Bullpen now a strength for Braves

Bullpen now a strength for Braves

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The single largest factor that kept the Braves from turning a record 14 consecutive division titles into 15 consecutive division titles was the performance of their bullpen. That problem has been fixed, in a big way.

The Braves' bullpen blew 29 save opportunities in 2006. The repeated late-inning struggles turned a perennial championship club into an also-ran.

But the Braves began to fix the problem on July 20, 2006, when they acquired veteran closer Bob Wickman from Cleveland. Wickman converted 18 of 19 save opportunities for Atlanta, and the Braves happily brought him back for 2007.

Over the offseason, the Braves traded for left-hander Mike Gonzalez, a considerable talent, who was 24 of 24 in save opportunities for the Pirates last season. And they picked up a proven setup man with top-shelf stuff, right-hander Rafael Soriano, from Seattle, in another deal.

Add to that the Braves relievers who did pitch competently in 2006 -- righties Oscar Villarreal, Tyler Yates and Chad Paronto and lefty Macay McBride -- and what was a weakness now projects as a strength. And even beyond this core, for more potential depth, the Braves have, for instance, Blaine Boyer, who had a fine season in 2005, coming back now from a shoulder injury, and two hard-throwing Australian prospects, Phil Stockman and Peter Moylan.

On Friday, the first day of Spring Training workouts for Braves pitchers and catchers, the outlook for the Atlanta bullpen was completely different than it had been one year ago.

"I feel comfortable [with the bullpen] this year, very comfortable," manager Bobby Cox said. "Last year, we were picking and choosing and hoping, all that kind of stuff."

"I would definitely say that it is a strength now," Wickman said. "It kind of reminds me of two years ago when we made a good push at it with the Indians, when we had Bobby Howry, Arthur Rhodes, Scott Sauerbeck, Rick White, myself.

"We've got two quality left-handers with Gonzalez and McBride. I say any bullpen with two quality left-handed pitchers, you can stop it in the sixth or the seventh or the eighth, when a big lefty comes up. That's what you need, and that's what we've got with Gonzalez and McBride.

"I haven't seen Soriano pitch much, but his numbers look phenomenal. And there is some depth. Unfortunately, there's going to be some depth in the Minor Leagues. One, it's going to help the organization, but two, it's kind of bad for the guys who get sent down. If a guy goes down, we've got some quality arms, kids who I saw last year, who might not be on the Opening Day roster. There's more depth here than a lot of people think."

Wickman himself gives the Braves the kind of proven, veteran stability in the closer's role that they lacked in the first half of 2006.

"He made a world of difference, just one guy," Cox said.

In his 28 appearances with Atlanta, Wickman had a 1.04 ERA. He was happy to come to an organization with the Braves' stature, but he had some initial misgivings.

"I was doing OK in the American League last year, but in Interleague Play, I stunk," he said. "I got rocked against the Brewers, I got rocked against Cincinnati, so getting traded over here, I'm thinking: 'I'm struggling with the National League right now.' But things came together.

"Knock on wood, things were going good last year, I got into a good groove and was able to carry it through the end of the season, and it was pretty easy to sign back with these guys."

In fact, Wickman was offered a two-year contract by the Braves. Players simply don't turn down additional contract years in normal circumstances, but Wickman did in this case. That decision tells you something about Wickman, who does not put his personal interests before those of the organization.

"I was offered a two-year deal here and I said no to it -- we're just going to go a year at a time," Wickman said. "If something happens with my age [38] and stuff like that, I've never had a track record of getting hurt, other than the Tommy John [elbow ligament replacement] surgery, but if I just don't feel good at the end of the season, I'm not going to go through the embarrassment, letting the organization down after signing a big contract. I felt guilty getting hurt when I had a three-year deal with the Indians. But if I'm healthy, yes, 100 percent, I'll keep playing."

For that long stretch of championship seasons, quality pitching was the calling card of the Atlanta organization. Last year, the Braves suffered from the kind of bullpen uncertainties that had been somebody else's problems for all those years.

But the bullpen assembled for 2007 looks once again like an Atlanta Braves bullpen: stable, talented, versatile, deep. The Braves' ability to turn what was a real problem into what looks like a viable solution makes you believe that their 2006 record was much more like an aberration than the beginning of a slide.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.