Amongst all of the Upton brother speculation and now newfound excitement, most of Braves country has put Atlanta’s greatest strength on the back burner this offseason, despite its further improvement earlier in the winter. There’s no doubt that Up, Up, and a Hey will be exciting to watch all year, and for seasons to come, but when it comes down to winning ball games, it’s the bullpen that will be held responsible. And right now, I like our odds.
In late November, just after the Braves landed the first piece to the Upton puzzle, Atlanta made a much more subtle move that, in a lot of people’s eyes, could have every bit as much of an impact as the bolstered offense. In a deal that sent the struggling Tommy Hanson to the Angels, the Braves welcomed fireballer Jordan Waldento one of the league’s best bullpens, and restored balance amongst their four late inning game changers.
By adding the 25 year-old Walden to an already impressive bullpen, the Braves have further assured themselves the ability to turn every game into a 6 or 7 inning contest. On any given night, assuming all four stay healthy, Atlanta could turn to a combination of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Walden in the 7th and 8th, depending on match ups, with the game’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel waiting for the 9th. The luxury of adding another mid to upper 90′s fastball from the right side to this pen is invaluable in keeping the three-headed monster fresh down the stretch, as all four guys have the proven ability to pitch out of key situations.
But what about Walden’s comfort level as a late inning match up or set up guy? While Walden did spend the 2011 season serving as the Angels closer, tallying 32 saves, he has experience pitching in nearly every late inning situation. With a career .153 batting average against in situations of 2 outs and runners in scoring position, Walden can easily slide in as the Braves go-to-guy if Venters or O’Flaherty get into trouble. In the 8th inning of games, Walden boasts a 9.0 k/bb ratio and a 1.42 ERA, the best, respectively, of any inning. In addition to his 8th inning success, Walden has proven his mettle with runners on base with his career BAA dropping from .235 with no runners on base to .215 in situations where runners are on.
Not only will Walden take some pressure off of Venters and O’Flaherty as they bridge the gap to Kimbrel, he will also give Fredi Gonzalez the ability to limit the need for any four or five out saves from Kimbrel. Walden has the proven ability to get out of tight situations, and at 25, his poise and command should continue to improve markedly. With the company of Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty surrounding him in 2013, there’s is no reason to think that Walden can’t turn in the type of season that he enjoyed in 2011, when he finished 7th in the AL Rookie of the Year vote and was invited to his first career All Star Game.