In that span, lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty have succumbed to left elbow injuries that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. And if losing two-thirds of the back end of what was expected to be the best bullpen in baseball wasn’t enough, hard-throwing right-hander Jordan Walden had his return from a shoulder strain pushed back to this coming week. And that trio, along with closer Craig Kimbrel, are perhaps the four best collection of relievers on one team in all of baseball.
Venters, of course, hasn’t thrown a regular season pitch this regular season after experiencing elbow discomfort in spring training and taking a plasma injection to try to heal the injury. O’Flaherty had been his usual stellar self in his 18 innings of work this year before his injury. Throw in the fact they are left handed in a division with lots of left-handed thunder, and it’s no doubt tremendous losses.
But the Braves are in a position to overcome — although trades might not be the answer. Let’s see how:
• Walden is a big key. The righty, acquired from the Anaheim Angels for Tommy Hanson in the offseason, hasn’t been crisp so far (4.85 ERA), but he has flashed his potential. He regularly touches 95 mph, and he has 16 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched. He’s allowed no home runs so far, but has given up 17 hits and three walks. Still, he has held lefthanders to a .212 batting average. Righties hit .455 off of him. Walden has been tougher on lefties than righties so far in his young career, not just this year. He might fill O’Flaherty’s lefty specialist role.
• Someone will be moving from the starting rotation in the next few weeks. Brandon Beachy is working his way back from Tommy John surgery in the minors and should join the Braves’ rotation in mid-June. And make no mistake, Beachy will be among the five starters.
He was one of the top pitchers in baseball the first half of last season before tearing his right elbow ligament. The question is, when he returns, who gets bumped to the bullpen? It won’t be righty Tim Hudson or lefty Paul Maholm. Fellow lefty Mike Minor has really grown into his role as a starter and is the ace of the staff right now, so he won’t be going to the bullpen any time soon either.
That means either righthander Kris Medlen or Julio Teheran likely will get bumped back, and if the guess had to be made today, I’d say it will be Medlen.
First of all, Medlen has bullpen experience. He knows what it’s like, knows what to expect and knows how to manage himself for potential day-to-day work. Teheran does not have that experience, and he appears to be turning a corner as a starter.
Second, Medlen’s changeup makes him tough on lefthanders. Like Walden, Medlen holds lefties to a lower average (.229 in 2013) than he does righties (.265). But Medlen is strong enough against righthanders that he could fill the role Venters usually did as Kimbrel’s eighth-inning setup man.
• The third non-trade option — and one we will likely hear more about when late July gets here — are the lefties in the minors.
Alex Wood, a second-round pick out of Georgia last year, has posted a 1.26 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 13 walks in 50 innings so far this year in Double-A as a starting pitcher. And while his career is that of a starter, he could be a high-impact call-up and it would limit his innings this year — something the Braves would no doubt like to do.
Sean Gilmartin, another lefty, also is being groomed as a starter in Triple-A. He’s not a potential strikeout-an-inning pitcher as Wood is, but he could be another — and perhaps better — option than dipping into the trade market.
So while there are certainly warranted concerns about the current bullpen situation, there are in-house options available. The biggest key going forward will be the health of what’s in the stockpile. Because while Atlanta is positioned to overcome the losses of Venters and O’Flaherty, it is not in position to take another big blow to what remains.