The Atlanta Braves have no clear answers in their bullpen, but the winners of the last 14 NL East division titles have faced doubts like these before.
The Braves' bullpen is trying to bounce back from their worst showing in over a decade.
The unraveling began when they moved closer John Smoltz back into the starting rotation and acquired stopper Dan Kolb from the Brewers, but Kolb tanked from the very beginning and was traded back to Milwaukee. They turned to Chris Reitsma for part of the season, but he struggled through the second half and ended up blowing nine of 24 chances. The Braves then sought help in Kyle Farnsworth, acquired in a trade with Detroit. Farnsworth signed a free agent contract with the Yankees back in December.
Yes, the Braves were a playoff team, but not a good one, mostly because of a bullpen that never quite settled in and was outmatched in October. On paper, they are even weaker today. The Braves' tried to address the closer situation this offseason, but couldn’t find a match.
Uncertainty on paper has meant very little to the Braves over the years. If history is any indication, they’ll probably make the impossible happen again. They did so last season by using a total of 16 rookies, many of them in the bullpen.
This year's savior could be reliever Oscar Villarreal, who was acquired along with Lance Cormier from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Johnny Estrada deal. Considered mainly a deal to free up the catcher spot for second-year prospect Brian McCann, the Braves may have come away with their trademark steal.
According to Baseball America, Villarreal turned heads this winter in the Mexican league, and the Braves are growing more confident he play a significant role, perhaps even step into the closer spot. Villarreal had a dominant rookie season with the D-Backs in 2003, including a 2.57 ERA and setting a National League rookie record with 86 appearances. But in 2004, he blew out his elbow and didn’t fully recover until this winter. Reports indicate he’s throwing the ball hard and free and looks dominant in camp.
Keep your eye on Villarreal to become one of those typical Braves' pitchers who comes out of nowhere, just as Jorge Sosa did last year in the rotation.
Chris Reitsma and the rest
The frontrunner for the closer position remains Chris Reitsma, who has shown glimpses of being a decent closer. His career is trending in a good direction as a full-time reliever, saving 15 for the Braves in 2005, to go with a 3.93 ERA in 76 innings.
One area where the Braves' bullpen has the edge over the Mets and Phillies is in their youth. They will be counting on a mix that averages only about 25 years of age. The youngest include Joey Devine, the first player since 1978 to make it to the big show the year he was drafted, Blane Boyer, who looked good before a shoulder injury, and Anthony Lerew, a second-year man out of Carlisle, Pa. The rest of the bullpen will likely include left-handers Macay McBride, John Foster and Mike Remlinger.
Fifteen-game-winner Jorge Sosa, acquired in one of those typical Schuerholz deals for infielder Nick Green, has been a reliever before, but a report in USA Today says manager Bobby Cox is leaning toward keeping him in the rotation. Another early rumor had veteran John Smoltz returning to the pen, but that is also unlikely to happen.
Unsettled? Yes, but it hasn’t stopped these Braves before. Only recently, they weren’t supposed to overcome the losses of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez.
There's simply no sure chink in their armor.