Avilan will navigate the path O’Flaherty and Venters once traveled
There was not much fanfare when the Braves claimed Eric O’Flaherty off waivers before the start of the 2009 season. Nor was there much reason to be excited about Jonny Venters’ potential before he dazzled during the 2010 Grapefruit League season.
Long before they became two of the game’s most reliable setup men, O’Flaherty and Venters were like so many other relievers (not named Craig Kimbrel) who have had to earn their right to be “high leverage” guys at the back end of a bullpen.
Now that it appears O’Flaherty and Venters will both spend the next year experiencing the long recovery from Tommy John surgery, the stage is set for Luis Avilan to prove he too is capable of rising from relative obscurity to the ranks of a top setup man.
When Avilan arrived in Philadelphia before the start of a series against the Phillies just before last year’s All-Star break, he was essentially viewed as nothing more than a body that would fill the bullpen vacancy created when Venters was placed on the disabled list with what was termed a left elbow impingement.
When Avilan made his Major League debut during a July 14 win over the Mets, he stranded two runners in the sixth with a strikeout of Ike Davis. While I don’t exactly remember the moment, my assumption is that the resulting thought was, “maybe this kid can at least prove to be a decent left-handed specialist.” When he allowed a run in each of the next three appearances that followed, we certainly the potential that has been displayed in the the months that have followed.
In the 43 1/3 innings Avilan has completed dating back to Aug. 1, he has compiled a 1.66 ERA and limited opponents to a .178 batting average and .248 on-base percentage. Three of the eight earned runs he has allowed during this span were tallied in the in a three-week span that began when he exited an April 16 game against the Royals with what initially looked like a bad hamstring injury.
Initially, Avilan did not look completely comfortable after missing just a week with that injury. But in his past 6 2/3 innings, he has surrendered just two hits and held opponents scoreless.
There is certainly reason to believe the Braves might eventually attempt to restock their injury-depleted bullpen by making a trade. But with Avilan, the much-improved Cory Gearrin and Jordan Walden, who should return from the disabled list next week, they already have some candidates to compensate for the loss of O’Flaherty.
It will be interesting to see how the Braves utilize their bullpen if they are working with a tight lead during the late innings of tonight’s series opener against the Twins. Closer Craig Kimbrel will almost certainly not be available after notching a save in each of this weekend’s three wins over the Dodgers.
The left-handed Avilan and right-handed Gearrin will both be available. Manager Fredi Gonzalez will likely determine which to use as the closer based on how the Twins’ lineup shapes up entering the eighth inning.
While Avilan is certainly capable of filling in as the closer for one night, I would like to see Gearrin get a shot to simply bring a huge smile to the face of former Braves closer Gene Garber, who will be watching from his Pennsylvania farm with great pride.
Over the course of the past two years, Gearrin was viewed as just another sidearm reliever who had trouble getting left-handers out.
On his way to compiling a 0.92 ERA through his first 23 appearances this year, Gearrin has limited left-handed hitters to a .087 (2-for-23) batting average. Though the sample size is small, the results come courtesy of the changeup Garber has helped the fellow sidearm reliever develop over the past few years.