Holland's tenure with St. Louis last season was an unmitigated disaster, but he was quietly decent after joining Washington. Walks remained an issue with the Nats (12.5 BB%), but Holland rediscovered his strikeout punch down the stretch (31.3%) and of course has has the "proven closer" track record with 189 career saves. Early-season returns have been fantastic with a 1.80 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 20:9 K:BB with eight successful save conversions in nine chances. The walk rate remains high and the .200 BABIP -- by far the lowest of his career -- suggest Holland's early results may not be sustainable.
Bradley was named the favorite early in the offseason before losing out to Holland. He was expected to be the team's best reliever but has struggled thus far in 2019 with a 4.91 ERA and 1.91 WHIP, and is allowing hard contact at the highest rate of his career (41.1%).
Hirano proved effective in his first season stateside, relying heavily on his split-finger pitch (46.3%) to induce groundballs, and is throwing that pitch even more this season. He's 34 and doesn't have the stuff of a traditional closer, with a fastball that averages just 91 mph. The veteran righty has a 2.54 FIP and 18:4 K:BB to begin 2019, but has run into some bad luck with a .429 BABIP.
Jackson relieved Minter in the aforementioned April 28 outing and has proceeded to collect six saves in eight chances. Jackson allowed four runs in his first outing of the season, but has been downright dominant since with a 0.81 ERA and 30:6 K:BB across 22.1 innings. The right-hander has earned a pair of two-inning saves along the way to solidify his standing as the top endgame option for manager Brian Snitker. Just keep two things in mind: relievers are fickle, and it's possible the Braves pursue Craig Kimbrel once the first-year player draft has concluded in June.
Perhaps more than any other organization, the Braves are ripe with young rotation options at the major-league and Triple-A level. Though Newcomb was stellar at times during his first full big-league campaign in 2018, his erratic control occasionally resulted in blowup outings. Those walk issues cropped up again in his first three starts of 2019, prompting the Braves to transition him to a bullpen role. After a brief stopover at Triple-A, Newcomb rejoined the Braves and has quickly emerged as one of Snitker's most-trusted late-inning arms. In seven relief appearances, Newcomb has yet to allow a run -- or issue a free pass -- and nailed down his first career save May 20. For the time being, he looks next in line to close games in the event Jackson's performance should trend downward.
Swarzak, who was acquired in the deal that sent Vizcaino to the Mariners, battled shoulder and oblique issues throughout most of 2018. He was limited to 26.1 innings out of the Mets' bullpen and his performance was a far cry from 2017, when he posted a 2.33 ERA over 77.1 innings. The right-hander finished with an ERA north of 6.00, and the estimators suggest he deserved only slightly better (5.48 FIP). Swarzak continued to miss bats at a decent clip, but his walk rate jumped from 7.3% to 12.1%. He features a 94-mph fastball and an 85-mph slider, and splits the usage evenly, throwing 53% fastballs and 47% sliders.
Winkler was a key piece of the bullpen for most of the campaign, earning 23 holds and even a pair of saves before imploding in September (15.43 ERA). He has enjoyed strong results so far this season with a 1.46 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, but a 4.63 FIP indicates he could be due for some regression.
Minter was primed to take over as the everyday closer, but ended up being demoted after posting a 9.82 ERA and 2.36 WHIP in 15 appearances. He has an abysmal 15.3 BB% and 50.0% hard-hit rate, a far cry from his 2018 performance. Minter will have to straighten things out at Triple-A before rejoining the Braves, and he may be deployed in a low-leverage role initially upon his return.
Sobotka is a 6-foot-7 right-hander who works fastball-slider. He averages over 96 mph with his four-seamer and his slider proved to be an excellent out pitch, generating a ton of empty swings (37.1 O-Swing%, 19.3 SwStr%) last year. Sobotka has been on the IL since April 29 with a left abdomen strain after a rough start to the season (8.25 ERA).
Morrow underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow Nov. 6. The expectation was that Morrow would miss the first month or so of the 2019 campaign, but he experienced a setback in April and was forced to shut down his throwing program. There is no timetable for Morrow's return. Strop was left to handle the ninth, but he too has gone down with an injury -- a Grade 2 strain of his left hamstring, the same hamstring he injured last September. Cishek got the save May 12 and appears to be the top option for saves with both Morrow and Strop on the injured list.
Cishek's fastball now sits right around 90 mph, but he posted the third-highest strikeout rate of his career last season (27.1%) and he's maintained a similar mark through 19 appearances in 2019 (27.3%). His sidewinding delivery is headache for same-handed hitters, as evidenced by their .165/.239/.288 line against Cishek in 2018. He gave a little back against lefty batters last season, but his slider is good enough to limit the damage without the platoon edge.
