Injuries to relievers will test Braves

sports@macon.comMay 18, 2013 

The Atlanta Braves have had a rough week, and it has had nothing to do with what has happened on the field.

First, it was Jonny Venters, lost for the year after having his second Tommy John surgery in his pro career. Then Saturday, Eric O’Flaherty learned he had a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, and it’s likely he’ll have the same procedure in the next few weeks.

And just like that, the biggest strength of the Atlanta team is a huge concern. That’s baseball, people will tell you. Something strange like that happens every year.

But these are not just two ordinary relievers. Venters and O’Flaherty have a combined ERA of 2.10 in their careers with the Braves. They’ve arguably been two of the top left-handed relievers in all of baseball in the past three years.

O’Flaherty might be one of the best acquisitions in Atlanta’s history, and that’s no exaggeration. He was claimed off waivers from Seattle in November 2008. He had some back issues that season, and the Mariners were tired of waiting to see if he’d ever get healthy.

Well, he did get healthy, and, since 2010, O’Flaherty has had the second-best ERA for any reliever in baseball -- behind only his teammate, Craig Kimbrel.

Last season, O’Flaherty did not allow an earned run in his final 28 appearances. He was so good that MLB Network named him as the sixth-best reliever in the game. That list included mostly closers, but they believed O’Flaherty was that valuable to the Braves.

You have to wonder if the heavy workload Venters and O’Flaherty had in 2011 contributed to these injuries. Venters led all of baseball with 85 appearances, while O’Flaherty was tied for fifth with 78 games pitched. Kimbrel was actually tied for second with 79 games pitched.

That was ridiculous, really. To have your top three relievers average almost 81 games each was just too much. The Braves had a lot of one-run games early that year, and it contributed to the heavy workload for the bullpen.

And remember, Kimbrel and Venters wore down late in the 2011 season, when the Braves had the historic collapse to lose the wildcard. Kimbrel had a 4.76 ERA in September, 2011 while Venters ERA was 5.11 in the final month of that season.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez practically admitted it was a mistake to use his big three that much in 2011 by backing off their workload last season. Venters had 66 games pitched, followed by 64 for O’Flaherty and 63 for Kimbrel.

It helped tremendously down the stretch, as Venters had a 2.25 ERA in September of last season, while neither Kimbrel nor O’Flaherty gave up an earned run.

So is it just a coincidence that a little more than a year after that overuse by the manager two of the three relievers are now out with serious elbow issues?

Maybe it is, but probably not. Gonzalez’s use of the bullpen was something he was criticized for when he managed the then-Florida Marlins, and now it’s coming into play with the Braves, too.

Take last Monday, for example. Mike Minor had pitched a gem in Arizona. The Braves were up 7-1, and Minor had given up a single to start the seventh inning and then got the next two batters out. Minor was at 104 pitches (past that magic number of 100 pitches when managers seem to panic and take out starting pitchers), and Gonzalez popped out of the dugout to make a change.

Instead of allowing Minor, who by the way would have come up second in the next half-inning and could have been lifted for a pinch-hitter, finish the inning, Gonzalez brought in Anthony Varvaro, who then made only two pitches to get the final out.

So, with the big, six-run lead, did Gonzalez then allow Varvaro to hit so he could come out and pitch another inning? No. He instead pinch-hit for Varvaro and brought in David Carpenter. But here’s the kicker. Gonzalez didn’t even allow Carpenter, a newcomer who is somewhat expendable, to finish the game. He brought in O’Flaherty to get the final three outs.

By then, the Braves had a nine-run lead. Why use O’Flaherty then? To get him some work? He had not pitched since the previous Thursday, but wouldn’t it have been better to let him rest another day since he just wasn’t really necessary?

Now, with O’Flaherty out, the Braves are going to have to make a trade for bullpen help. It might take a while, as trades usually don’t materialize until near the All-Star Break. Jordan Walden, Cristhian Martinez and Luis Ayala are also on the disabled list, and their return would help. But they also have to be careful about reliever Cory Gearrin, a former Mercer Bears player, who is on pace for 87 appearances. They’ve already used Gearrin too much this season.

We thought the Braves’ inconsistent offense would be the biggest test for this team this season. But now the biggest challenge will be overcoming these catastrophic injuries to the valuable relievers.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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