LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - We can only imagine what was going through Leo Mazzone's mind when half his bullpen departed this winter, leaving him to reassemble a relief corps from a trio of leftovers, a couple of graybeards, and a gaggle of wet-behind-the-ears prospects with more tattoos than big league experience.
How's your spring, Leo?
"Stressful," said the Braves pitching coach.
Economics forced the team to choose upgrading the offense over keeping the bullpen intact, resulting in the departures of Steve Karsay, Rudy Seanez, and Steve Reed, who accounted for 111 of the 442 2/3 innings the bullpen worked last year.
"Last year we had a tremendous number of options in the bullpen," Mazzone said. "It doesn't get much better than that."
The leading candidates to replace the sadly departed? Darren Holmes, who has been limited to 18 games the last two years by back pain; soon-to-be 39-year-old Rich Rodriguez; 22-year-old Tim Spooneybarger; and Australian left-hander Damian Moss, who has five big league games under his belt.
Whoever emerges from that group, and Holmes and Spooneybarger are the early favorites, will join a solid nucleus of closer John Smoltz, and setup men Mike Remlinger and Kerry Ligtenberg.
"We have a nice blend of experience and youth, and some pretty good arms," Smoltz said. "But let's face it, your bullpen is going to be viewed as how well the closer does."
Smoltz, who closed 10 of 11 games successfully last year, will be a significant upgrade over the ulcer-inducing closers the team has employed since the days of Alejandro Pena a decade ago. He's certainly not a standard-issue stopper. There aren't many closers who compliment 98 mph fastballs with one of the game's best sliders, or many relievers who have seven 200-inning seasons on their resumes, which allows manager Bobby Cox the luxury of pitching Smoltz for two innings occasionally.
Remlinger and Ligtenberg are reliable front men for Smoltz, but the loss of Karsay and Seanez opens the middle relief roles. That's particularly significant because of the uncertain status of the starting rotation behind Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
"The key to our bullpen doing well will depend on how consistent the 3-4-5 starters are," Mazzone said. "Overexposure in any facet of the game will create a little bit of a problem."
Uncertain is the operative word this spring. Though Mazzone is pleased by what he's seen from Holmes and Spooneybarger, he still has more questions than a kid at a science fair. The team wants to keep Moss, but he's better-suited for the rotation, and Rodriguez is a left-handed version of Reed. He's death on left-handed batters, but right-handed hitters batted .346 against him last year.
"There might be a surprise or two," Mazzone said.
Any surprises will probably come from the kiddie corps. Billy Sylvester, 25, has some of the best stuff in camp, but he tends to get excited and overthrow, which causes his command to become erratic. Trey Hodges, 23, doesn't have Sylvester's dominant fastball, and has just two years of minor league ball under his belt, but he walked only 18 batters in 173 innings last year at Class A Myrtle Beach, and his command has caught Mazzone's eye.
"It's very important that a 10th or 11th guy on the staff throws strikes," Mazzone said. "It's more important than stuff. If you have a starter who has a bad game and need to bring in a reliever early, you need a guy who can throw strikes."
Spring training will eliminate the dreamers and sideshows, but the six relievers seated in the bullpen on opening day will be hard-pressed to match last year's success. The relief corps posted a 3.70 ERA last year and had 41 saves, though Smoltz didn't get his first save until Aug. 17.
"There's not too many times you can have a pen as deep as the one we had last year," Remlinger said. "But you can have less than we had last year and still have a very good bullpen."
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