Top 10 bullpens in the majors 

January, 5, 2013

Craig KimbrelEric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports Craig Kimbrel is a key component of the Braves' MLB-best bullpen.
In rounding out our series of winter top 10 rankings, here are the top 10 bullpens in Major League Baseball (and I'm hedging a little in this category because of the uncertainty about what role one big-time pitcher will have).

1. Atlanta Braves

To have a shutdown bullpen, you have to have a dominant closer, and the Braves' Craig Kimbrel is coming off one of the greatest seasons ever for a reliever: Opposing hitters had 231 plate appearances against him, and he struck out 116 -- almost exactly half -- in 62 2/3 innings, with just 14 walks and 27 hits. When he threw strike one on the first pitch of the at-bat (147 of those 231 plate appearances), hitters went 16-for-143, with 97 strikeouts and one extra-base hit. Here's one more: After hitters got ahead in the count, they went 5-for-32, with 10 strikeouts. Just one more: With two outs and runners in scoring position, opposing hitters were 1-for-18 with 10 strikeouts.

In other words, Kimbrel is the best closer in the game, and, at the outset of his career, he has established an unprecedented trajectory: Nobody has been this good so soon.

The Braves have outstanding relievers stacked all around Kimbrel, from underrated Eric O'Flaherty (1.73 ERA in 64 appearances last season) to Jonny Venters (who seemed to bounce back in a big way after a rough first half) to Cristhian Martinez (65 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings) to Luis Avilan. And, oh by the way, the Braves swapped for hard-throwing Jordan Walden (average fastball velocity last year: 96.3 mph) in the offseason, with some confidence they can help his command, and, if that happens, Atlanta could essentially end games after the fifth and sixth innings.

This is an extraordinary bullpen, and the Braves' staff and front office deserve credit for changing the way the Atlanta relievers were rested in 2012 after the relievers were worn out in 2011. Some teams don't change; the Braves did.