Friday, November 21, 2014

See ya, Jonny and Ramiro!

It wasn't much of a surprise when the Braves announced that both Jonny Venters and Ramiro Pena had been designated for assignment late Wednesday evening. The Braves needed room on their 40 man roster for a slew of additions and I hope to look more into the names added this weekend. Before we get to that, though, let's look at the now ex-Braves.

Ramiro Pena

(UPDATE: Pena was actually outright to Gwinnett instead of being released so he's still in the organization.) It was a bit of a head scratcher when the Braves gave Pena a major league contract two winters ago. He had posted a .553 OPS in 338 PA with the Yankees over parts of four seasons. Players like Pena typically travel from organization-to-organization on minor league contracts, seeking out the right situation that gets them back to the majors. So why former general manager Frank Wren surrendered major league money to Pena was unknown. Perhaps there was a bit of a market for Pena.

Pena made Wren look really good in 2013, though. Unfortunately, his play led to Joe Simpson and his ilk attempting to call Pena a "National League type of player." On the other hand, fortunately, he was very productive for Atlanta, slashing his way to .278/.330/.443 off the bench. He endeared himself to Braves fans on April 12th when he took Clint Stammen of the Nationals deep for a two-run, extra innings homer in Washington. It was the first game of a three game sweep the Braves would have of the hated Nationals and the ninth win of a 13-2 start. Jeff Shultz would make it his job to remind us how poorly the Braves would be in 2013 if you took out 15 games of the season.

Pena's first season in Atlanta ended later that June when he was diagnosed with a tear in his right shoulder. Apparently, Pena walked on the mound at some point and was inflicted with the curse that kills Braves pitchers. However, his 2013 was good enough to warrant a return trip and the Braves settled before arbitration on the same day they brought back Venters for 2014.

Back healthy, NotPrado's 2014 season lacked the solid play of his 2013 campaign. Pena's wOBA fell from .338 to .285, though he did finish strong while stealing playing time at second and spelling Andrelton Simmons at short. Over the final two months, Pena slashed .333/.380/.400 and people like me thought that was enough to be brought back for a third season. Besides, he would have only made around a million. However, the Braves thought that was roughly $500K too much as a rookie on a minimum contract might be just as valuable. Pena should get some immediate interest from other organizations, though he will probably have to play his way onto a major league roster after accepting an invite to spring training.

Jonny Venters

Flashback to spring training of 2011. There were some who felt there that the young Craig Kimbrel was going to have to at least share the closing duties with the left-handed Venters. Those includes Fredi Gonzalez, who suggested that "Maybe we'll go the whole way" with dual-closers. Interestingly, Venters didn't buy that and he was right. He settled into the middle of the O'Ventbrel trio with fellow lefty Eric O'Flaherty and 2011 Rookie of the Year Kimbrel to form a bullpen to be envied by the rest of the league. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last long.

Venters had already been around for awhile when he got to the majors in 2010. Drafted in the 30th round in 2003 out of high school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, Venters chose to take advantage of a now banned rule known as draft-and-follow. The Braves could select a player deep into the draft and that player could put in a year of college under his belt before coming back to the table to negotiate a contract. The Braves liked what they saw out of Venters' only year with Indian River Community College and signed him ahead of the 2004 draft. Two years later, he experienced his first serious pitching injury and would be put under the knife for Tommy John surgery. There would be more.

An average starter as he climbed the ladder, Venters was a non-prospect ahead of the 2010 season and failed to make the major league roster coming out of spring training. That would not keep Venters down in the minors for long. On April 17th, it was Venters getting the call from Gwinnett. I can't find the transaction, but I got to believe he was replacing Jo-Jo Reyes and that alone should have made Braves Country love him.

Used largely as the long guy at first, Venters gained Bobby Cox's trust to the point that he became Billy Wagner's primary set-up guy once the calendar switched to June. On July 17th, Venters became involved in a memorable moment when he hit Prince Fielder for whatever dumb reason. The incident also led to a suspension and one of Cox's 158 ejections. But Venters' rookie season was known more for his terrific pitching. His 1.95 ERA was backed up by a 2.69 FIP along with a shade over 10 K/9.

After falling back into the primary set-up role once Kimbrel replaced Wagner the following season, Venters was again tremendous. His heavy sinker, which stayed in the 95 mph range, led to prodigious amounts of groundballs, including 72.5% in 2011. He went to his only All-Star Game, joining Kimbrel, Jair Jurrjens, Chipper Jones, and Brian McCann as the Braves' contingent. However, 85 games and 88 innings pitched that year led to struggles down the stretch.

Fresh off two amazing campaigns in the majors, Venters looked like he would have another big year in 2012, but health was an issue and as was a rising sinker that led to six homers after three the previous year. He also spent some time on the DL and even made a rehab stint. He made his final appearance of the season on October 5th against the Cardinals in what we now know as the Outfield Fly Rule game. Venters came in with the Braves down 5-2, a runner on second, and two outs. He would give up a single to Matt Carpenter that made it 6-2 before inducing an inning-ending double play to get the game to the seventh inning stretch.

Hard to believe that was the last time Venters has pitched a meaningful game. An elbow sprain in a spring training game in March of 2013 eventually led to his second Tommy John surgery. In 2014, he kept rehabbing and trying to get back to the Braves, but never even took the mound in a minor league game. After being shutdown a few times, his season finally came to a close with a third Tommy John in September. He will likely miss all of 2015 and if he pitches again, chances are it will not come with the Braves.

The list of pitchers who have come back from three Tommy John's isn't very long. Jose Rijo briefly resurrected his career 2001-02. After that, Jason Isringhausen was a shell of his former self in 2011-12, but did get into 100 games to finish his career. Chad Fox and Scott Williamson also had numerous operations, but their success was non-existent. Venters does have youth in his favor and everyone loves lefties.

I think Braves fans are like me when they hope Venters does make it back to the majors, even if its facing the Braves. Watching him shutdown the opposition, even though it was brief, was a true joy. O'Ventbrel gave the Braves an edge. Shame it couldn't last. Good luck, Jonny!

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