SSG Firebirds 2021 Preseason Primer – Part Three

This is the final part of our preview for the Atlanta Firebirds 40-man roster. We’ve already reviewed all of the hitters and starting pitchers, and today we’ll look at the bullpen options for the club.

Bullpen Locks

After being called up in June, Joel Nelson went on to be the best reliever on the team. In 44.1 innings for the big club, he struck out 53, walked 12, had a 0.95 WHIP and a 2.03 ERA. He has a history of injury concerns but he didn’t miss any time in 2020. His 1.2 WAR was the most in the bullpen. He hits 96 on the gun with his fastball and has an elite changeup. At just 24 years old, Atlanta hopes Nelson will be the anchor of the bullpen for years to come.

Mitch Keller, also 24, is a high-ceiling option as well. His first full year in the big leagues was mostly successful. He had a 3.62 ERA in 79.2 innings. He struck out a whopping 104 hitters but also walked 51 (5.8 BB/9). A converted starter, Keller has 3 good pitches and can throw up to 97 MPH. If he can improve his control he could be a dominant back-end reliever.

For the second straight season, Curt Wilkerson had the most relief innings for Atlanta. His numbers weren’t as good in 2020 as they were in 2019, however; his ERA increased from 2.86 to 4.11 and his WHIP increased from 1.28 to 1.39. This may have been due to some bad luck, though, as his FIP was 3.68 (compared to 3.70 in 2019) and his BABIP was a whopping .335 (about .300 is league average). Wilkerson will be 25 on opening day.

At 30 years old, Chasen Shreve is the oldest of this group. In 3 seasons with the Firebirds, Shreve has thrown 203.2 innings in 227 games with a 2.74 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 12.1 K/9. He has also never gone on the IL during that time. A pending free agent, Shreve is on the trade block for Atlanta, and he could be an attractive option for a contender (if the Firebirds aren’t in the playoff race) since his salary this year is just over $2.3 million.

Competing for a Bullpen Spot

The four guys listed in the section above should all make the team barring any injuries. One or two of the starting pitchers (besides the five-man rotation) from the write-up last week should make the opening day bullpen as long-relief options. This leaves two or three spots open for the following group.

Hunter Strickland (32) is probably a front-runner due to his service time being over 5 years (he cannot be sent to the minors), however his 2020 season was very disappointing. He had a 3.91 ERA, a -0.9 WAR, and a 5.00 FIP in 73.2 innings. The team loves his velocity as he can hit 100 on the radar gun, but he also gave up 1.8 HR/9 last season. He’s a pending free agent and on the trade block like Shreve, but due to Strickland’s mediocre 2020 he’s probably more likely to be DFAed than traded if he doesn’t make the team. 

Atlanta took Les Hampson (22) from St. Louis in the Rule 5 draft this winter. His numbers in the minors have been dominant. In the past two seasons in class A, he had a 1.90 ERA and 2.30 FIP in 94.2 innings, with 12.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and miniscule 0.88 WHIP. He also threw 3.0 innings in AA over 4 appearances, in which he struck out 3 and didn’t give up any earned runs. His fastball is consistently in the upper 90s and tops out at 101 MPH, and when combined with his great control for his age, his ceiling is very high. While not a guarantee, he looks like he has a good chance of making the big league bullpen so that he can stay with the organization, though probably in a mop-up role until he gets some experience under his belt.

22 year-old Norbert Padgett was acquired from the Mariners in the Shae Simmons trade last summer. After the trade, Padgett dominated AAA with Gwinnett; in 24.1 innings he had 26 K, only 6 walks, a 1.07 WHIP and 2.22 ERA. He also got a call-up to Atlanta in the fall for 7 appearances. He had a 4.50 ERA, 6 K and 5 walks in 8 innings during that time, so his control needs work before he can be counted on as a reliable option. He’s got a great fastball that tops out at 96 MPH, but his curveball is not a good out-pitch against big-league hitters yet.

Chad Jackson (25) has struggled at the big league level so far; in the past two seasons (with the White Sox and Firebirds), he had a 5.34 ERA (86 ERA+), 5.09 FIP, 1.56 WHIP, and 5.8 BB/9 in 94.1 innings (including 23 starts). His 18.2 innings in AAA last year were enough to make the Atlanta front office more optimistic, though, as he had a 1.45 ERA, 0.59 WHIP, 2.4 BB/9 and a whopping 16.9 K/9. His ceiling isn’t as high as Padgett’s or Hampson’s but he could be a decent long-term option. He’s still got one minor league option left so he can be sent down to work out his kinks in AAA if he’s not looking good in Spring Training. 

Finally Carlos Salazar (26) looks like an emergency call-up option at best right now. Before 2020 he had good minor league numbers, and his ERA was 2.98 last season in AAA, but he also had 5.8 BB/9. With the big league team, he posted an awful 6.31 ERA, with 27 K and 20 BB in 25.2 innings. His ceiling is very limited according to scouts, though he can throw up to 97 MPH with a good changeup. He still has two minor league options left entering 2021 and it would take a miracle and/or a lot of injuries to get him on the Opening Day roster.

Conclusion and Expectations

Overall, the Firebirds can really go in a lot of different directions in 2021. The offense should be better (it can’t get much worse), the starting rotation should remain one of the best in the league barring injuries, and the bullpen has several young high-ceiling options. The team went 82-80 in 2019 but regressed significantly to 73-89 and a 5th place finish in the NL East last year. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the team in the Wild Card race (the division is stacked at the top with the Nationals and Phillies) in September, but I think it’s more likely that the club finishes around .500 or a little worse.

Still, there’s a lot of hope for the future, even if the Firebirds are not competitive in 2021:

  • The team has some good veterans in contract years who can probably yield quality prospects in a trade, including outfielder Stephen Piscotty, starting pitchers Taylor Jordan and Matt Wisler, and the aforementioned reliever Chasen Shreve.
  • Catcher Tanner Norton and outfielder Raimel Tapia, both just one year removed from All-Star 2019 seasons, look to bounce back from their disappointing 2020 campaigns.
  • Team captain Freddie Freeman signed an extension to stay in Atlanta through at least 2025, providing a veteran core to a lineup that realistically can only improve from their miserable 2020 season
  • Outfielder Don Jones returns for his sophomore season in which he will hope to break out.
  • Top prospect Gilbert Lara should debut and possibly start at third base by the end of the summer
  • Tim Cooney, under team contract control for the next 4 seasons, leads a great pitching staff full of talented young arms

Thanks for reading. I look forward to another great season of SSG OOTP baseball. Watch out next month for an article about the Firebirds’ top prospects entering 2021.

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