FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When attempting to predict who will fill the final spots available in Atlanta's bullpen, it’s important to remember what Braves manager Brian Snitker said while meeting with reporters ahead of the Braves' 4-2 loss to the Twins on Monday.
“Options are huge this time of year,” Snitker said. “Somebody might not make the team because they have an option. I tell players all the time, ‘Until you have [no] options, you have no control.’ You’re going to look at the depth of your club.”
Because Newcomb and Webb both have options remaining, they can be sent to the Minors without risk of being lost to another club. As for Edwards and Jones, they both could end up in another organization if they are not placed on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster.
So the preference would be to continue controlling as many arms as possible for as long as possible over the course of the season.
Here are a few of the questions that will influence or determine whom the Braves choose to fill their bullpen:
Who are the near-locks for the bullpen?
Will Smith, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin and A.J. Minter
How many relievers will the Braves carry?
Though they don’t need a fifth starter until their sixth game, the current expectation is they will begin the season with an eight-man bullpen.
Who are the top candidates for the final three spots?
40-man roster members: Luke Jackson, Grant Dayton, Huascar Ynoa, Webb and Newcomb
Non-roster invitees: Edwards, Jones
Which of these candidates are out of options?
Jackson and Dayton.
Here is a breakdown of each of the top candidates:
The former closer was a non-tender candidate after posting a 6.84 ERA while striking out just 15.2 percent of the batters he faced last year. But the Braves kept him around, hoping he’d get back to where he was in 2019, when he produced a 33.7 percent strikeout rate. While Jackson was valuable as the club searched for more reliable high-leverage options, he also saw 25.6 percent of the fly balls he surrendered result in home runs.
Jackson has held opponents scoreless in three of his five outings this spring, and the only home run he has surrendered came in the second frame of his only multi-inning appearance. There’s a chance Atlanta will take at least one more gamble on him.
With a perfect sixth inning against the Twins on Monday, Jones kept his Grapefruit League ERA at 0.00 through six appearances (6 1/3 innings). His success may earn him a spot on the the Braves' 40-man roster. If he is at least capable of providing a couple of solid months like Shane Carle did in 2018, then he would make a significant contribution during a year when fatigue could affect many of the game’s relievers.
The southpaw was dominant against left-handed hitters and decent against right-handed hitters while posting a 2.30 ERA in 18 appearances last year. Dayton worked a scoreless seventh inning against the Twins on Monday. His performance over the final week of the spring will influence whether or not the Braves opt to keep him in an already lefty-heavy bullpen.
The right-hander was a key reliever for the 2016 World Series-winning Cubs, and he posted a 2.81 ERA over the next two seasons. Injuries have hurt his past two campaigns, but Edwards says he has felt strong while allowing only one run over 7 1/3 innings this spring. Three of his five walks were issued in one outing.
“It felt like 10 years of injuries, but it was only a year,” Edwards said. “That’s where I was mentally. Now that I’m healthy, I’m more confident. I’m able to be myself and just relax.
Newcomb, Ynoa, Webb
Webb served as an important bullpen arm over the past two years, and Newcomb proved he can be quite valuable when he worked out of the 'pen in 2019. As for Ynoa, there’s a chance he could eventually establish himself as a starter. But with his fastball and slider, he already has the tools to be a strong reliever.
Each of these three pitchers could positively impact Atlanta's bullpen for a significant part of this year. But the fact that they have options may prevent them from being in Philadelphia when the Braves open the season on April 1.