Who could have seen this coming?
The major league baseball season is one-third completed. The Atlanta Braves are very much in the thick of the race for at least a wildcard spot. That itself is something of an upset.
But they might be in first place in the National League East if not for the substandard work of starting pitcher Julio Teheran and most of the bullpen. For all of the worries and uncertainties caused by their offseason extreme makeover, could anyone possibly have foreseen this scenario?
After trading three of their best hitters in Jason Heyward, Justin Upson and Evan Gattis, the Braves were expected to have one of the worst offenses in baseball. Instead, the offense has been solid if not spectacular. Friday night's 9-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was the Braves' 54th game -- exactly one-third of the season. They've scored 232 runs, seventh best out of 15 National League teams. They've scored more runs than the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Car
Scoring runs isn't the problem.
Holding leads, or just keeping games close, is the problem. Or in Teheran's case, just handing over a comfortable lead to the bullpen is a problem.
Did I say comfortable? There's almost no such thing any more with this bullpen. Here's how I would define a comfortable lead these days for the Braves:
With two outs in the ninth.
Top of the ninth, so they at least can bat again if necessary.
Up by more runs than there are base-runners.
And a ground ball hit to Andrelton Simmons.
Only then would I think the lead is safe.
Hard to believe that just four years ago, the Braves had the best bullpen in baseball. All they have to do was get a lead through six innings then turn it over to Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh, Jonny Venters in the eighth and Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Those three pitched a combined 238 innings and produced a cumulative earned run average of 1.66 with 290 strikeouts.
Then Venters blew out his elbow, followed by O'Flaherty. Kimbrel remained the constant in the ninth inning. The Braves piece-milled the rest of the bullpen with serviceable setup men -- Cristhian Martinez, Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter.
Martinez got injured. Avilan lost his command. They traded Varvaro to the Boston Red Sox for minor-leaguer Aaron Kurcz. Walden was packaged with Heyward for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins. Carpenter was dealt to the New York Yankees -- along with Chasen Shreve, an effective lefty who throws strikes -- for Manny Banuelos, another prospect.
Then, of course, there was the post spring training camp stunner. Kimbrel was traded to the San Diego Padres -- along with Melvin Upton's budget-breaking contract -- in a deal that brought center fielder Cameron Maybin and top pitching prospect Matt Wisler.
Maybin has been a tremendous upgrade, and Wisler is close to reaching the big leagues. Jason Grilli has been decent as the new closer. But to say the Braves don't miss Kimbrel would be erroneous. With Jim Johnson and Grilli working the eighth and ninth, that leaves the seventh and sometimes the six innings as gaping holes. Avilan has been OK -- not as reliable as he was in 2012-13, but better than 2014.
The list of relievers is almost as long as the list of Republican presidential candidates. Aside from Grilli, Johnson and Avilan, the Braves have used 12 different relievers. Four of them are no longer in the organization.
Some of their bullpen problems are just bad luck. Andrew McKirahan, who was pitching well after being picked up from Miami, will miss half the season after testing positive for banned substances. Ditto for Aroydis Vizcaino, who hasn't pitched all season. Shae Simmons is out for the season, and Josh Outman is on the 60-day disabled list.
Then there's Teheran. He isn't a reliever, but he's part of the problem. The Braves counted on him for at least seven strong inning, or maybe even eight. But Teheran has pitched seven innings only once in his 11 starts before Saturday night. He went six innings only four other times. He's putting too much pressure on the bullpen.
What can they do about it? Maybe nothing. But if they have dig into their stockpile of prospects to trade for a veteran arm who could push them into the playoffs, they need to do it. Rebuilding the organization so that success is sustainable is prudent. Parting with one prospect won't bankrupt the farm system. Adding one big piece to the bullpen could salvage the season.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent.