Around the Horn: Bullpen

Around the Horn: Bullpen

Around the Horn: Bullpen
ATLANTA -- The 2011 season ended earlier than Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters wanted. As a dominant closer-setup man combo through the season's first five months, they had put the Braves in position to experience October baseball for a second straight year.

Playoff hopes diminished as a horrific September elapsed. Those aspirations vanished when Kimbrel capped the roughest month of his young career by blowing a ninth-inning lead during the must-win regular-season finale.

Those who based their views solely on what transpired in September might have believed Atlanta would have made the playoffs, if not for the late-season struggles endured by Venters and Kimbrel.

Those who followed the team throughout the year knew the Braves would have never been in that position without the sensational efforts of Kimbrel, Venters and Eric O'Flaherty out of the bullpen during the season's first five months.

"Those guys were sensational, all of them," catcher Brian McCann said. "We would have never been where we were without them."

Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty will return this year to attempt to once again form one of the game's top relief trios. And the Braves' bullpen has the potential to be much deeper than it was last year.

Kris Medlen and highly regarded prospect Arodys Vizcaino should be capable of eating some of the middle-relief and setup innings that were primarily handled by O'Flaherty and Venters last year. If Peter Moylan's surgically repaired right shoulder cooperates, manager Fredi Gonzalez should have another option during the middle innings.

That could help prevent any potential down-the-stretch fatigue for Kimbrel and Venters.

The baseball world will remember Kimbrel notched a Major League rookie record 46 saves on the way to being named the National League's Rookie of the Year. Many Braves fans may remember that he made 79 appearances. The only Major League reliever with more appearances last year was Venters, who pitched in 85 games. O'Flaherty ranked third in the Majors and on his own team with 78 appearances.

There were seven big league relievers with at least 78 appearances last year, and three were wearing an Atlanta uniform.

Near the end of June, Gonzalez began only utilizing Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty in games in which the Braves were leading or tied. In other words, he resisted the urge to use them with his team trailing.

Unfortunately, as Kimbrel and Venters showed signs of fatigue as they stumbled down the stretch, fans questioned whether the damage had been done during the season's early months.

Kimbrel limited opponents to a .167 batting average, produced a 1.57 ERA, compiled a 4.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio and converted 42 of 47 saves during the 70 appearances he made leading up to Sept. 8. In his final nine appearances of the year, he surrendered a .258 batting average, produced a 6.48 ERA, compiled a 2.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and blew three of seven save opportunities.

As Kimbrel faltered down the stretch, he certainly did not have the same stuff he had possessed while keeping opponents scoreless over 38 2/3 scoreless innings from June 12-Sept. 8.

"My body felt good through the season," Kimbrel said. "I felt like the workouts I did last offseason were very beneficial to this year. As for throwing, I'm not going to start throwing until about January. Last year, I started throwing a little bit earlier, because going into Spring Training, I was fighting for a job and had to come in to prove myself. This year, I'm going to start a little bit later. I did learn that the season is long and you do throw a lot."

Venters limited opponents to a .156 batting average and a .256 on-base percentage during the 69 appearances he made through Aug. 21. During his final 16 appearances, he surrendered a .263 batting average and a .411 on-base percentage.

O'Flaherty avoided a late-season collapse and ended his historic season strong. The left-hander ended the year with a 0.98 ERA, making him the first pitcher in Major League history to produce a sub-1.00 ERA with at least 70 appearances.

With Venters and O'Flaherty serving as versatile left-handed setup men, the Braves will look at Rule 5 Draft pick Robert Fish during Spring Training to determine if he can handle the role of left-handed specialist. But the 24-year-old left-hander found more success against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .161 batting average while pitching for Double-A Arkansas last year. Left-handed hitters batted .256 against him.

Medlen returned from Tommy John elbow surgery late last year and made his return after Kimbrel exited in the ninth inning of the season finale and kept the game tied and held the Phillies scoreless through the end of the 11th inning. The versatile right-hander will have the ability to work multiple innings and could be used as a starting pitcher if necessary.

Vizcaino was thrown into the fire last year after spending the first half of the season as a starting pitcher for Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. The 21-year-old right-hander was moved to Mississippi's bullpen during the middle of July and made his Major League debut on Aug. 10. He should benefit from the 17 appearances he made for Atlanta down the stretch last year.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.