Thursday, March 26, 2015

Favorite Braves List - Left-Hand Reliever

(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)

Favorite Braves List 
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Closer - Craig Kimbrel
RH-Reliever - Peter Moylan
Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons
Third Base - Chipper Jones 
Left Field - Ryan Klesko
Center Field - Andruw Jones
Right Field - Jason Heyward
Backup Catcher - Eddie Perez

Defensive Replacement - Rafael Belliard

Honorable Mention: For awhile there, Mike Remlinger was as good as any reliever in the game. Also as good as any reliever was Eric O'Flaherty, who in nearly 250 innings with the Braves, had a 1.99 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP. My favorite memory of O'Flaherty was that he was the only Brave who seemed capable of retiring Ryan Howard.

Favorite Braves List - Left-Hand Reliever
Jonny Venters

It is unfair that everything that made Venters so good was also led to the injuries that eventually made Venters a frequent visitor to Dr. James Andrews' clinic. The spiked curveball. The torque on his delivery to get the great natural sinking movement. But the magic couldn't last and now Venters isn't a Brave. Fortunately, he's enshrined on the Favorite Braves List.

Scott Cunningham | Getty Images
Everything about Venters struck you as a long shot. He was drafted in the 30th round in 2003, though I should mention that round was actually a pretty good round in unearthing some major league talent. Ignoring two others that made it to the bigs, but didn't sign after the 2003 draft so that they could be drafted higher in subsequent years...the 2003 30th round gave us Scott Feldman, who's had a pretty decent career, and Eric Young Jr., who appears destined to be a Brave once the 2015 season opens. All things considered, that's a pretty haul for any 30th round, especially when it was book-ended with the selection of Venters as the 907th overall selection.

Venters did not sign right away, though. After graduating from Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, FL, Venters would attend Indian River Community College before signing right before the 2004 draft. This was the practice known as draft-and-follow, which new rules have ended. Teams would spend a late round pick on a guy, control his rights for a year, and the player would be given the chance to improve his value so that before the next year's draft, the team and the player could decide what was most beneficial. Sign now or head back into the draft. Tommy Hanson is another example of a Brave who went down this route.

It would be accurate to call Venters' minor league career unremarkable. After his first two years, he would undergo his first of now three Tommy John's in 2006. He would make it back to play for Myrtle Beach in 2007, but was limited to a shade under 35 innings in 2008 due to injuries. He actually pitched nearly as many innings for the Honolulu Sharks in the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League. It's sad that the HWB folded after 2008. How cool would it be to vacation in Hawaii during the winter and still get to watch baseball? Anyway, Venters was finally able to stay healthy and pitched a career-high 156.2 ING in 2009. It was hardly much to write home about, except that it was 50 more innings than he had pitched in the previous three years.

The year attracted attention and with his always valuable left-hand arm about to become Rule 5 eligible, the Braves added him to the 40-man roster after the 2009 season. He came to camp and showed great velocity and an improving spike curveball that had Venters on the rise. The Braves began Venters in Gwinnett for 2010, but by mid-April, he was in the bigs. He threw three innings in his first game, a 4-0 loss against the visiting Rockies. In fact, the Braves would lose in six of the first seven games he entered, though not because of him. It took Bobby Cox a month, but by mid-May, Venters was beginning to get action in save opportunities as a bridge to the 8th inning before becoming Billy Wagner's main lead-in two months into his major league career. He had some iffy moments down the stretch where his control became hit-or-miss, but he would finish his rookie year with a 1.95 ERA in 79 games. He struck out 93 over 83 innings and even garnered a Rookie of the Year vote, finishing in a tie for eighth. Venters appeared in all four postseason games. He gave up seven hits in 5.1 ING, but no runners scored against him and he K'd 8. Possibly his most memorable moment came on July 17 when Venters, after a warning had been issued, hit Prince Fielder in the back. It led to a four-game suspension, but that was ultimately revoked.

