16. Is Royce Ring ready to win a job?

The Braves need a lefty reliever to step up until Mike Gonzalez returns in midseason, and Royce Ring may be that man.

Royce Ring has been a vagabond relief pitcher in his six seasons of pro baseball. But the Atlanta Braves are confident they'll finally found the lefty a home.

The Chicago White Sox drafted Royce Ring in the first round (18th overall) in the 2002 June amateur draft. Thirteen months later Ring was traded to the New York Mets in the Roberto Alomar trade. He would make his big league debut in 2005 with the Mets. After another cup of coffee in New York in 2006 the Mets traded Ring to the San Diego Padres last winter.

Ring had played high school ball in California and college baseball at San Diego State, so the Padres seemed like the perfect fit. But Ring struggled a bit in spring training last March (4.91 ERA in seven games), so the Padres sent him to Triple-A Portland.

The season started well for Ring, as he had a 1.32 ERA in his first 11 games in April, with 17 strikeouts and only six walks in 13.2 innings. Then San Diego needed him, and Ring was called up to the Padres where he pitched in two games (two scoreless innings) before being sent back down to Triple-A.

From May 11th through June 17th, Ring was outstanding for Portland: 4-0, 1.15 ERA in 14 games, eight hits allowed in 15.2 innings, three runs, two earned runs, five walks, and 22 strikeouts.

San Diego called Ring back up to the big leagues on June 22nd and he pitched in 13 games with the Padres, including an impressive two-inning stint on July 8th against the Braves at Petco Park. Ring pitched two perfect innings against Atlanta, and three weeks later the Braves would be his newest team.

The Braves were trying to trade Wilfredo Ledezma, who had been a bust since coming over from the Detroit Tigers in the Macay McBride trade. The Padres were interested, and would give the Braves Ring only if Atlanta would also include Triple-A reliever Will Startup.

Atlanta agreed, believing Ring might have better potential than Startup, and not really caring about Ledezma, only grateful they could get something for him. Ring then went to Triple-A Richmond where he was placed under the care of pitching coach Guy Hansen.

The Braves knew Ring could probably help them in September, but they wanted Hansen to do what he does best: finish off prospects so they'll be completely ready to stick and stay in the big leagues. Hansen worked with Ring on simplifying his delivery, especially with runners on base. He got ring quicker to the plate, which also helped his move to first base.

While Hansen hated losing Will Startup, he loved his new pupil in Royce Ring. Hansen was impressed with Ring's stuff, which includes a fastball (88-92 mph), curve, slider, and changeup. But Hansen also loved Ring's athletic ability.

So when the rosters were expanded in September, Ring got the call to the big leagues once again – only this time as a Brave. Ring would pitch in eleven games the last month of the season and he was outstanding: 0-0, 0.00, two hits allowed in five innings pitched, three walks, and four strikeouts. Lefty batters hit only .231 against Ring in September.

As we look toward next season, there's no doubt that Ring has put himself in position to be the Braves' main lefty reliever coming out of spring training. Ron Mahay is a free agent and may not be back, and Mike Gonzalez is still recovering from Tommy John Surgery and won't be back until midseason.

The Braves could bring Mahay back or sign another veteran lefty as insurance, but it looks like Ring (who is out of options) is ready to be the main southpaw to set up closer Rafael Soriano. At the least, he'll compete for another spot in the bullpen and be the second lefty, but since he's out of options he's going to have to bomb in March to lose a spot.

In a way, the Braves pretty much traded Macay McBride and Will Startup for Royce Ring. Both McBride and Startup were Georgia kids that were favorites in the clubhouse. But Ring is a pitcher with outstanding stuff, perhaps even a bit better than what the other two could provide the Braves in a relief role.

Like Startup, Ring has pretty much been a closer for most of his career. He started in high school, but since his days at San Diego State Ring has been a reliever. So he knows what his role is coming out of the bullpen in crucial spots.

Ring has dropped his arm angle down a bit in the last couple of years, which can make it very tough for lefty hitters to pick up his breaking ball. So he's got a chance to really be effective in certain situations against hitters from that side of the plate.

The Braves feel Ring is ready to be an important lefty reliever in the bullpen. Mike Gonzalez might come back midway through the season, but that will only improve the depth. By that time, Ring may be already cemented in as the main reliever from the left side of the pitching rubber.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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