ATLANTA -- While the Mets and Nationals are among those teams still seeking to fill some holes in their respective bullpens, the Braves find themselves in the enviable position of actually having what could be considered an abundance of relievers.
It certainly wouldn't be out of character for Braves general manager John Coppolella to use this abundance to entice a bullpen-needy team with a trade. But at the same time, the depth could provide immediate value within an aspect of the roster that is annually influenced by unpredictability and uncertainty.
The Braves didn't expect to view their relief as a potential area of strength when they exited July with the National League's 10th-best bullpen ERA (4.15). But as the group ranked fifth in the NL with 3.61 bullpen ERA over the remainder of the season, they gained a sense of how effective this group could be with the additions of Chaz Roe, who was claimed off waivers from the Orioles on Aug. 7, and Jose Ramirez, who displayed improved command as he pitched effectively after returning from Triple-A Gwinnett on July 28.
Once the Braves signed closer Jim Johnson to a two-year deal on Oct. 2, they entered the offseason knowing there was not a definitive need to tinker with their bullpen. But they have made a couple moves to at least account for the uncertainty that exists within this group. Some added depth and insurance was gained by taking right-hander Armando Rivero in the Rule 5 Draft and by signing veterans Blaine Boyer, Jordan Walden and Eric O'Flaherty to Minor League deals.
Even though the Braves are planning to begin the season with an eight-man bullpen, they will have some interesting decisions to make regarding who will serve as their relievers on Opening Day. Roe, Ramirez and left-hander Ian Krol are all out of options, which means they would have to clear waivers to remain with the organization if they do not begin the season on the 25-man roster.
Here are some of questions that will need to be answered before the Opening Day bullpen is set:
Would the Braves trade Arodys Vizcaino, Mauricio Cabrera or Ramirez?
Ramirez, Vizcaino and Cabrera, the flamethrower who has provided Albertin Chapman some competition in the top-velocity department, could all draw trade interest. Ramirez pitched effectively late last season, but the fact he is out of options might enhance the possibility he could be traded, especially if his command issues create some doubt about his ability to stick within Atlanta's bullpen. Everybody can be had for a price and Cabrera is far from a finished product, but arms like his don't grow on trees, so he'd seemingly be the least likely member of this trio to be traded.
Vizcaino displayed his tremendous potential as he served as the Braves' closer during the final two months of the 2015 season and the first two months of this past season. But as he enters his second arbitration-eligible season, those four months are essentially all that he has to show for a career that has been plagued by injuries. If healthy, he can serve as a legitimate late-inning weapon. But given his health history, there would at least be reason for the Braves to contemplate moving him if a bullpen-needy team is willing to pay the right price.
Who would serve as the left-handed specialist?
Krol proved to be an asset as he produced a 3.18 ERA and recorded 56 strikeouts while issuing 13 walks over 51 innings last year. But he also allowed left-handed hitters to bat .287 with a .330 on-base percentage against him. Thus, the Braves may opt to reserve one of their bullpen spots for Paco Rodriguez, whose elbow has prevented him from pitching since May 29, 2015. Rodriguez has limited left-handed hitters to a .174 average and .245 OBP over 186 career plate appearances.
Are Roe, Cabrera and Ramirez capable of building on last year's success?
Seven of the eight earned runs Roe allowed over 20 innings with the Braves were surrendered within consecutive appearances made on Aug. 28 and Sept. 1. In other words, he showed he has the potential to be a consistent asset.
Ramirez was sent back to Gwinnett in early April, but after he returned in late July, he posted a 2.05 ERA while recording 29 strikeouts and issuing 14 walks over 30 2/3 innings. Cabrera produced a 2.82 ERA as he recorded 32 strikeouts and issued 19 walks over 38 1/3 innings.
Cabrera and Ramirez still have some work to do in the command department. But last year's experiences provided both a chance to feel like they can be successful.
Which of the non-roster invitees has a legit chance to be on the Opening Day roster?
It would make for a good story if O'Flaherty were to come to camp and prove that he has overcome the elbow issues that have plagued him since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013. But as of now, it appears Boyer would be the most likely non-roster invitee to be in the bullpen on Opening Day. Though he doesn't miss a lot of bats, Boyer has re-established himself over the past few years and provided the consistency the Braves might not receive from some of their less-experienced bullpen candidates.
What will the Braves do with their Rule 5 Draft arms?
Rivero is a 28-year-old Cuban who produced 105 strikeouts and issued 35 walks in 67 2/3 innings at Triple-A last year. But along with keeping him unprotected, the Cubs never provided him a chance to fill what seemed to be one of their areas of need last year. Thus, we'll have to wait to see him during Spring Training before getting a feel for whether he'll stay with the Braves or be offered back to the Cubs.
As for Daniel Winkler, the depth the Braves have compiled provides some reason to believe they will at least offer him back to the Rockies instead of committing to carrying him on the active roster during the season's first two months.