Braves Add to Bullpen With Trades for Pierce Johnson, Taylor Hearn

Pierce Johnson
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves made two minor moves on Monday to fill out their bullpen headcount, acquiring right-handed reliever Pierce Johnson from the Rockies and lefty reliever Taylor Hearn from the Rangers. Heading to Colorado are righty relief pitcher Victor Vodnik, our no. 13 Braves prospect a few months ago, and minor league starter Tanner Gordon. The return for Hearn is unknown as of press time, but it’s unlikely the Rangers will be getting a prospect of much significance.

If these turn out to be the biggest trades made over the last week of July, it would be a mighty disappointing deadline, but the Braves get what they wanted here. Their bullpen hasn’t exactly struggled this season — it’s second in FIP, WAR, and ERA — but adding a bit of depth while they still can has a lot of appeal to it. Through graduations and trades in recent years, the top of their farm system is kind of shallow at the moment, so internal reinforcements would be a bit trickier. Not helping matters is that they currently have five relievers on injured lists, four of them on the 60-day IL, and basically have no additional relievers on the 40-man roster left to call up in a pinch without shoving a starting pitcher in there.

Johnson is probably the safer bet of the two pickups, and I don’t necessarily mean to damn him with faint praise considering the season he’s had so far. Even in a Coors Field environment, an ERA of six is not what you like to see, and even the FIP in the mid-fours hardly screams “pitcher you’re going to use in high-leverage situations.” Johnson took over the closer role when Daniel Bard had to step away from baseball temporarily earlier this season. He only blew a couple of saves before losing the gig last month, but his walk rate this season — never his strength — led to a lot of adventures like you’d see from Fernando Rodney in a down year. Johnson’s saving grace, and almost certainly the reason the Braves valued him, is that he misses bats and throws hard; if carefully managed, he can be an asset to the ‘pen.

Lefties are a rare sight in Atlanta’s bullpen with Tyler Matzek (gone for the season), A.J. Minter, and Dylan Lee all injured; Lucas Luetge was basically the team’s southpaw option in late innings, and he’s a pitcher that had already been outrighted once this season. He was also the player designated for assignment to make room for these deals, which means Hearn’s presence on the 40-man roster is quite useful right now. Minter is scheduled to start a rehab assignment soon, and Lee pitched a bullpen this weekend, but with the deadline approaching, it would have been risky to count on either getting back to the majors quickly without any setbacks.

The Rangers demoted Hearn after a couple of disastrous early-season relief appearances, and he’s pitched reasonably well for Triple-A Round Rock this season, albeit with the usual lapses in command. As a lefty who can touch the mid-90s and fill a number of roles in relief, teams will continue to want him around for at least the next few years. There’s also the benefit that he can actually be optioned to the minors, unlike most of the rest of Atlanta’s relief corps.

As for the Rockies: I know this sounds weird coming from me, but I think they did well in their return for a relief rental who has struggled. The more significant prospect is Vodnik, a hard-throwing, fairly raw righty whom ZiPS projected with an ERA around four before the season. My colleague Eric Longenhagen has confirmed that Vodnik is still maintaining his early-season velocity spike:

Vodnik’s fastball velocity has vacillated wildly during his lifetime as a prospect but lately it’s absolutely booming. He sat 94-95 mph during most of 2021 and early in 2022, but last year his velo steadily crept up over the course of the season and averaged 96.7 mph in the month of September. When he showed up to 2023 spring training, Vodnik was averaging 98 and touching 100, and he’s carried that into the early goings of the Double-A season – a tiny sample, to be sure, but a promising start nevertheless.

ZiPS likes Vodnik as well, and though his Double-A numbers don’t pop out at you, especially the walk rate, it has chopped a bit off his projected ERA since the start of the year (3.86), though that comes with too many walks. That being said, a live arm reliever who isn’t completely hopeless in the command department is more than a fair return for a few months of Johnson’s services. The other prospect, Gordon, is not close to Vodnik as a prospect; he’s a 25-year-old whose heat doesn’t come out of the low-90s and who doesn’t miss all that many bats. ZiPS thinks that his path to the majors is likely in a mopup/swingman role, as does Eric. Vodnik is the one more likely to have a future in Denver, which would be welcome for an organization that has a long history of signing free-agent relievers after their best-by dates.

I’d still like to see the Braves make a move to bring in an innings-eater for the stretch drive or upgrade from Eddie Rosario/Kevin Pillar, but if the team is inclined to do that, neither of these trades do anything to prevent that from happening. Atlanta’s goal here was to buttress the team’s bullpen depth, and that’s exactly what it did.

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