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Masset's unexpected misstep raises 'pen concerns

Braves manager gambles on reliever, but it backfires

LOS ANGELES -- If Cameron Maybin extends his recent success and Matt Wisler proves why he is such a highly regarded prospect, the Braves will likely spend the next few years continuing to feel thankful that the Padres were willing to pay the remainder of Melvin Upton Jr.s contract ($46.3 million) in exchange for Craig Kimbrel.

But as this season's first two months have unfolded, the Braves have had to deal with the remains of a bullpen that was thinned by the April 5 Kimbrel trade, Shae Simmons' season-ending elbow injury and the performance-enhancing suspensions levied on two of their bullpen prospects (Arodys Vizcaino and Andrew McKirahan).

When the Braves signed Nick Masset, immediately after he was released by the Marlins last week, they were taking a chance on him strengthening their 'pen with his experience. But as Masset surrendered a career-high three home runs in the eighth inning of Monday's 6-3 loss to the Dodgers, there was reason to remember teams don't simply allow high-quality relievers to become available during a season.

Video: ATL@LAD: Dodgers hammer three homers in the 8th

"It's definitely an embarrassment," Masset said. "I feel like I let my team down."

A little more than an hour after Masset allowed the Dodgers to gain a lead with the home runs hit by Andre Ethier, Alex Guerrero and Jimmy Rollins, the Angels celebrated a walk-off victory courtesy of the hit and walk Kimbrel surrendered after entering a tied game in the ninth.

Still, even as Kimbrel has posted a 5.63 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .270 against him this year, the Braves have to at least wonder if this season might have unfolded differently if he was still in their bullpen. Jason Grilli has been quite effective as Atlanta's closer, converting 13 of 14 save opportunities and limiting opponents to a .237 batting average.

But if simply focusing on the on-field benefits of this season, the Braves' bullpen depth would have likely been less of a concern had the club stuck with its initial plan to use Grilli and Jim Johnson as Kimbrel's primary setup men.

Because Grilli was not available to work a third straight day, Johnson was slated to serve as Atlanta's closer Monday. So, instead of using Johnson or impressive rookie Brandon Cunniff with the game tied in the eighth inning, Gonzalez stuck with Masset, who had surrendered just two earned runs and no home runs in the previous 12 innings he had worked this year for Miami and Atlanta.

Heck, Masset had allowed a total of three home runs in the 51 appearances he made last year. So, it's safe to say nobody expected what was to come.

Masset entered the game having limited left-handed hitters to a .160 batting average, but Ethier and Rollins hit their solo shots from the left. When Guerrero came to the plate as pinch-hitter, Gonzalez might have had some reservations given right-handed hitters were batting .476 (10-for-21) against Masset.

But instead of going with Cunniff, who has not allowed a hit in the 30 at-bats right-handers have tallied against him, Gonzalez paid the price when Guerrero drilled his two-run homer.

"You feel like you've got a pretty good matchup with Ethier and then you've got the bottom of the order," Gonzalez said. "It didn't materialize the way we wanted."

So far, the Kimbrel trade has materialized exactly the way the Braves wanted. But if simply looking at the effect it has had on this season alone, there is certainly reason to wonder how much better the Atlanta 'pen might have been with the depth it had before the trade, suspensions and injuries.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for
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