March 23, 2011 at 9:25 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
With the news that Jose Ortegano and Lee Hyde were claimed on waivers by the Yankees and the Nationals, respectively, the Braves now have five left-handed pitchers on their 40-man roster: Jonny Venters, George Sherrill, Eric O’Flaherty, Mike Minor, and Billy Wagner. Billy Wagner is of course retired, meaning there are effectively only four left-handers on the roster. Three of them will be in the big-league bullpen at the onset of the season (Venters, Sherrill, O’Flaherty), the other one will either be in the big-league rotation or in the Gwinnett rotation.
Ortegano and Hyde aren’t the first two lefthanders the Braves have lost this offseason, Michael Dunn was dealt to the Marlins in the Dan Uggla trade, Mariano Gomez signed with the Tigers as a six-year free agent, and Scott Diamond was selected by the Twins in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft. What was an embarrassment of riches a few months ago is now an area of concern. It’s a luxury to have three lefties in the MLB bullpen, but George Sherrill wasn’t any good last year, Eric O’Flaherty has historically had injury issues, and Jonny Venters’ track record of success is exactly one year long (2011 will be his eighth professional season if you include 2006, when he was out for the year having required Tommy John surgery). That’s not to say I’m concerned with the group of lefthanders they still have on the roster, I’m not, just that the depth they had was a nice safety net. That depth is completely gone.
So who is next in line if the Braves need another left-handed reliever at some point during the 2011 season?
Looking at the list of top-40 prospects, I’ve ranked nine left-handed pitchers and none of them are strong candidates to fill a relief role if a mid-season need for another lefty arises:
Mike Minor — Mentioned previously, not a candidate for a relief role.
Carlos Perez — Will begin the 2011 season at Class A Rome, several stops away from being a candidate for a big-league job, regardless of role.
Michael Dunn — Mentioned previously, traded to the Marlins.
Brett Oberholtzer — Might begin the year at AA, if he does he’ll probably still be there at the end of the year. 2012 ETA more likely and has enough stuff/approach to pitch out of the rotation, so that’s where they’ll likely keep him.
Lee Hyde — Mentioned previously, claimed on waivers by the Nationals.
Chris Masters — Probably ticketed for Class A Advanced Lynchburg at the start of 2011, nowhere near ready for the big leagues.
Amilcar Gaxiola — So far away it’s not even worth discussing his timetable.
Steven Kent — A true relief prospect with a decent ceiling, but injuries have gotten in the way of his development thus far and he’s likely still a few years away. Will begin 2011 at Lynchburg or Mississippi.
Scott Diamond — Mentioned previously, selected by the Minnesota Twins in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
There’s a chance Atlanta gets Diamond back from the Twins, but if they thought he was capable of contributing this year they wouldn’t have left him unprotected in the first place. David O’Brien explains in an article dealing with the “why is Billy Wagner still on the roster?” question*:
They went thru the Rule 5 draft and lost LHP Scott Diamond to the Twins when theoretically they could have protected Diamond by adding him to the spot Wagner is holding at the moment.
This specific question has been addressed several times since the Rule 5 draft. Even if the Braves had a spot open on the 40-man, Wren specifically said they would not have protected Diamond, and that they actually had a better shot at getting him later than they would’ve if they had protected him. Here’s the reasoning: If the Braves had protected Diamond before the Rule 5, he would almost certainly have been one of the first players dropped from the 40-man at the end of spring training when the Braves needed the roster spot for a player who might help them this season (Diamond, they determined, was/is not ready to help them this season. They don’t need him this season.)
In not protecting him, they lost him to Minnesota in the Rule 5 draft. The Twins now must keep him on their 25-man (major league) roster the entire 2011 season. There’s a good chance they won’t be able to do that, that they will decide they can’t carry him and need to use that roster spot for a player ready to help the Twins win now. In that case, they must offer him back to the Braves for $25,000, half of the claiming price the Twins paid. If that happens, the Braves would do it and take him back, then wouldn’t have to protect him but rather could simply send him to the minor leagues, since he’s got minor league options. They wouldn’t need to add him to their 40-man and could just let him continue developing in the minors for the season, then could protect him next winter if he’s ready.
*Please consult that article rather than asking us why Wagner is still on the roster if you’re curious.
So, who would the Braves turn to if they need another lefty?
There are three guys to keep an eye on.
Yohan Flande is a guy the Braves signed as a six-year free agent this offseason after he’d spent his entire career in the Phillies’ organization. I know very little about him, but he had a 4.8 K/9 as a starter at Class AA Reading last year. That’s obviously not enough information to dismiss him as a candidate and the Braves obviously saw something there that motivated them to sign him. I’ll reserve judgment until I see him pitch, but, knowing what I know, I certainly wouldn’t peg him as a strong option at this point.
Thomas Palica was drafted by the Braves in the 10th round of the 2007 Rule 4 draft and he’s made an appearance on my top-40 list before. Still, he has all of 41 and 2/3 inning above Class A Advanced and needs to sharpen his command before he’s receives any serious consideration for a big-league job.
The most interesting option is Richard Sullivan. Martin Gandy and C.B. Wilkins have a great article in the Maple Street Press Braves Annual called “Finding The Next Jonny Venters”. Two lefthanders were mentioned, Hyde and Sullivan. Here’s what they had to say about the latter:
The Skinny: Sullivan was drafted in the 11th round of the 2008 draft, a rare Savannah College of Art and Design selection. He spent 2010 shuffling between Mississippi’s rotation and bullpen, finishing with a 5.09 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.
Why We Haven’t Heard of Him: Sullivan hasn’t really put up any special numbers in his career, and his numbers as a starter in 2010 were atrocious: a 1-7 record, a 7.17 ERA, and a 1.90 WHIP in 64 innings. But, as a reliever, he was great, with a 2.72 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in 56.1 innings.
Why He Might Be the Next Venters: His secondary pitches–a hard slider and a popping change-up–are his best pitches, and he mixes them effectively with a low-90s fastball. That kind of junk coming from a low-angle lefty is typically a recipe for success. If he continues to dominate out of the pen the way he did in 2010, it won’t be long before Atlanta is forced to give him a long look.
It sounds like Sullivan has a decent chance of emerging as a serviceable lefty-specialist at the least. Right now I’d say he’s probably fourth on the organizations left-handed relief depth chart given the lack of other options. He’s got enough stuff/approach for the role and, like Venters, might be able to take off if handed a full-time bullpen job.
That’s not to say the Braves should be satisfied with what they’ve got. Look for them to monitor the waiver wire closely and put in a claim if a pitcher becomes available that they feel is capable of becoming a serviceable major-league left-handed reliever. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sign another 6-year FA or non-tender that’s still available to a minor-league deal, either. If everything goes right–Sherrill holds lefties in check, Venters proves that last year was no fluke, and O’Flaherty stays healthy–none of this will matter, but like they say you’ve got to plan for the worst and hope for the best.