ATLANTA -- As the Braves near Spring Training with a few open spots in the bullpen, they are comforted by the depth they have compiled in an effort to avoid experiencing a repeat of the late-inning frustration they felt far too often last year.
When the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel hours before the 2015 season, they bid adieu to one of the game's best closers. But more importantly, they further eroded the already suspect depth they had in the bullpen.
Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson provided some stability as they spent the season's first half capably handling the closer and setup man roles, respectively. But after Grilli tore his left Achilles tendon on July 11 and Johnson was traded to the Dodgers on July 30, the Braves found themselves with a bullpen mix that certainly did not seem to fit Major League standards.
Atlanta used 32 relievers while posting MLB's second-worst bullpen ERA (4.69) last year. Eight of the 18 relievers who made at least 12 appearances for the Braves hadn't pitched at the Major League level before last year. As for some of the veterans who were signed after being released by other organizations during the season, there's a good chance some of them won't ever again pitch in the Majors.
Still, the Braves could end up with a dependable and potentially formidable bullpen this year. The exact makeup of the bullpen will be determined once Grilli arrives at Spring Training and has a chance to prove whether his recovery has put him in position to once again serve as the team's closer.
Even if Grilli needs more time to recover at the start of 2016, the back end of the bullpen could still be an asset. The Braves re-signed Johnson with the confidence that he can repeat the success that he had last year before being traded to the Dodgers. The former All-Star closer produced an impressive 2.25 ERA in 49 appearances with Atlanta, but with Los Angeles, he allowed at least one run in nine of his 23 appearances.
Vizcaino proved he still has a potentially bright future as he posted a 1.60 ERA after missing last season's first three months while serving a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He proved quite effective as he converted nine of 10 save opportunities while serving as Atlanta's closer during the final two months.
The Braves acquired Withrow from the Dodgers in May, and they monitored him as he missed the remainder of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The hard-throwing right-hander produced a 2.73 ERA over 46 appearances during the 2013 and '14 seasons (both spent with the Dodgers).
If right-hander Shae Simmons makes a successful return from Tommy John surgery, he could add to the depth of late-inning relief at some point in May. The Braves have insured against some of their health-related questions by providing Minor League deals to veteran right-handed relievers David Carpenter and Alexi Ogando, along with lefty Alex Torres. These three will come to Spring Training with a strong chance to begin the season in Atlanta's bullpen.
With their depth, the Braves can guard against rushing the likes of Matt Marksberry, a left-handed reliever who began last year with Class A Carolina and ended up making 31 Major League appearances over the final two months.
Though Marksberry provided some signs of encouragement during the final weeks, the Braves believe his long-term development would be best served by spending a little more time at the Minor League level. They have created this option by signing Torres and taking a chance on Rule 5 Draft selection Evan Rutckyj, who will come to Spring Training with a chance to begin the season as Atlanta's left-handed specialist.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.