The Braves will probably have a rookie replace retired closer Billy Wagner, and must also offset the free-agent departure of strikeout machine Takashi Saito.
Still, ask team officials and returning Braves relievers and they’ll tell you their revamped bullpen could be as good as last year’s. The incumbents are excited.
“Absolutely,” said left-hander Jonny Venters, who posted a 1.95 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 83 innings during a superb rookie season in 2010. “I think our bullpen’s going to be solid.
“To lose [Wagner and Saito] is tough. But I think with the guys we picked up this offseason, and having Craig [Kimbrel], it’s going to be good.”
Much of the bullpen’s success could ride with the performance of Kimbrel, 22. The Hunstville, Ala., native will likely be the closer, though Venters and others could help some with those duties.
“I’m ready to get things rolling,” Kimbrel said Tuesday, during Braves pitching camp at Turner Field. “It’s going to be a fun year.”
In 21 major league appearances, he had a 0.44 ERA and whopping 40 strikeouts in 20-2/3 innings, allowing nine hits, one earned run and 16 walks. Kimbrel also pitched in all four postseason games, totaling seven strikeouts with one hit and one walk in 4-1/3 innings.
He was asked this week if he could see himself as the team’s closer.
“I hope so,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys working for that job. No job is set in stone. We’ve got all of spring training. I’m just going to come in, get ready to pitch on the mound. Whatever role it’s in, I’ll be ready for it.”
While some fans may worry about replacing Wagner and Saito, other Braves pitchers don’t share that concern.
“I don’t think we’re worried about it at all,” left-hander Eric O’Flaherty said. “I mean, we all know what Kimbrel can do. If he stays consistent with throwing strikes, no one’s going to hit him.
“I think our bullpen sets up pretty nicely the way it is.”
Kimbrel and Venters could provide a formidable back-of-the-bullpen 1-2 punch for years.
“We’ve got two [young] guys with great heads on their shoulders, to go with great stuff,” Wren said. “They were pretty well tested right down to the pennant race last year and passed it with flying colors.”
Venters was brought from Triple-A in mid-April and established himself as one of baseball’s top relievers. He tied for sixth-most appearances in the National League, had the sixth-lowest ERA among NL relievers, and had a .169 average with runners on base — second-lowest among all NL pitchers, starters or relievers.
Late in the season, he worked some in a setup role, helping pick up the slack when Saito was limited due to injuries.
Venters gives a lot of credit to Wagner, whose contributions on the field – 37 saves, 1.43 ERA, 104 strikeouts in 69-1/3 innings – were nearly matched by his influence.
“There’s so many things I took from it, me and Craig both,” Venters said. “Whether it’s in terms of how we carry ourselves and go about our routines, to the way we attack hitters. Billy was always telling us to attack guys and go right at ‘em. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Kimbrel has a similar appreciation for Wagner and Saito.
“You can’t explain how much they help,” he said. “You just try to soak in everything they can teach you. We really didn’t know what we have until we see what other guys have gone through, and they say, ‘Hey, I didn’t have that when I was coming up.’
“I’m grateful and thankful for that.”
Venters was a workhorse whose performance rarely faltered. In an 86-game stretch from May 7 to Aug. 11, he made 47 appearances with a 0.92 ERA, allowing 27 hits and 18 walks with 56 strikeouts in 49 innings.
The Braves were 36-11 when he pitched in that stretch, and 18-22 when he didn’t. Wagner said he’d never seen any left-hander with stuff like Venters, who wore out hitters with 95-96 mph sinkers and hard sliders.
Kimbrel spent much of the season at Triple-A, but pitched enough in the majors to leave jaws dropped. He had command problems in the minors, and also during his first stint with the Braves.
After issuing eight walks in his first six games, Kimbrel reduced his walks to nine over his final 19 appearances, including postseason. He had 37 strikeouts and six hits allowed in 19-2/3 innings of that span.
“The second time he came back he was a lot of more comfortable,” O’Flaherty said, “just staying within himself and doing his thing… I don’t know how many he struck out, like 40 in 20 innings or something. You don’t do that [as a rookie]. But he did. He’s got the stuff to keep doing it, too.”
Atlanta’s 3.07 bullpen ERA ranked third in the majors, and its .221 opponents’ average and .628 OPS trailed only San Diego’s .220/.620.
The Braves signed veteran relievers Scott Linebrink and lefty George Sherrill, who join returning sidearmer Peter Moylan, O’Flaherty and Scott Proctor, who says he’s healthy after missing almost two full seasons for elbow problems.
They also claimed righty Anthony Varvaro off waivers from Seattle.
It’s a deep pitching staff, with a starting rotation feauring Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.
“As we speak right now you feel good about it,” first-year Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But you know how that is.”
He was alluding to injuries, which can change an outlook quickly. Health could be a factor for a staff with several pitchers who’ve pitched a lot of innings and/or had arm surgery in recent years.
Asked about bullpen depth, Gonzalez began again with that qualifier.
“If everybody’s healthy,” he said. “You’ve got a pretty good mixture of some veteran guys, and a good mixture of some younger players that experienced the pennant race last year.
“If everything works well, it’s a pretty good [bullpen].”