coaches as he racked up strikeouts. The No. 2 pitcher on his childhood team: Didi Gregorius, the shortstop for the Diamondbacks. Simmons is now 23 years old, and in the eyes of some Braves, he already is the sport’s best defender. Former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones wrote in a direct message Sunday that Simmons reminds him of Andruw Jones in how smooth he is, how effortless everything seems to look, including throwing. Rafael Furcal had a powerful arm and seemed to use his whole body to launch the ball, but with Simmons, the act of throwing looks as natural as the roll of waves on a beach.
At age 26, Evan Gattis has less than two months in the big leagues, but he already might be the most dangerous pinch-hitter in the game; in 2014, he is likely to be Atlanta’s frontline catcher. This has all been a whirlwind for him, all the attention about his past and his unusual bare-knuckles style of hitting. I mentioned to him that on a particularly cold day recently, the game announcers said it had to be really cold because Gattis was wearing long sleeves. Gattis chuckled at the whole legend thing; he’s having a great time but is looking forward to the day, he said, when “it gets back to being about baseball.”
The Braves’ older guys are talented, too, from 29-year-old Brian McCann to 28-year-old Chris Johnson to 37-year-old Tim Hudson. Atlanta has a deep bench, deep rotation, power up and down the lineup. “They may be the best team in baseball,” said a rival GM last week. “They’ve got growing to do, and they’re already really good.”
But on "Sunday Night Baseball," the Braves’ one glaring issue was exposed: They need more bullpen help. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will need more options. Gonzalez doesn’t necessarily need them today, or even in June or July or August, but they will be needed eventually, inevitably.