Kintzler currently leads the team with five holds, and his 20.9 K-BB% through 18 appearances is more than double his mark from 2018. Meanwhile, Brach's K-BB rate is all of 2.8%, making his 2.20 ERA seem completely unsustainable. Also working in Kintzler's favor: his career 56.3% groundball rate and the fact that he saved 29 games between Minnesota and Washington just two years ago. Brach has earned a total of 33 saves in his nine-year career.
Strop was the primary ninth-inning option in Morrow's absence last year, but his hamstring injury opened the door for Jesse Chavez -- now with Texas -- and Cishek to see save chances late in the season. While Strop continued to pump his fastball in at 95 mph on average, he lost a little something from his strikeout rate last season (from 26.0% to 23.8%). That loss was offset to a large extent with a reduction in walks (8.8%). Strop's groundball rate fell dramatically -- 13 percentage points, to 46.1% -- but even so he posted an identical HR/9 to 2017 (0.60). His home-run rate has never exceeded 0.78 HR/9 in any season with at least 20 innings.
Edwards has long been thought of as a future closer. He could still fulfill that destiny, but the control hasn't come along (14.4 BB%) and it will need to if he's ever to be trusted in the ninth. Edwards lost a little velo and a little off his K-rate last season, and battled a forearm injury in the playoffs. He was sent to the minors early in 2019 after walking the world in his first few appearances.
By most traditional measures, Iglesias had his best season yet in 2018, setting a career high with 30 saves while posting his lowest marks in ERA and WHIP. The underlying numbers tell a different story. He lost a tick of velocity, and the result was a downturn in K-rate and his HR/9 nearly tripling, going from 0.59 HR/9 to 1.50. Hard-hit numbers were up across baseball in 2018, but it's hard to ignore a 10-percentage-point leap for Iglesias. His opponents' line-drive rate was a career-high 26.4%, which portended a BAA nearly 40 points higher than his actual mark. He's been unhappy with his usage so far in 2019 -- pitching in a lot of tie games -- and Iglesias told Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer that he's been trying to adapt to a lack of control on his slider.
Hernandez gets significantly more strikeouts than Hughes, and the new skipper seems to prefer Hernandez to Hughes slightly, probably in part because of Hughes' shaky start to 2019. It was Hughes who got the opportunity to close in Iglesias' absence under interim manager Jim Riggleman last season. Hernandez has a flyball lean and that has led to some homer issues in the past (HR/9 north of 1.35 from 2013-2016).
Garrett was much better out of the bullpen last season, and there is more projection remaining here than with most 26-year-olds -- he was a basketball player in college and has focused on baseball full-time for only a few years. The lefty has gotten off to a great start in 2019 and has been even more dominant against right-handers so far this season.
Hughes is far from a prototypical back-end arm, with a career 16.0 K% and a fastball that clocks in at under 92 mph on average, but he gets a ton of groundballs (65.4 GB% last season) and that helps in Great American Ball Park.
Stephenson's time as a starter is done. He was the team's top prospect several years running for a reason, and it's not like the stuff is completely gone. The right-hander already has some upward momentum and could continue to rise up the bullpen ranks fairly quickly.
Oberg enjoyed a great 2018 and has followed up with a 1.77 ERA and 1.18 WHIP through 18 appearances, but there are red flags in the underlying numbers. The right-hander has lost a tick of velocity on his fastball and his K-rate has plummeted. His walk rate has also gone in the wrong direction, resulting in a K-BB crash from 19.7% to a mere 2.4%.
If Oberg is unable to continue walking that fine line, the team could turn to a combination of Estevez and the lefty McGee until Davis returns. Estevez is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who can pump his fastball in at 97 mph on average. He can also spin a quality breaking ball. So far in 2019, Estevez has a 30.5 K% and 15.6% swinging-strike rate.
McGee missed the start of the season with a knee injury, but he's looked far better through three appearances than he did last year (6.49 ERA, 1.46 WHIP in 2018), and of course he has past closing experience.
Early-season results have been much improved for Davis as he has seven saves in as many chances with a 2.45 ERA across 14.2 innings. The 15.4% walk rate is some cause for concern and his strikeout rate is continuing its year-to-year drop from 29.9% to 27.7%. However, Davis is allowing flyballs at the incredibly low rate of 24.5%, which is increasingly important in this environment and given the impact of Coors Field.
Oh has a ton of closing experience from his time in Japan, during which he earned the nickname "The Final Boss." He also saved 39 games for the Cardinals in his first two seasons stateside, and three more last season between Toronto and Colorado. Oh's 2019 is off to a rocky start with a 9.60 ERA and he's already allowed five home runs over 15 innings. Oh is throwing his fastball at a distinctly lower rate than previous seasons (44.1%) and is relying more on his slider and curveball.
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