Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sorting Out The Atlanta Braves Bullpen Situation

Manny Acosta could only muster one out in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's game, failing yet again to secure his third save of the season. Acosta retired the first batter he faced before allowing consecutive hits to put runners on the corners. Bobby Cox unceremoniously pulled his stopgap closer and used the combination of Royce Ring and Jeff Bennett to close out the Braves 5-3 win over the Padres. Bennett got the final out and his first save of the season while Acosta and Ring were credited with holds.

Acosta bounced back tonight, getting the final two outs to grab that elusive third save; however, the Braves bullpen remains in disarray at the moment and has been a big disappointment from a fantasy perspective as a whole. The team has gone through 3 closers with a fourth, John Smoltz, ready to fill the role upon his return from the DL in late May. Let's take a look at Atlanta's four-headed closing "monster" and figure out how they arrived at this point:

Rafael Soriano

Soriano entered the season as closer but has now been sidelined for nearly 3 weeks with "elbow soreness" - never a good thing for a reliever with a history of elbow problems. Soriano appeared on track to return later this week; however, he experienced pain during his final bullpen session yesterday signaling that their might something seriously wrong. Fortunately, an MRI taken today came back clean and showed no significant structural damage. This confirms that Soriano's pain is not a result of any major injury and that he is not at risk of missing an extended period of time - the best news Soriano owners have heard in a while. 

Peter Moylan

Moylan got off to a hot start this season as the Braves primary setup man, racking up four holds before replacing an injured Soriano at closer in mid-April. Moylan proceeded to successfully convert his first save opportunity before experiencing elbow pain and being shutdown. A trip to Dr. James Andrews revealed that the righty would need Tommy John surgery and now you can forget about him for the rest of this season as well as the start of 2009.

Manny Acosta

With both Soriano and Moylan hurt, the Braves turned to Manny Acosta who has done a decent job but doesn't appear to be the long-term solution in Atlanta. Acosta has now notched three saves in five chances since becoming the Braves closer, allowing only 2 earned runs in his last 11 2/3 innings of work. Regardless, Acosta's talents are better suited for the 7th and 8th innings and that is exactly where he is headed upon the return of...

John Smoltz

Coming into his April 27th start at New York, Smoltz had allowed only 2 runs in his first 23 innings of work in 2008 while striking out an impressive 31 batters. After getting hit hard by the Mets, Smoltz admitted that he was experiencing pain in his right arm and shoulder and would be placed on the DL a little while thereafter. Smoltz is currently recovering from inflammation in his right bicep tendons and rotator cuff and is aiming for a return in late May. Upon his return, he will return to the closer role in which he piled up 144 saves in three seasons between 2002-2004.
 
Fantasy Impact

The big news here is obviously John Smoltz's return to closing games after three seasons serving as the Braves ace. When healthy, Smoltz has looked dominant this season and should have no problem adjusting to the closer role. The soon to be 41 year old immediately becomes a legitimate 30 save candidate on a good Atlanta team; however, he also remains a fairly significant injury risk given the location of his injuries... his pitching arm/shoulder.

If Soriano beats Smoltz back from the DL, he will get an opportunity to close until the future hall of famer is ready. Upon Smoltz's return, Soriano will serve as the Braves primary setup and fallback closer while Manny Acosta alternates between pitching in the 7th and 8th innings. Both should be solid holds guys. 

Someone to keep an eye on is Mike Gonzalez who is currently recovering from elbow ligament replacement surgery. Gonzalez has not experienced any setbacks in his rehab and is scheduled to begin extended spring training on May 14th followed by a minor league rehab assignment if all goes well. Gonzalez is scheduled to return in late may and would most likely work the 7th and 8th innings along with Acosta and Soriano. However, given the injury prone nature of the aforementioned Braves relievers, I wouldn't be surprised if Gonzalez is in line for saves later in the season. If he proves healthy, Gonzalez would certainly get the call before Acosta down the line.

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