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Last time Braves fans saw Jacob Webb he got hammered for three earned runs in a single inning during a Game 5 loss to the Dodgers in last fall’s NLCS. That was certainly a forgettable outing, but pretty much all of his prior big-league work is worth remembering, as Webb is positioned to assume an important bullpen role in 2021 with the way the roster currently stands.
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Webb made his MLB debut on April 16, 2019 and quickly showed he was ready for the show. The hard-throwing righty did not surrender an earned run over his first nine outings, holding the opposition to a .174 average while striking out eight across 6.2 innings in that span. He held that impressive form until a season-ending elbow injury struck in mid-July.
When Webb’s 2019 campaign was suddenly halted after 36 appearances for the Braves, his stat line included an impressive 1.39 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 7.8 K/9. He even added a couple of saves to his rookie resume.
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The Braves drafted Texas righthander Bryce Elder in the fifth round in 2020. This year he will have a chance to put himself on the map during his first minor league season.
Elder slipped in the draft because of signability concerns. He and the Braves ultimately came to terms for $850,000, which was more than $500,000 over slot, after signing two other draft picks to under-slot deals. Atlanta considered Elder a third-round talent.
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After posting a 5.55 ERA in 22 games his freshman season with the Longhorns, Elder made a leap his sophomore campaign. He had a 2.93 ERA and struck out 86 batters across 83 innings. He continued piling up strikeouts in the shortened 2020 season, fanning 32 in 18 innings.
The Braves are hopeful Elder will strengthen the organization’s pitching depth at the lower levels while developing into a solid big league starter. The 21-year-old was among those who participated in the organization’s smaller instructional league in Gwinnett in early October.
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“He can sink (his fastball). He’s got a pretty good slider—a swing-and-miss type pitch,” Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown said. “He logs innings. He’s been very durable . . .
“We feel like this is a guy who can really be part of the back end of your rotation one day.”
Elder, who stands 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, was generally considered a high floor pitcher entering the draft. But because he didn’t fully commit to baseball until halfway through high school—he was also a talented golfer—and he made such progress between his freshman and sophomore collegiate seasons, it’s not inconceivable he could outperform projections.
His character and work ethic are also highly praised.
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Alongside Elder, the Braves also drafted Wake Forest lefthander Jared Shuster and Clemson righty Spencer Strider. For years, the Braves’ pitching depth was the envy of most organizations. They’re now beginning the process of replenishing the system. Elder proving as advertised, or maybe even better, would be a step in the right direction.
— The Braves’ 40-man rosters contains a number of lesser known pitchers who could receive spot starts or bullpen innings in 2021. That group includes righthanders Jasseel De La Cruz and Patrick Weigel, who have their supporters in the front office but haven’t had the opportunities to make an impact yet.
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Even as they have contended the past three seasons, the Braves have proven they won’t hesitate to throw unproven players in the mix. In 2020, journeyman lefthander Tyler Matzek blossomed into a high-leverage reliever. The season before, rookie righty Jacob Webb accrued a 1.39 ERA over his first 36 games before an elbow injury ended the reliever’s season. Perhaps the team’s next surprise is already on the 40-man roster.
Webb is a reliever to watch in 2021 after he didn’t allow a run in eight appearances in 2020. He’s among the Braves’ most intriguing pitchers.
It looked as if the long-delayed start to the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic would allow Webb to be fully ready to roll by Opening Day. However, a shoulder injury put a fork in that plan. It would not be until early-September when Webb was finally able to contribute last year; and contribute he did.
Down the stretch en route to a third straight division title for the Braves, Webb allowed only two runs (zero earned) on seven hits and five walks while striking out 10 across 10.0 innings. He deservingly received a spot on the postseason roster. We already know that October did not necessarily go so well, but Webb has earned the benefit of the doubt.
What will Webb’s role actually be during the upcoming season? With proven veterans like Will Smith and Chris Martin as well as fireballers A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek currently in place for the Braves bullpen, Webb seems destined for middle-relief deployment, at least at the outset.
With his three-pitch arsenal, which includes a mid-90s heater, Webb posted a stellar 14.6% swinging-strike rate and 60.0% groundball rate in 2020. Of course, those stats were achieved in a small sample and will probably regress a bit over a longer haul. Be that as it may, they should still inspire plenty of confidence in the 27-year-old hurler.
Of his penmates mentioned above, only Martin is a fellow righty. That could open the door a little wider for Webb to see high-leverage opportunities should he ultimately end up as the No. 2 righty reliever for Manager Brian Snitker
Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day were all integral parts of the bullpen for the Braves last year. Each of the trio of right-handers are still wading in the free-agent waters. Will the team pursue a reunion with one or more of them? Is the front office eyeing any of the other remaining late-inning arms on the market as some reports suggest? How much trust the Braves are ready to place in Webb could significantly impact the answers to those questions.