Inbox: Will Braves fortify bullpen?

Beat reporter Mark Bowman answers questions from fans

February 12th, 2021

With Spring Training starting next week, we offer one last offseason Inbox. This week’s edition answers questions about the team’s remaining needs, expectations for Austin Riley and Mike Soroka’s timetable.

Do you see the Braves bringing back one of Mark Melancon or Shane Greene to bolster the 'pen? Or do you think they will go out and make a trade for some arms?
-- @bravesnewscntrl

Reports out of San Diego are that Melancon is headed to the Padres, so that option appears to be gone. As for Greene, while the Braves could benefit from the addition of another veteran reliever, they may not have the long-term financial flexibility necessary to provide the multiyear deal that he's deservedly seeking.

Marcell Ozuna provided some immediate assistance last week when he agreed to a backloaded four-year, $65 million deal. His willingness to accept a $12 million salary this year leaves some flexibility on the current payroll. But his $16 million cost for 2022 and $18 million cost for the following two years creates a little more burden on what remains an uncertain payroll figure.

An exact number is not known, but we know this year’s payroll will be less than it was last year, when it crested above the $150 million mark. We also know the Braves have already committed a little more than $130 million for the upcoming season. Even if the reduction was just $10 million, they would have little wiggle room if they attempted to strengthen their currently weak bench and also sign Greene.

Looking at the bullpen, the Braves have Will Smith, Chris Martin, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter available to cover high-leverage situations. Jacob Webb and Luke Jackson have also proven capable of recording key outs in the late innings. Add Josh Tomlin, Sean Newcomb, Grant Dayton, Huascar Ynoa and a few other bullpen candidates to the mix and you find decent depth within the potential relief corps.

The same can’t be said for a bench that counts Johan Camargo as its most reliable figure. Maybe Ender Inciarte could add some value as a late-inning defensive replacement. But you’re likely not going to get much from infielder Jack Mayfield or Abraham Almonte.

And the club doesn’t have a reliable backup catcher. Tyler Flowers remains available on the free-agent market. But as things stand, the backup role would go to Alex Jackson, who hasn’t shown he is ready for that role.

So, while it would be comforting to have Greene back in the bullpen, strengthening the bench appears to be the more pressing need. You don’t want to go into a season with backups who will have you longing for the days of Emilio Bonifacio.

What role do you see Ender Inciarte playing for the Braves this year?
-- Jacob Damron

The Braves would have gladly traded Inciarte this winter. But it’s not easy moving a 30-year-old center fielder set to make $8 million after producing a .688 OPS over the past three seasons. So, they’ll bring him to camp and let him compete with Cristian Pache for the center-field job.

Given it was just seven games, we didn’t necessarily see a lot of Pache during the National League Championship Series. But what I saw from him over that week against the Dodgers was enough to let me believe he is ready to be Atlanta’s everyday center fielder.

Still, team executives are going to have to be cautious with many of their top prospects this year. While working out at the alternate training sites proved beneficial, these guys were denied all or most of a year of normal seasoning.

So, while the best guess is Inciarte will be used as a fourth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement, there’s still a chance he could serve as valuable insurance if Pache is not quite ready for the everyday role.

Even after cutting down on K’s, how many games will the Braves give to Riley at 3rd before they possibly move on to another option either in-house or via trade?
-- Kaleb Crowe

There’s no doubt this will be an important season as Riley attempts to prove he should be Atlanta’s long-term solution at third base. But based on many of the questions I’ve received this winter, I think many of you were more bothered by his offensive production (.716 OPS) last year than I was.

Riley reduced his strikeout race from 36.4 percent to 23.8 percent. He also hit .275 (11-for-40) with a .475 slugging percentage against sliders. He hit .140 (8-for-57) with a.316 SLG against that pitch in 2019. He made improvements in the necessary areas and seemed to be heading in the right direction when he exited on Sept. 4 with seven homers (one homer every 16.6 at-bats) and a .782 OPS.

A right quad issue plagued Riley over the regular season’s final weeks and into the postseason. But he drilled the key go-ahead home run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS and created confidence with his defensive ability at third base. It’s good that Johan Camargo had a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League. But for now, the job belongs to Riley, who should be given plenty of time to further the strides he made last year.

What is the reasonable start date for Soroka if he has to hit and run the bases? Are we looking at a month's worth of starts missed?
-- Ross Beckler

The Braves are not ready to put a timetable on Mike Soroka’s return. But, yeah, it would still seemingly be beneficial to allow him to continue his rehab and preseason preparations through all or most of April. It’s best for him to strengthen his right Achilles tendon to the point where he and the medical staff are confident it will not be problematic throughout his career.

It would certainly benefit a guy like Soroka to have the designated hitter in the NL again this year. You definitely don’t want to see him trying to go first to third at some point in April. But even if the universal DH were to return this year, the wise move would be to give the young ace at least an extra month to prepare.