The Braves made a few moves on September 1st, the first day of roster expansion, to give boost to the bullpen, catching, and bench. Brian McCann was activated from the 10-day IL and Johan Camargo, Jeremy Walker, and Chad Sobotka were brought up from Gwinnett. In all likelihood, that will be all we will see until Gwinnett concludes its postseason run, with the exception of someone like Darren O’Day or Grant Dayton, who could be activated whenever deemed ready (but both would come at the expense of another 40-man roster player being designated for assignment). However, there will definitely be more and there’s one particular battle that’s really kept my attention this last week and that is the battle for a left-handed relief spot.
Sean Newcomb and Jerry Blevins stand as the only 2 left-handed relief options currently on the MLB club. And while both have had their share of 2019 successes, it seems too few considering the high probability that Sean Newcomb will be used in full innings, handedness be damned, and Blevins would be the sole LOOGY of a bullpen that’ll carry at least 8 pitchers. I feel as though the Braves are not happy with this situation, and with the inconsistencies of A.J. Minter and the questionable health of Grant Dayton, there’s at least some consideration for another lefty to get the call to the Majors. The Braves have made a few quiet acquisitions to add to their AAA club and have also had some promotions that have caught the eye. Overall, 4 lefties have been added to the Striper roster in the last month. That doesn’t feel like coincidence. In short, I think Anthopoulos sees a need and is deciding who he’s going to fill it with, and the candidates are dressed in their Striper best to impress.
Grant Dayton– My stance, is it’s his job to lose if he’s healthy. He put up good numbers when with the MLB club, but he hasn’t pitched great since being sent on his rehab assignment. The positives are that he’s still striking out people, giving up very few walks, and holding left-handed hitters to a .541 OPS for the year. The negatives are that he isn’t overpowering and has been plagued with injuries.
Phil Pfeifer– From the brink of being out of baseball to a strikeout machine, Pfeifer has had a career resurgence as a starting pitcher but is filling the role as a multi-inning reliever with Gwinnett. Chris Harris, who’s the media relations director for the Mississippi Braves provided a report on him:
“Braves fans need to take note. The lefties’ fastball is 92-95 with a devastating slider.”
He’s putting up video game K-numbers and is pushing for a look. Will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, which could force the hand of Anthopoulos to give him a look at the expense of someone else on the 40-man since it’ll be delaying inevitability should the Braves desire to carry him in 2020.
Tyler Matzek– Wrote this about Matzek a few days back and the logic still rings true. I do think Anthopoulos was fishing for pedigree in hopes of catching lighting in a bottle, but Matzek’s giving up runs in chunks. On the positive, he isn’t walking anyone (which was the real reason he developed performance anxiety) and is striking out a ton. He’s likely well down the list now after his last few outings. He’ll be a MiLB FA after next year, but I don’t think that is a big factor like it would be with Pfeifer (and the Rule 5).
Tucker Davidson– Fresh off an announcement that he’ll be training at Driveline this coming offseason, Davidson has been the talk of the minors when it comes to breakout candidates. I have a theory that it was because of Tucker’s breakout that the Braves felt comfortable in dealing Joey Wentz, and I think there’s an argument to be made that Tucker might have jumped Joey in the prospect rankings. Pushing 95-96 as a starter, Davidson, like Pfeifer, will have to be placed on the 40-man roster this upcoming offseason or be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. Anthopoulos isn’t going to let that happen. Already surpassing a career high in innings, the Braves will likely take the cautious route here, but if they’re looking for highest ceiling arm, Tucker’s the man.
AJ Minter- His walks are nearly non-existent at AAA and his strikeout rate is as good as it’s ever been, but AJ just cannot keep the hard contact down. The ball is flying out of the park and, aside from Matzek, I think Minter dwells at the bottom of this list. Sure, he might get the call-up after the Gwinnett season is over since he’s already on the 40-man, but I cannot fathom what would have to happen in order for him to see the playoff roster.
Caleb Thielbar– There’s not much I can really tell you about Thielbar except he doesn’t walk many, is striking out nearly 11 per 9 innings, is 31 years old, and is eating up every piece of analytical information there is to grab. In my research, he sounds like he’s focused more on his off-speed rather than velocity and that might explain why he has reverse splits this year, which likely hurts his candidacy to be added to a playoff roster. Still, the Braves saw something in him to acquire him right before September, but I think there are other left-handed arms that are ahead of him in the pecking order.
The Hindrance of Being One of the Unlucky 40
Of the above candidates, only AJ Minter dwells on the 40-man roster. Grant Dayton is technically there, but is currently on a rehab assignment from a 60-Day IL stint. If the Braves were to activate him, it’d come at the loss of another on the 40-man. As of now, there isn’t a legit casualty on the 40-man, but the further into September we get, the likelihood that some fringe guys like Rafael Ortega (who I’ve been really impressed with how hard he hits the ball) and 1 year vets such as Anthony Swarzak, Josh Tomlin, and Adeiny Hechavarria, or even Adam Duvall, who’ll be out of options come next year, could become the release that opens up a spot for a surprise candidate. However, that’s only the first hoop to jump through because the Braves would never risk losing a player for nothing if the player being brought up cannot impact the playoffs.
Players that reside on the 40-man roster prior to September 1st (even 60-day IL guys), are eligible for the playoffs, no strings attached. However, there is still a way to add players that don’t meet that criteria, but it’s layered. Details:
“A player who doesn’t meet said criteria for postseason eligibility can still be added to a team’s roster in the postseason via petition to the Commissioner’s Office if the player was in the organization on Aug. 31 and is replacing someone who is on the injured list and has served the minimum amount of time required for activation. (For example, a player on the 10-day injured list who has been on it for at least 10 days, or a player who has been on the 60-day injured list for at least 60 days.) Players who are acquired in September or after are ineligible.”
Concrete, sort of realistic scenario: Let’s say the Braves added Tucker Davidson to the 40-man roster on September 15th. Prior to the playoffs, Anthopolous makes a case for Davidson to be added to the playoff roster because Grant Dayton, who was a left-handed reliever they wanted to carry, hasn’t been able to stay healthy since breaking his toe. From there, the commish has to decide if it’s a reasonable request.
My Personal Choice
I like what Tucker Davidson has done this year, but I think his long-term impact is more important than the risk of throwing him out of the bullpen for a handful of innings, so I’d go with Pfeifer. I’ve been able to watch quite a bit of his outings and that slider is full-on nasty and I don’t remember it being that good in 2018. I do think his position of needing to be added to the 40-man in the offseason might be a plus for his candidacy to pitch in September at the expense of a player that wouldn’t be in the org in November. Still, if the Braves don’t have to go the hard route, they won’t, and in all likelihood I’m writing this for naught and Grant Dayton will be the one chosen to be the 3rd left-handed option in the playoffs. Still, there’s a reason the Braves stocked up late on left-handed relief and there could be a very tough decision coming for Anthopoulos in the upcoming weeks.