Braves accumulating relievers for the future

Don't think the Braves are just developing starting pitchers. Recent moves show that developing relievers is important to the Atlanta organization as well.

All of a sudden, the Atlanta Braves have accumulated a good number of solid relief pitching prospects. It’s an undervalued element in baseball right now – good, dependable relievers.

Teams develop starting pitchers, but why not develop more relief pitchers? A lot of teams simply believe relievers are interchangeable. The Braves have been guilty of this in the past. But not now. Braves’ general manager John Coppolella’s recent moves show he is valuing relievers.

The Braves just acquired two relief prospects in last week’s deal with the Dodgers. For starter Bud Norris, the Braves got Caleb Dirks and Philip Pfeifer.

Dirks was originally with the Braves, but Atlanta sent him to the Dodgers last year in a deal for an international bonus slot. Dirks was the Braves’ 15th round pick in the 2014 draft out of California Baptist University. He’s a 6-3, 220-pound right-hander who was placed on the Double-A Mississippi roster.

For Double-A Tulsa this season, Dirks had a 1.44 earned run average in 28 games, with six saves. He allowed 25 hits in 31.1 innings, with only seven walks and 35 strikeouts. Last season with four different minor league teams, Dirks had a 0.90 ERA in 40 games, with 64 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched.

Pfeifer is a 6-0, 190-pound left-handed who was Los Angeles’ 3rd round pick in the 2015 draft out of Vanderbilt. For High-A Rancho Cucamonga this season, Pfeifer had a 3.33 ERA in 14 games, with 33 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. He’s limited left-handed hitters to a .194 opponents average this season.

Pfeifer will begin his career in the Atlanta organization with the High-A Carolina Mudcats.

Akeel Morris was acquired from the Mets last month for Kelly Johnson. Morris is a 6-1, 195-pound right-hander. So far in Double-A Mississippi, Morris has pitched in six games and has a 2.35 ERA.

Adam McCreery was acquired from the Angels for Jhoulys Chacin. McCreery is a 6-8, 195-pound left-hander who is in the Rome bullpen.

Those are five new prospects in Atlanta’s farm system. But there are others who are making their mark this season with the affiliates.

First on the list is A.J. Minter, last year’s second round pick by the Braves out of Texas A&M. Minter is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and he’s been unbelievably good so far. Minter pitched in five games with Rome and now eight games with Carolina. He’s yet to allow a run in 13 games.

Minter has allowed just five hits in 16 innings, with five walks and 16 strikeouts. Lefty hitters can’t hit Minter, as they are just 1-for-15 so far.

There is a great chance Minter will be in big league camp next spring. He should be considered a dark horse candidate for the 2017 Atlanta bullpen – if not on opening day, sometime next summer. The Braves felt he was close to being ready to contribute in the big leagues before he was hurt, and now that he has recovered and done this well, there’s no doubt Minter is once again on the radar.

The Braves recently promoted 21-year-old right-hander Evan Phillips to Double-A Mississippi. Phillips was Atlanta’s 17th round pick in 2015 out of UNC-Wilmington. Phillips had eight saves in Carolina this season, with a 1.27 ERA. His ERA in two years is 1.95 in 41 games, with only 40 hits allowed in 60 innings.

Sean McLaughlin, a 22-year-old right-hander who was drafted out of the University of Georgia last year in the 19th round, has been very solid. McLaughlin has a 1.51 ERA this season in 23 games for Carolina. Counting last season, McLaughlin has a 2.26 ERA in his 43 games in the organization, with 73 strikeouts in 75.2 innings.

Chase Johnson-Mullins opened eyes in spring training when the Braves brought him over for some big league exhibition games. He’s a 6-8, 270-pound monster who is a southpaw. Johnson-Mullins turns 22 later this month. He was drafted by Atlanta in the 13th round of the 2015 draft out of Shelton State Community College in Alabama.

Johnson-Mullins has eight saves with Carolina this season, with a 3.78 ERA. He has had some trouble with left-handed hitters this season, as they have hit .259 off him.

The Braves have to wonder if Steve Janas has found his niche as a reliever. Janas was mainly a starter in his first three years in the organization, but this year he has a 2.02 ERA in 27 games between Mississippi and Gwinnett. Janas has been used as a long reliever, but the results have been positive.

Josh Graham was Atlanta’s 4th round pick in 2015 out of the University of Oregon. He’s 6-1, 215 pounds and is a right-hander. Graham has been very impressive out of the Rome bullpen this season, with a 2.42 ERA in 16 games, with only six walks and 27 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.

Taylor Lewis was Atlanta’s 9th round pick in 2015 out of the University of Florida. He’s 6-1, 170 pounds and is a right-hander. Lewis has pitched in 23 games this year between Rome and Carolina and has a 2.43 ERA in 37 innings pitched.

Don’t forget about Jason Hursh, the Braves’ first round pick in the 2013 draft. Hursh is exclusively in the bullpen now for Double-A Mississippi. He has a 2.74 ERA in 26 games, with 35 hits allowed in 42.2 innings. Hursh has walked 19 and struck out 29.

Jose Ramirez started the season on the Atlanta roster, but after two shaky games he was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett. Ramirez has been solid there, posting a 2.32 ERA in 27 games. Ramirez has 36 strikeouts in 31 innings.

The Braves have already switched former starting pitchers Mauricio Cabrera and Tyrell Jenkins to the bullpen. Cabrera has flashed a 103-mph fastball in his first three big league games. If the Braves trade Arodys Vizcaino before the August 1 deadline, Cabrera might get a look-see as a closer. Jenkins has also pitched in three games, and the Braves are anxious to see him in the long relief role in the second half of the season.

There are some injured pitchers we should keep in mind for the future bullpen.

The Braves still hope Shae Simmons will get healthy. He’s had a setback from Tommy John surgery, but the Braves believe if Simmons can stay off the disabled list he would have a chance to be a solid reliever in Atlanta.

Brady Feigl was considered close in spring training 2015, but then early in the season in Gwinnett his elbow popped and he had to have Tommy John surgery. The hope back in spring was that Feigl would be pitching with a team by mid-season.

Andrew McKirahan had Tommy John surgery earlier this season, so he will be coming back a year from now. Paco Rodriguez should be back earlier than that. The former Dodgers’ reliever had a 2.53 ERA in his 124 games with Los Angeles before his elbow went. The Braves are hopeful Rodriguez can be a candidate for the Atlanta bullpen next season.

Dan Winkler broke his elbow in his third appearance with the Braves this season. He was so impressive in spring training and then in his first few games before the injury. The hope was Winkler would be back late this season, so if he’s healthy he also should be a candidate to be in the Atlanta bullpen in 2017.

And finally, we should mention the progress of three left-handed relievers in Atlanta - Ian Krol, Hunter Cervenka and Dario Alvarez. It almost seems comical now, but the Braves struggled to find lefties in spring training. Krol struggled, and the Braves had to buy Eric O’Flaherty from the Pirates. But Krol has been solid, with a 2.95 ERA in 25 games (lefty batters hitting only .188 against him).

Cervenka has been remarkably good. He’s got a 2.55 ERA in 36 games, and lefty hitters are batting just .136 against him. Cervenka has allowed just 29 baserunners in 24.2 innings, with 31 strikeouts.

And Alvarez, who was plucked off waivers from the Mets, has a 1.69 ERA in his first seven games with the Braves. Alvarez has allowed just one hit in 5.1 innings, with 12 strikeouts.

So while the Braves are using pitching as the focal point of the rebuilding process, don’t think it’s just starting pitchers. Relief pitching is also a priority in the Atlanta organization as the team builds for the future.

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