After his dynamite 2010 season, there was a lot of talk that Venters might replace Wagner, who retired following the season. Or he might serve as dual-closers with Craig Kimbrel, the rookie righty who had arrived later on the scene in 2010. All of that was quickly scrapped and from Day 1 of the 2011 season, when the Braves downed the Nationals 2-0, a three-headed monster had been created. The seventh belonged to O'Flaherty, especially after Peter Moylan went down. Venters handled the 8th and Kimbrel came with heat in the 9th. Together, the trio came known as O'Ventbrel and for the 2011 season, they were as awesome as any trio of relievers have ever been. Kimbrel ran away with the Rookie of the Year after saving 46 games with a 2.10 ERA. O'Flaherty became the first pitcher in history to have an ERA under 1.00 in at least 70 appearances. And Venters? He took his 2010 dominance and became even harder to hit, lowering his WHIP to 1.09 with a 1.84 ERA over 88 innings. The Braves' blueprint in 2011 was simple. Get the lead and turn it over to O'Ventbrel. Wins shall follow.

It was a great plan. Until September. The trio was done by a couple of factors. The offense was miserable and injuries to the rotation, along with Derek Lowe's general suckage, led to a lot of short outings. Only Tim Hudson was able to give the Braves 190 innings that year. O'Flaherty was actually great, but Kimbrel gave up six runs in September, matching his highest single month output. He also gave up two homeruns after just one entering the month, and his WHIP nearly doubled from August to 1.41. The decline was even worse for Venters. His ERA over the final month was 5.11. He walked ten in just 12.1 ING and his WHIP of 1.87 made every outing an adventure. The Braves would eventually complete a collapse on the season's final day against the Phillies. Venters worked around a pair of walks, but Kimbrel gave blew the save in the ninth.

O'Ventbrel's dominance would last really just one year. O'Flaherty and Venters would both miss time in 2012 even as Kimbrel became as nasty as he's ever been. Venters also wasn't nearly as good. His WHIP for the season was an unsightly 1.52 and after surrendering just three homeruns in 171 innings entering 2012, he gave up six in 58.2 ING. It was a sign that things just weren't right with Venters. His last outing came in the 2012 Wild Card Game. With the Braves already down 5-2, Venters came in to face Matt Carpenter. As was typical of that night, Carpenter hit a little soft grounder that neither Venters or Freddie Freeman seemed to want to field. Finally, Venters picked the ball up and missed Carpenter on a tag attempt. All the while, Pete Kozma sprinted from second-to-home to score St. Louis's sixth run. Venters remained in and induced a double play off the bat of Jon Jay. We didn't know at the time, but that was the last pitch Venters would throw as a member of the Brave. And until he comes back, it could be the final pitch he throws as a major leaguer.

This is where this story gets sad. Venters would feel some left elbow discomfort during spring training. He eventually got a plasma injection in hopes to avoid surgery. It only put off the inevitable. Venters' 2013 eventually ended on May 16 with his second Tommy John. After beginning 2014 on the DL, Venters attempted to work his way back toward a rehab assignment. However, setback-after-setback ultimately led to another MRI and the knowledge that he would need yet another Tommy John. Confident that he would eventually return, Venters elected for the surgery last September. He will miss all of 2015 and after the season, the Braves released Venters.

He would eventually find a new home in Tampa Bay on a two year minor league deal. It's the kind of low-cost, high-reward deal smart teams make. We all kind of hope Venters does make it back, though how likely that will be is hard to guess at this point. What we do know is that when he was healthy, his arm was as electric as any in the game. He gave the Braves two amazing years and O'Ventbrel was a sight to see when they were clicking. You could tell the other team felt downtrodden when Fredi Gonzalez went to the bullpen with a lead. Get a hit off O'Flaherty? Venters? KIMBREL? Are you kidding me? Unfortunately, all good things must end.

As an editorial aside, this completes my Favorites Team List. I may add another position at a later date or a player may push one of my guys to the bench, but for the moment, there are no plans to add to the team. Thanks for reading!

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