Monday, February 22, 2016

TOT - Braves Bring Back Avery

Transaction Of Today...February 22, 2000 - The Atlanta Braves signed Steve Avery as a free agent.

Long before the name Steve Avery was synonymous with a Netflix show, the name brought up visions of a lefthander with the kind of potential we only dream of. It may also make you think of how quick that potential can disappear into disappointment.

Credit: Harry How/Getty
That looks uncomfortable
The third overall selection of the 1988 draft, Avery was pushed to the majors quickly. His first start came on June 13, 1990 - two months after turning 20 years-old. Given the chance to "learn on the job" the baby-faced southpaw pitched a lot better (3.64 FIP) than his 5.64 ERA indicated, but that's what happens when you surround young pitchers with bad defenders. Nevertheless, Avery showed flashes of what was to come despite losing 11 of his 14 decisions.

The following season, 1991, Avery was instrumental in the Braves rise from the bottom of the National League. Just old enough to legally drink, Avery threw 210.1 innings and started 35 games. He would throw another 29.1 innings in the postseason when he grabbed the attention of baseball by throwing 16.1 scoreless innings in the NLCS. That MVP effort helped the baseball world know that Tom Glavine wasn't the only world-class lefty the Braves had in their staff.

1992 was a minor step back in terms of production, but he made up for it in 1993. In his only All-Star season, Avery finished with a 2.94 ERA and a 2.9 K/BB rate over 223.1 innings. There's that innings thing again. Between 1991 and '93, Avery started 105 games and tossed 667.1 innings. It was the 18th most in baseball, but Avery was only 23 years-old. Later on, it would be theorized that Avery's fall from grace was a direct result of over-usage by Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone. That might not be fair and it might not even be accurate, but the wheels came off quickly.

His FIP climbed to a new high of 3.97 during the strike-shortened season of 1994. It climbed a bit higher the following year and even though Avery was "healthy," he was no longer an excellent stud but an average rotation filler. He would still have some big moments along the way, including shutting down the Indians over six innings in Game 4 of the World Series to push the Braves to the brink of a championship. Three nights later, Glavine did his thing in Game 6.

But those big moments were few and far between. In 1996, he missed a couple of months and the Braves proactively moved on, acquiring Denny Neagle to effectively replace Avery in the rotation. Avery finished the year before moving to the bullpen for the playoffs. He was on the mound when the '96 NLCS ended, but his only appearance in the World Series was a disaster. With the score tied 6-6 in Game 4, Avery replaced Mark Wohlers (who had somehow survived a ninth inning after Jim Leyritz killed him in the 8th). With two outs, Avery walked Tim Raines (who should be in the Hall - just sayin'). A base hit by Derek Jeter led to the curious decision to intentionally walk Bernie Williams to face Andy Fox. Curious because the Yankees had a Hall of Fame bat on the bench in the form of Wade Boggs, who the Yankees unsurprisingly replaced Fox with. Avery walked Boggs - which scored Raines - and was replaced. An error led to a second run - unearned but charged to Avery - and the Yankees tied up the series. They would take Game 5 and 6. Avery's appearance was the final of his Braves career. Well, in games that count anyway.

With a 3.83 ERA and 201 starts on his record, Avery hit a free agency market that was not kind to him. A bad Boston Red Sox organization led by a bad GM in Dan Duquette signed him next. It reunited Avery with Jimy Williams, who had been on Cox's staff in Atlanta. In a rotation with Aaron Sele and Jeff Suppan, Avery was the worst. He had a 6.42 ERA over 22 games, including 18 starts, and failed to reach 100 innings for the first time since his rookie year. He returned in 1998 and was better. He was still pretty bad, but it was better than the previous year. The Reds brought him aboard to provide a veteran presence in 1999 and his ERA remained north of 5 until he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff that August. Well before that, on April 30, Avery faced off against John Smoltz at Turner Field. It was not only the one time he faced the Braves, but also the only time he pitched at Turner Field. Avery pitched into the 8th inning of a 1-0 game before Smoltz doubled off him. Avery was removed, but Smoltz later scored and finished a 1-hitter with a perfect ninth. It was one of Avery's finest games of the seasons.

That brings us to February of 2000 when the Braves brought back Avery. They were looking for answers in the five-spot in their rotation. Neagle was long gone - replaced by Kevin Millwood in importance - and the Braves had brought John Burkett on to provide stability to the bottom of the rotation. Behind Burkett was Bruce Chen, Jason Marquis, and pickoff specialist Terry Mulholland. So, adding Avery to the fray was hardly just out of doing the lefty a favor. If they could bring him all the way back, Avery would be only 30 year-old and a potentially productive piece in the rotation.

He was back on the mound by the end of spring training, throwing simulated games at Turner Field. Now, the fun part began. He headed to the minor leagues to reclaim his glory. After a pair of starts with Macon, he headed to Myrtle Beach where the wind can make anyone's ERA look great. Despite a 1.3 K/BB rate and a 1.38 WHIP, he carried a 1.53 ERA over seven starts. Included in his successful run with the Pelicans was his final professional complete game. Next came Greenville and Richmond. His numbers flat-lined and the comeback bid was called a bust. He made 19 starts in the minor leagues during 2000 and had as many unintentional walks as he did strikeouts.

The Braves did bring him back in 2001, but Avery never made it out of camp before being released. He wouldn't throw a pitch in organized ball during either 2001 or 2002 before trying to make a comeback with the Detroit Tigers in '03. Yes, the 2003 version of the Tigers that went 43-119. He began and ended the season with Toledo, but there was a 19-game run in Detroit mixed in. On May 11, he made his first appearance since July of 1999 by throwing a scoreless inning against the Devil Rays. Three nights later, he struck out Scott Hatteberg with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. It was the only batter he faced and he got the win after the Tigers scored off Ricardo Rincon in the bottom of the ninth. I'm having so many Moneyball moments in my head.

His final outing came in a 10-1 thumping the White Sox gave the Tigers. After giving up three runs - two earned - Avery's final pitch was a 1-2 delivery to Paul Konerko. The White Sox great lined right toward Avery, who caught it and gunned down Magglio Ordonez trying to retreat back to first.

2003 was the final comeback bid for Avery. Since retiring, Avery has helped raise his two boys while also taking being a guest instructor with the Atlanta Braves during spring training. A career of promise might have become an example in the end of how to take it easier with young arms so that they can pitch effectively deeper into their careers so that's something to be proud about.

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