After losing closer Arodys Vizcaino to season-ending shoulder surgery Wednesday, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos unsurprisingly acknowledged that his club will consider multiple avenues to improving what was already a struggling relief corps (links via MLB.com’s Mark Bowman and Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Atlanta, per Anthopoulos, is going to look to “do what we can … both internally and externally.”
Vague as the comment may be, the minds of all Braves fans are zeroed in on one name: free-agent Craig Kimbrel. However, both Bowman and Burns suggest that a match between Kimbrel and the Braves remains unlikely, as the team isn’t keen on inking its former closer to a multi-year pact. Cognizant of upcoming restrictions on their international spending abilities, the Braves are apparently also placing an extra emphasis on the draft pick they’d forfeit to sign Kimbrel. It’d be a surprise if that were a primary factor in their thinking, though. Atlanta already has a deep farm, and they recently ensured that their two brightest young stars will be on the roster for upwards of a decade. Stockpiling depth and trade capital is an ever-important endeavor, but draft forfeitures shouldn’t be the primary roadblock if the two sides eventually land in the same ballpark in terms of years and dollars.
It seems there’s still a gap, although Kimbrel’s precise asking price isn’t clear. A weekend report from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal pegged Kimbrel’s price point at something in the vicinity of the three-year deals received by Wade Davis ($52MM) and Zack Britton ($39MM) over the past two offseasons, but even those contracts have a fairly notable range between them. For Atlanta, the annual value isn’t a sticking point so much as the length. A three-year deal, per Burns, “is a commitment the Braves won’t make.”
The question for the Braves, if Kimbrel isn’t the solution, becomes one of where they can turn for improvement. The free-agent market is rather bare beyond him at this point. Old friend Bud Norris remains unsigned but, like Kimbrel, wouldn’t be ready immediately. Veteran Ryan Madson is without a team, but as of early February, he was reportedly pondering whether he even planned to pitch in 2019. He’d need even longer to get up to speed.
The mid-April trade market isn’t likely to be any better, as most teams will be reluctant to sell off veteran assets so early. The Blue Jays made a pair of early moves to ship out Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar, but financial motivations and a desire to clear space for younger players fueled those deals. Their bullpen isn’t in the same situation. There’s sure to be some depth hitting the waiver wire in the coming weeks, but Atlanta doesn’t have a strong waiver priority, and the preference would presumably be to add more stability than someone who’d recently been designated for assignment anyhow.
Barring a drop in Kimbrel’s asking price, the likeliest outcome looks to be that the Braves try to patch things from within. To this point, none of their vaunted young starting pitching prospects have been tried out as a reliever (with the exception of a lone Touki Toussaint long-relief appearance following a short Sean Newcomb start). It’s worth seeing whether someone like Toussaint, Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson can step up in the late innings as the team looks for ways to help a relief corps that entered play Wednesday with a 5.43 ERA before being saddled with its second loss in as many days.