Bullpen could be Braves' biggest strength

It wasn't any one factor that halted the Atlanta Braves' amazing streak of 14 consecutive division titles last year, but the failure of the team's bullpen has to be put at the top of the list.

"We didn't get to the playoffs last year because for the first three months we didn't have a functioning bullpen,'' general manager John Schuerholz said recently.

The Braves tried a handful of options in the closer's role but almost all met with failure. By the end of the season, the Braves' bullpen had chalked up 29 blown saves(most in the National League).

But Schuerholz began to fix that problem when he obtained Bob Wickman 10 days before the July 31 trade deadline. Wickman successfully converted all but one of his 19 save chances over the final two months. Now 38, Wickman doesn't throw hard, but his precision control (two walks in 26 innings with Atlanta) makes up for his lack of velocity.

Schuerholz didn't stop there, either. Over the winter, he landed lefty Mike Gonzalez from Pittsburgh and Rafael Soriano from Seattle, two hard-throwing set-up men, either of whom could be the Braves' closer of the future. Gonzalez was a perfect 24-for-24 in save opportunities for the Pirates while Soriano gave up just 44 hits in 60 innings for the Mariners.

As starters frequently struggle to get through six innings, bullpen depth is critical for clubs and the Braves now have the manpower to shorten games. It helps that their two pitchers charged with getting the important outs in the seventh and eighth have the ability to get strikeouts and thus keep the ball out of play.

With more experienced help to handle the back end of games, the Braves can have some of their more inexperienced arms handle the less pressure-charged middle innings.

Lefty Macay McBride, who averaged better than a strikeout per inning after the All-Star break, can be used as a specialist now that Gonzalez can give Atlanta a second southpaw option. Meanwhile, Tyler Yates, who limited opposing hitters to a .228 batting average last year, provides yet another option for manager Bobby Cox before turning the game over to his Big Three.

The Braves weren't the only team which reconstructed their bullpen this offseason. Baltimore and Cleveland, to name two, spent liberally to add relief quantity. But with three trades in the last six months, Schuerholz has added both quantity and quality.

If the Braves don't return to their familiar spot in baseball's postseason, it's unlikely that the bullpen's failings will be the cause.

Next in line
1. Tigers: Like Atlanta, Detroit has a less-than-glamorous veteran closer in Todd Jones, but Jones is 77-for-88 in save chances over the last two years and helped pitch the Tigers to the American League pennant last season. Hard-throwing set-up men Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya -- he of the 100 mph fastball -- provide depth while Jose Mesa, added over the winter, will be a veteran presence.

Francisco Rodriguez Rodriguez

2. Angels: Francisco Rodriguez has led the American League in saves in each of the last two seasons and boasts a ridiculous strikeout ratio (189 in the last 140 1/3 innings). Scot Shields is as durable -- he threw an average of almost 95 innings over the last three seasons -- and effective -- he led the league in holds the last two years -- as anyone in the game. The addition of Justin Speier should help lighten somewhat of the load on Shields.

3. Mets: Billy Wagner can be an adventure at the back end, but he has 35 or more saves in each of his last six healthy, full seasons and his 2.83 ERA in 2006 was his highest since 1999. Aaron Heilman has established himself as a reliable power arm in set-up relief and is supported by Duaner Sanchez and Guillermo Mota. Scott Schoeneweis will provide the Mets with lefty help.

4. Padres: The ageless Trevor Hoffman continues to rack up saves and is supported by Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith, who mixes a great sinker with superb control (six walks in 50 2/3 innings last season).

Joe Nathan Nathan

5. Twins: Joe Nathan remains the game's most underappreciated closer. Astoundingly consistent (he's blown just 10 saves in the last three years). To get to Nathan, the Twins can choose from among Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon or unheralded lefty Dennys Reyes (fewest percentage of inherited runners who scored among pitchers with 30 or more innings pitched).

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.