The Braves have announced that closer Arodys Vizcaino has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery. The procedure involved a labrum clean-up and the removal of scar tissue.
This news represents a major hit to a Braves relief unit that was already under fire. That’s true of many other clubs — including several division rivals — but that doesn’t make it easier to bear. A.J. Minter, the club’s other top option for the ninth inning, has scuffled out of the gates. Others in the bullpen currently include Wes Parsons, Luke Jackson, Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle and Chad Sobotka, although of that bunch, Carle and Sobotka have struggled quite a bit in the season’s first few weeks.
The Atlanta organization isn’t short on promising arms in the upper minors, though the bulk of their top-regarded arms are in rotation roles. Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright opened the year in the big league rotation, in fact, though each has since been optioned down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Southpaws Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard are both starting at the Triple-A level as well.
Right-hander Mike Soroka, arguably the most promising young arm the Braves have in-house, didn’t appear to be an option in the hours leading up to the news on Vizcaino’s shoulder. To the contrary, Mark Bowman of MLB.com tweeted that afternoon that it’s likely that Soroka will be recalled to start tomorrow’s game for the Braves. He’ll at least temporarily step into a rotation that is expected to get top starter Mike Foltynewicz back by the end of the month.
It won’t go unnoticed that there is still a rather prominent free agent reliever still left unsigned. Long-time Braves closer extraordinaire Craig Kimbrel held talks earlier in the winter but failed to come to terms with the value-conscious Atlanta organization. He’s still reportedly seeking a multi-year deal; the Braves will be loath to commit to a lengthy accord, but Kimbrel’s leverage may be on the rise as late-inning relief units falter around baseball.
Signing Kimbrel before the June draft would cost the Braves a pick in the 2020 draft, as Kimbrel rejected a qualifying offer from the Red Sox upon conclusion of the 2018 season. Nevertheless, the on-paper fit is now more pronounced than ever, and fan outcry for the organization to broker a reunion with an already beloved franchise icon has been audible since late in the offseason.
The Braves kicked off the winter with a high-profile signing of Josh Donaldson but then went largely dormant, negotiating only small-scale returns for Brian McCann and Nick Markakis. At the time of the Markakis signing, general manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke of the contract’s below-market rate perhaps giving the team flexibility to make further moves down the line — in addition to Braves leadership already having spoken of increased spending capacity earlier in the winter — but that has yet to come to fruition.
As for Vizcaino, the injury may well prove to be the end of his Braves tenure. The hard-throwing righty entered the season with five years, 168 days of Major League service time, meaning he’s already now surpassed the six-year service mark needed to qualify for free agency. Perhaps the Braves will look to retain him on a bargain contract next offseason, but Vizcaino will have the ability to listen to offers from any and all interested parties. He’ll quite likely be forced to settle for a one-year deal with a low base salary and plenty of incentives, if not a minor league contract, as teams throughout the league look at him as a potential bounceback candidate. He won’t turn 29 until November, though, so at the very least, Vizcaino will have age on his side in free agency.