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30 Questions: Atlanta Braves

3/22/2011
Braves

Who will close in Atlanta, and does the answer matter?

A prominent member of the Atlanta Braves retired after the 2010 season and has been replaced by a younger, more inexperienced man.

Thought I was talking about Bobby Cox, didn't you?

Cox might be the most prominent Brave to have hung up his hat during the offseason, but he wasn't the only prominent Brave to do so. The other was Billy Wagner, the name at No. 5 on the all-time saves list (422), the No. 1 relief pitcher on our 2010 Player Rater and one of the greatest single-season success stories of any Tommy John surgery returnee.

Finding Wagner's replacement is no easy task; we're talking about trying to match seven wins, 37 saves, 104 strikeouts and a 1.43 ERA from your closer. The Braves did get a preview of the challenge that lay ahead when Wagner was lost for the remainder of their postseason -- all two remaining games of it -- to an oblique injury following Game 2 of the Division Series.

Needless to say, that began the proverbial roller-coaster ride.

Craig Kimbrel, at the time widely regarded as the favorite to replace Wagner in 2011, got the ball in the ninth inning of Division Series Game 3 versus the San Francisco Giants … and couldn't close it out. You might recall that game as the one in which Brooks Conrad committed a series-killing error in the ninth; what you might not recall was that Kimbrel set up that precarious situation, walking Travis Ishikawa and allowing a Freddy Sanchez single before being lifted for lefty specialist Mike Dunn, who surrendered a game-tying RBI single to Aubrey Huff.

Despite generating a lot of buzz in fantasy throughout the winter, primarily thanks to his 17.4 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his late-season stint with the Braves (on top of a 14.42 K's-per-nine during his minor league career), Kimbrel got off to an even rougher start to spring training. He surrendered runs in two of his first three exhibition outings, and four runs on six hits and two walks in 2 1/3 frames combined in those three appearances. Jonny Venters, meanwhile, strung together scoreless outing after scoreless outing to creep up in the closer race.

Kimbrel has since cleaned up his act, but with Opening Day barely more than a week away, new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hints that he might utilize a dreaded committee between the two to fill Wagner's shoes.

So which closer hopeful is the better long-term pick, Kimbrel or Venters?

Let's take a closer look at these two intriguing candidates …

The case for Craig Kimbrel

It's the strikeouts, the strikeouts and also the strikeouts. Don't believe me? Consider that, among all pitchers who threw 20 or more innings in a single season in the game's history, nobody has managed a higher K's-per-nine ratio than Kimbrel's 17.42 last season. Carlos Marmol's 15.99 of 2010 is the only one even close. In fact, Kimbrel's 14.42 career minor league K's-per-nine has been exceeded by only seven pitchers in a single major league season, counting his own and Marmol's in 2010.

Kimbrel does it with a lethal combination of a mid-90s fastball with movement, a pitch he calls a curveball but that has a slurvy break to it and a three-quarters delivery that creates a bit of deception. Thanks to that package, he was able to post a 13.5 swinging-strike percentage, 17th-best among pitchers with 20-plus innings, and 65.1 contact rate on all swings, third-best, in the big leagues in 2010.

The problem is, Kimbrel doesn't always know where his filthy stuff is going. He averaged 6.97 walks per nine innings during his late-season stint with the Braves, 11th-most among pitchers with 20-plus innings, had the second-worst first-strike percentage (43.2) of anyone in that group, and wasn't much better during his minor league career (he had a 5.66 walks per nine there).

Walks tend to be a big no-no for a closer, especially for a fly-ball pitcher such as Kimbrel (he had a 50.0 percent fly-ball rate during his stint with the Braves). They can quickly turn into deathly two-run, game-winning home runs, increasing a manager's antacid intake. History backs it up: Among pitchers who had 25-plus saves in a season, there were only eight instances of a 6.00 walks-per-nine or higher. Mitch Williams had three of them, and we all know how volatile he was. Other names on that list: Shawn Chacon, LaTroy Hawkins, Matt Mantei. Heathcliff Slocumb also had a pair of 25-plus-save seasons with walks-per-nine of 5.94 and 5.88.

In other words, Kimbrel is the greater risk-reward option of the two candidates, and the better bet to grab the gig over the long haul, once he harnesses stronger command of his pitches. Of course, that might happen in May. Or it might take until 2013.

The case for Jonny Venters

The less "flashy" of the two, Venters often gets overlooked because 2010 was the first season in his professional career in which he was used exclusively as a reliever; he made 71 starts compared to only 23 relief appearances during his minor league career. As a result, it's easy for people to be dismissive about his performance, saying such things as "Oh, he's a one-hit wonder," or "His minor league stats don't support an ability to repeat such a breakout performance."

But that ignores the substantial improvements Venters made in his new role. He ditched his curveball and cut back on his changeup, both of which were average offerings, at best, during his starter days. Instead, the lefty leaned heavily on his mid-90s fastball and slider, the latter of which was one of the more effective pitches in the game in 2010. Per Inside Edge, Venters limited opponents to .074/.125/.088 rates with his slider, and per FanGraphs, it was worth 11.7 runs above average, and 4.01 runs above average per 100 thrown, that number third-best in baseball among pitchers who threw 80 or more innings.

