What Do You Get the Team That Has Everything? Reynaldo López, Apparently

Reynaldo Lopez
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Good relief is hard to find. Well, that’s not strictly true. Pretty much every team in baseball has multiple good relievers, random guys who throw 100 mph and snap off ludicrous sliders. But enough good relief pitching is hard to find, because it takes a village’s worth of relievers to get through a season, and the playoffs are even more challenging. As teams go to their bullpen earlier and earlier, they put more pressure on every arm in it, and the penalties to overworking your best few arms are harsh.

The Braves seem to understand that, because they’ve been aggressive about adding to their options this offseason. They already had Raisel Iglesias and A.J. Minter as reliable options. They gave Joe Jimenez and Pierce Johnson contract extensions that valued them like solid mid-to-late-inning options. They traded a sampler platter of former prospects for Aaron Bummer. Now they’ve added yet again by signing Reynaldo López to a three-year deal.

“Why don’t you build the whole bullpen out of closers” is mostly just a rhetorical exercise, because teams have limited resources and bullpens operate hierarchically. After you have a seventh-inning guy, two eighth-inning guys, and a ninth-inning guy, the next reliever up won’t be pitching high-leverage innings. It’s just math, and it’s easy math at that. There’s a reason that teams don’t operate that way: it’s a waste of resources, more or less. If you sign five closer-level relievers and pay them each the same market-value contract, the fifth one will be giving you less for your money than the first one, because he won’t get to do the most valuable relief pitcher things as often, like locking down close victories or preserving tie games. There’s only so much leverage to go around.

That’s a good reason not to do what the Braves are doing, but they’re doing it anyway. Why? It’s not because they don’t understand math. Their front office is really good at what they do, clearly. I think that they’re adding to the bullpen past the point where a reasonable team might stop not because they’re bad at their jobs, but because they’re so good that they’ve painted themselves into a corner.

Look at the Braves’ roster and try to figure out a lineup upgrade. They have young stars who will be with the team for a while all across the diamond. They could use a cornerstone left fielder or shortstop, but there aren’t any of those available in free agency this year. The available options aren’t clearly better than what they already gave. They could use a Shohei Ohtani, because everyone could, but they don’t appear to be front-runners there, and that market is shrouded in mystery anyway.

That just leaves pitching, and Atlanta was reportedly in on Aaron Nola before he returned to Philadelphia. A third top arm to work with Spencer Strider and Max Fried, and perhaps to replace Fried if he departs in free agency after next season, is an obvious fit. The Braves bought themselves a little time and flexibility by picking up Charlie Morton’s option, but they’ll undoubtedly be fishing around the bumper crop of starters that are available, and I think they’ll assuredly end up with someone who projects to be a good starter in 2025 and beyond.

That still leaves some money to be spent, though. The Braves are profitable, and they’ve been pouring profits back into the on-field product now that their stadium-adjacent real estate development is up and running. Their contract extension strategy has been so effective that they can’t exactly use their profits locking up existing stars; they’ve already done that with everyone on the team other than Fried. That means the clear place to flex their muscles is in the relief pitcher market. That makes López a great fit, and Atlanta is trying to cover several bases with this signing. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that López will spend the winter stretching out as a starter, and that the team won’t determine his role until spring training.

To me, that’s mostly a smokescreen. He hasn’t been an effective starter since before the pandemic season, and one of the reasons he popped so much in the bullpen is that he could mothball his less effective pitches and stick with a fastball/slider combination. My best guess is that the Braves simply have so many relievers right now that they don’t see any harm in letting López try to stretch out his arm. If he can do it, awesome. If he can’t, maybe that offseason of training will unlock a few extra games where he goes multiple innings, or some swingman-style starts where he fills in for a rotation gap.

As a reliever, López is right on the margin between set-up man and closer. He made the full-time switch from starting to relieving in 2022 and dominated right away, but a lot of his value came from otherworldly home run suppression. He was worse this year but still managed to put together a solid season across three teams, and his strikeout rate exploded after stubbornly staying low despite strong peripheral indicators the previous year. He ended the season as Emmanuel Clase’s top understudy, and that felt like a good spot for him. If he’s the best reliever in your bullpen, it’s probably not a great bullpen, but he’s excellent if you’re using him as a second or third option.

That’s precisely where the Braves find themselves. As I mentioned above, they’re going all out to bulk up their bullpen at the moment. López is certainly one of their top five relievers, but I’m not exactly sure where he fits in that group. I’d peg him as third-best, with plenty of volatility around that because I’m not sure what he’ll look like after a winter working with Atlanta’s pitching development group. Regardless, though, this is a fearsome bullpen. Even if one or two guys get hurt or otherwise don’t pan out, the Braves will be able to throw devastating pitching firepower at the middle and late innings next year. In the playoffs, they’ll be able to avoid the various over-use penalties that relievers suffer from by rotating their stable of excellent options.

If by some minor miracle López instead ends up at the back of the rotation, none of that flexibility goes away. When rotations shorten up in October, he can flex back to the bullpen as a multi-inning option. If the team ends up short on relievers thanks to a rash of injuries, or if he scuffles trying to turn a lineup over multiple times, he can be slotted back into relief. There are a lot of ways for him to contribute in 2024, which makes him a great luxury signing for a team that has everything other than pitching certainty.

To be sure, the Braves are paying López a good amount for that certainty. His deal has three guaranteed years for $30 million, but thanks to the structure of the fourth-year club option (the buyout is 50% of the total value), it’s more like a four-year, $34 million deal with a slight discount if he flames out in the first three years. That’s close to my estimate — three years and $27 million — and right in line with what good non-closers have gotten in free agency of late.

If he’d wanted to, López likely could have gotten a similar deal from a less-loaded team and had a clear hold on the no. 2 relief job. He’ll be part of a many-armed machine in Atlanta, and he’ll have less of a certain role. But he’s also getting to try his hand at starting, and he’s locking himself into playoff contention for the foreseeable future. This signing might feel strange — another reliever for a team that already has so many — but I think it’s a really good fit overall. When the Braves are running out a multi-headed bullpen monster next October, remember this week of signings, because they’re paving the way for a sensational bullpen, even if the team hits a few bumps along the road.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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5 months ago

I absolutely agree that Atlanta has decided that they are NOT content to be great in the regular season. They are looking to improve where they think they have the opportunity, even if it is in the fringe or the unconventional avenues.
You either take the shot or you don’t and I strongly believe Anthopoulos is examining everything under his microscope in an effort to get max production/success from the total organization.

As far as Lopez specifically I believe that he will get at least 5 to 10 starts and perhaps more. Atlanta often finds ways to coax new gears out of their people.