Snitker mulling closer role, batting order

February 19th, 2021

Those worried about the Braves entering Spring Training without defining who their closer will be are likely forgetting that the 2018 and '19 seasons began with in that role. Each of those years concluded with Atlanta winning a National League East title.

Mark Melancon certainly played a key role when he became the Braves' closer soon after being acquired at the 2019 Trade Deadline. But the fact that Melancon is now a member of the Padres' bullpen does not mean Atlanta's cupboard will be dry as the club attempts to win a fourth straight division title.

“We have a lot of good options there,” manager Brian Snitker said. “We have a bunch of guys that have done that before. I think that is something about bullpens in today’s game -- you’re not going to have a lot of consistency. I think that is just the nature of the business and the way the industry is. There’s going to be a lot of turnover in bullpens.”

The Braves' bullpen will assume a different look with Melancon in San Diego and Darren O’Day with the Yankees. The two experienced veterans served as reliable relievers and valuable mentors during their time in Atlanta.

But the Braves still have some capable veteran relievers in Josh Tomlin, Chris Martin and Will Smith. Tomlin seems destined to have a great coaching career and Smith is just a year removed from establishing himself as an All-Star closer for the Giants.

“This guy was an All-Star closer two years ago,” Snitker said of Smith. “I think we have some good options in our 'pen to close out games. How we do that, we’ll just have to see how we get there. But we have two or three guys down there who have been through that and have experienced it. We’ll just kind of see how it plays out.”

Including the postseason, Smith limited opponents to a .165 batting average and struck out 29.1 percent of the batters he faced in 2020. His 4.50 ERA was a result of the fact that eight of the 13 hits he surrendered were home runs.

How does one encounter such bad luck? Well, some of Smith’s woes were a product of his usually highly reliable slider. His inconsistency with the pitch was likely a result of having spent all of July quarantined while waiting to test negative for COVID-19. He tested positive at the start of Summer Camp, but he never developed symptoms.

If Snitker wants to have Smith face a tough left-hander in the seventh or eighth inning, he could give the closing duties to Martin. Another candidate is A.J. Minter, who filled the role in 2018. Minter certainly looked like a capable closer when he recorded seven strikeouts over three scoreless innings while making a spot start in Game 5 of last year’s National League Championship Series against the Dodgers.

Lineup decisions
While using the designated hitter last year, Snitker saw the value of having Freddie Freeman fill the second spot of the lineup. But now that it looks like his pitchers will be hitting again this year, the veteran manager is thinking about moving the reigning NL Most Valuable Player back to the No. 3 spot in the order.

Snitker began the 2019 season by giving Josh Donaldson his wish to bat second, like he had during his top days with the Blue Jays. But Donaldson proved to be more productive while batting in the cleanup spot, behind Freeman.

Snitker’s feeling is that with the pitcher batting at the bottom of the lineup, Freeman would get more RBI opportunities while batting third. That said, the skipper added that he has not completely nixed the idea of once again beginning his lineup with Ronald Acuña Jr., Freeman and Marcell Ozuna filling the first three spots.

“I think we saw in that lineup, it’s a totally different animal when the pitchers are hitting,” Snitker said. “It’s not out of the question. We’ll talk about it and mull it over and see. But I think it’s real. I think when the pitchers hit, that spot doesn’t have the opportunities that say, hitting third, does.”

Backup catcher
Once the Braves got a better feel for their financial situation, there was reason to think they might attempt to bring back Tyler Flowers with an economical short-term deal. But as time has passed, there has become more reason to think the backup catching duties could be given to Alex Jackson or William Contreras.

Contreras, Atlanta's No. 7 prospect, seemingly has a much brighter future. But the desire to give him a chance to develop as an everyday player in the Minors could leave the big league backup role to Jackson, who hit 28 homers for Triple-A Gwinnett in 2019.

“[Contreras and Jackson] have both come a long way,” Snitker said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had depth or catching options in our Minor League system. I think that’s a really good thing to choose from.”