Every organization has its strengths and weaknesses. One thing the Braves seem to do well: develop young, cheap bullpen arms. While other organizations pay a premium for setup relievers and closers — for the second straight offseason, the Red Sox have depleted their farm system to obtain a second-division closer — the Braves have been able to rotate them through for the past decade with great success.
It’s allowed the Braves to enjoy great seasons from several retreads, and then simply allow them to leave when they reach market level. (One of those retreads is currently on the free agent wire: Chad Durbin is still seeking a two-year major league contract after leading the Braves in appearances in 2012 with a 3.10 ERA.)
This post is about Jonny Venters, but it is also about a philosophy that the Braves have employed over the past several years. Jonny has epitomized the approach the Braves have had for its top relievers: use them as much as possible, for as long as possible, and take your chances with their health.
(Among the relievers whose elbows Bobby Cox nuked are Peter Moylan, Blaine Boyer, Oscar Villarreal, Chris Reitsma — he sucked for us but that’s largely because he was entirely ineffective on back-to-back games — Greg McMichael, Kerry Ligtenberg, and Brad Clontz. Fredi Gonzalez appears to be following his lead.)
The Braves drafted Jonny in the 30th round of the 2003 amateur draft out of Indian River Community College in Florida as a starting pitcher, and he spent six seasons in that role in the minors. His overall minor league numbers are far from impressive: 72 GS, 4.10 ERA. In 2009, the year before his callup, Venters was 24 years old and he made 29 starts in AA and AAA, and he had a 4.42 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP with just 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
He clearly was not a future rotation anchor. So the Braves converted him to relief and called him up in mid-April 2010. He was astonishing: 79 appearances, 83 innings 1.95 ERA, 10.08 K/9, with 24 holds, and he finished 8th in the Rookie of the Year voting. That’s unusual for a middle reliever. He was that good.
But 2011 was more of the same: 85 appearances (most in MLB), 1.84 ERA, and 9.8 K/9. Along with Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel, Jonny anchored the fearsome O’Ventbrel trio that ended scores of games early. He could have easily closed for Atlanta — or just about any other team in baseball — if not for the Kraken.
However, when his previous two seasons are added up (including a few games in the minor leagues in April 2010), he appeared in 175 games, pitched 178 2/3 innings, and led the league in back-to-back game appearances. Indeed, O’Flaherty, Kimbrel, and Venters were all in the top 10 in appearances in 2011. Fredi said that the usage of the three would diminish.
It certainly did in 2012, but that was partly because Venters spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list. In Spring Training, he received a cortisone shot in his elbow and noticeably struggled with his control and command. His first half was a tightwire act: a 4.45 ERA through July 3, with six homers allowed through 32 1/3 innings. In July, Atlanta finally placed him on the DL with a sore elbow. He looked better after he got back on July 22, with a 1.71 ERA and no extra-base hits allowed. Venters finished the season with 58 2/3 IP.
So it goes back to Atlanta’s philosophy towards relievers. It’s pretty clear that relievers are fungible assets — even a reliever as surpassingly excellent as Venters is not as valuable to the team as a young starter like Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, or Kris Medlen. As Mac used to say, from a manager’s perspective, as you decide how to distribute the innings among all the pitchers on your staff, you would rather see a reliever get injured than a starter.
As a result, it seems like the Braves have ridden many of their best relievers into the ground, though it may be difficult to blame them for doing so. After all, in 2011, the Braves bullpen was incredibly top-heavy, and the use of O’Ventbrel kept Atlanta in the race despite a shaky offense until the last game of the season.
(The pen was much more balanced in 2010, as O’Flaherty and Venters joined Takashi Saito in backing up Billy Wagner, and Craig Kimbrel came up late in the season to add to the firepower.)
A case in point is Peter Moylan, who logged more than 80 games in 2007, 2009, and 2010, but missed the 2008 season with Tommy John surgery, and missed most of 2011 and 2012 with back surgery and shoulder surgery.
It’s difficult to tell what 2013 will be like for Everyday Jonny. Will he continue being the dominant reliever he was in 2010-2011 and the second half of 2012, or will he continued to be dogged by injury problems? Jonny is helped by his age — he’ll be 28 in March, so he doesn’t have that many cumulative miles on his arm — but pitchers get injured almost as a matter of course.
If Jonny stays healthy, it will be a tremendous boon to the Braves, but the Braves shouldn’t rely on it. He’s already survived Tommy John surgery once, back in 2005, and he’s a lefty who was sent to the DL with elbow soreness in 2012 who elected to keep pitching rather than undergo surgery. Right now, the Braves just have to cross their fingers and hope for the best. When that sinker is darting, it’s hard to think of a more unhittable pitch. Or anything that’s more fun to watch.