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The fans in Atlanta are excited about the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen. Last season, the team traded for Cleveland closer Bob Wickman. This winter, they traded for Pittsburgh closer Mike Gonzalez and Seattle setup man Rafael Soriano.

On paper, the Braves’ pen looks great. But will it live up to expectations?

Bobby Cox seems to think it will. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The bullpen is so strong that manager Bobby Cox believes it’ll have an effect on the starting rotation akin to what good hitters can do for other hitters in a lineup. In other words, give them protection and make them better.

The Braves believe they have basically reduced games to six innings.

Starters don’t have to pace themselves and try to get through seven or eight every night, now that they know now that the trio of Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Bob Wickman is anchoring a ‘pen that has gone from perhaps the weakest in the NL to potentially one of the two or three best in baseball.

Here’s the problem with Cox’s optimism: building a bullpen isn’t an exact science. And Cox should know that better than anyone. In 2005, the Braves thought they had a sure thing in closer Dan Kolb, who pitched 57 innings the previous season for Milwaukee and recorded 39 saves and a 2.98 ERA. But Kolb didn’t repeat his success in Atlanta. In 2005 he pitched 57 innings, recorded 11 saves and a 5.93 ERA. Ouch.

Relief pitchers are by far the most unpredictable players in sports. Players like Rheal Cormier, Guilermo Mota, Mike Stanton, Jose Mesa and Armando Benitez have great years followed by bad years followed by great years.

Other players, like recently departed Braves closer Chris Reitsma, just fall off the map entirely.

But one thing is for sure: the Braves’ bullpen needs to be better than it was last season, when it blew nearly half its save opportunities. Again from the AJC:

Last season the Braves lost a division and finished under .500 (79-83) for the first time since 1990. They finished 18 games behind the New York Mets.

The bullpen blew 29 (of 67) save opportunities – the second-most in the majors behind only Kansas City (31), which is to assume Kansas City is in the majors.

The Mets blew 15 saves.

Do the math. There’s a race buried in the difference.

The Braves honestly believe that if they had Bob Wickman all last season, they would have made the playoffs. And maybe they’re right. Who knows?

But here’s some food for thought. While Wickman was good last year (33 saves) and better the year before that (45 saves), he was lousy in 2004, recording only 13 saves and a 4.25 ERA.

The lesson: with relievers, you just never know.

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