Venters also did two things as a rookie that portends future success: One, he maintained a solid level of production all the way through the year, posting a 2.61 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 43 second-half appearances. Even if his 3.07/1.77 September ratios concern you, the fact that he bounced back with 5 1/3 shutout innings of only seven hits and zero walks in the Division Series should help ease your concerns. Two, he lacked any sort of platoon split; his two-pitch arsenal was every bit as effective against righties (.207/.312/.232) as lefties (.198/.310/.260).

Venters also has one other considerable advantage that Kimbrel lacks: He's an extreme ground-ball pitcher; his 68.4 percent ground-ball rate in 2010 easily the highest of any pitcher who threw 80 or more innings.

That's important because, like Kimbrel, Venters has his share of command issues. He averaged 4.23 walks per nine, 13th-most among pitchers with at least 80 innings, and threw first-pitch strikes only 56.6 percent of the time, 34th-worst. Both pitchers can raise a manager's blood pressure thanks to needless free passes, though at least in Venters' case he seemed to improve in that department with experience, dropping his walks-per-nine to 3.92 after the All-Star break, not to mention not issuing one in the Division Series. (Yes, a small sample size, but still.)

Health is also a concern. Venters has a Tommy John surgery in his past (2006), and he battled further elbow problems in 2008. His downside might not be a guy who walks the world, like Kimbrel's is; it might be a season-ending injury.

In other words, while Venters might seem the "safer" bet of the two, at least on a statistical/per-game basis, he's every bit as much a risk/reward play. Venters might be less susceptible to meltdowns and therefore the smarter initial pick, but that's largely due to a slight advantage in the experience department, even if that means one full season as opposed to merely two months' worth.

So who's it gonna be?

Fredi Gonzalez has already insisted that he'll use both relievers in the closer role initially, and considering the Braves' history with two similarly skilled options, right-hander Rafael Soriano and left-hander Mike Gonzalez, there's merit in the idea. Gonzalez could ride both relievers depending upon matchups, with the intent to rely upon the hotter hand full-time over the long haul.

If that's true, fantasy owners might gravitate toward Kimbrel, considering that the right-handed Soriano was the one who emerged with 27 saves in a similar arrangement in 2009. After all, in a righty/lefty platoon, it's important to remember that a right-handed pitcher has the advantage (just like a left-handed batter), if only because there are significantly more righties than lefties (usually two righties for every lefty) in baseball.

But that it's Gonzalez's, and not Bobby Cox's, decision makes this a more interesting debate. Cox was actually more conservative with doling out save opportunities, often going with the more experienced pitcher; the fact that hotshot prospect Mark Wohlers, for example, didn't sniff the role until his fifth big league season -- taking a back seat even to a lefty such as Mike Stanton in 1993 -- shows that. Would Gonzalez change that strategy, and instead go with the prospect? Perhaps, but it's also worth pointing out that Gonzalez served as a pupil under Cox with the Braves for four seasons (2003-06) before moving on to manage the Florida Marlins for 3½ seasons, and even in his Marlins days, he was known for relying on the "experienced" guy (in that case Kevin Gregg) over the hotshot prospect (then Matt Lindstrom).

That makes this almost entirely an opinion question, one full of guesswork. The evidence, however, has me leaning noticeably toward Venters, at least for 2011. In 2012 and beyond, however, Kimbrel might be an annual bet for top-five closer status, a dominant stopper in the Carlos Marmol mold.

And does it matter?

Absolutely the winner of this battle matters, though the worst-case scenario cannot be ignored. Nate Ravitz and I had this very discussion at the annual Tout Wars auction, and he raised an interesting point: What if Kimbrel's command falters enough that he needs more seasoning in Triple-A, and in his absence, Venters also is unable to hold down the role?

Granted, we were in agreement that it's the absolute worst-case scenario, but let's not forget that the Braves have had similar issues with their late-inning relief in the past decade. In 2006 they entered without a proven finisher, and had to trade for Bob Wickman in July. And as recently as 2008, the Braves utilized the aforementioned Soriano-Gonzalez tandem; they squeezed only 17 saves out of the two combined, and a major league-worst 26 out of all their relievers.

A scenario by which the Braves are linked to trade rumors for a "proven closer" such as Heath Bell or Joakim Soria come July isn't unthinkable, but with two talented candidates like this at the onset of the season, it's well worth staying in-house for now.

It's worth it for fantasy owners, too, though this is arguably the most mandatory handcuff situation in all of baseball. Give both Kimbrel and Venters a chance, especially considering they're being drafted no sooner than the 19th round on average in ESPN drafts (Kimbrel 186th, 187.8 ADP; Venters 261 and 223.4).

But if we're picking horses, my money is on Venters being more valuable.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.