Left-handed Bullpen Candidates Battle it out for Gwinnett

The Braves made a few moves on September 1st, the first day of roster expansion, to give boost to the bullpen, catching, and bench. Brian McCann was activated from the 10-day IL and Johan Camargo, Jeremy Walker, and Chad Sobotka were brought up from Gwinnett. In all likelihood, that will be all we will see until Gwinnett concludes its postseason run, with the exception of someone like Darren O’Day or Grant Dayton, who could be activated whenever deemed ready (but both would come at the expense of another 40-man roster player being designated for assignment). However, there will definitely be more and there’s one particular battle that’s really kept my attention this last week and that is the battle for a left-handed relief spot.


Sean Newcomb and Jerry Blevins stand as the only 2 left-handed relief options currently on the MLB club. And while both have had their share of 2019 successes, it seems too few considering the high probability that Sean Newcomb will be used in full innings, handedness be damned, and Blevins would be the sole LOOGY of a bullpen that’ll carry at least 8 pitchers. I feel as though the Braves are not happy with this situation, and with the inconsistencies of A.J. Minter and the questionable health of Grant Dayton, there’s at least some consideration for another lefty to get the call to the Majors. The Braves have made a few quiet acquisitions to add to their AAA club and have also had some promotions that have caught the eye. Overall, 4 lefties have been added to the Striper roster in the last month. That doesn’t feel like coincidence. In short, I think Anthopoulos sees a need and is deciding who he’s going to fill it with, and the candidates are dressed in their Striper best to impress.

The Contenders

Grant Dayton– My stance, is it’s his job to lose if he’s healthy. He put up good numbers when with the MLB club, but he hasn’t pitched great since being sent on his rehab assignment. The positives are that he’s still striking out people, giving up very few walks, and holding left-handed hitters to a .541 OPS for the year. The negatives are that he isn’t overpowering and has been plagued with injuries.

Phil Pfeifer– From the brink of being out of baseball to a strikeout machine, Pfeifer has had a career resurgence as a starting pitcher but is filling the role as a multi-inning reliever with Gwinnett. Chris Harris, who’s the media relations director for the Mississippi Braves provided a report on him:

“Braves fans need to take note. The lefties’ fastball is 92-95 with a devastating slider.”

He’s putting up video game K-numbers and is pushing for a look. Will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, which could force the hand of Anthopoulos to give him a look at the expense of someone else on the 40-man since it’ll be delaying inevitability should the Braves desire to carry him in 2020.

Tyler Matzek– Wrote this about Matzek a few days back and the logic still rings true. I do think Anthopoulos was fishing for pedigree in hopes of catching lighting in a bottle, but Matzek’s giving up runs in chunks. On the positive, he isn’t walking anyone (which was the real reason he developed performance anxiety) and is striking out a ton. He’s likely well down the list now after his last few outings. He’ll be a MiLB FA after next year, but I don’t think that is a big factor like it would be with Pfeifer (and the Rule 5).

Tucker Davidson– Fresh off an announcement that he’ll be training at Driveline this coming offseason, Davidson has been the talk of the minors when it comes to breakout candidates. I have a theory that it was because of Tucker’s breakout that the Braves felt comfortable in dealing Joey Wentz, and I think there’s an argument to be made that Tucker might have jumped Joey in the prospect rankings. Pushing 95-96 as a starter, Davidson, like Pfeifer, will have to be placed on the 40-man roster this upcoming offseason or be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. Anthopoulos isn’t going to let that happen. Already surpassing a career high in innings, the Braves will likely take the cautious route here, but if they’re looking for highest ceiling arm, Tucker’s the man.

AJ Minter- His walks are nearly non-existent at AAA and his strikeout rate is as good as it’s ever been, but AJ just cannot keep the hard contact down. The ball is flying out of the park and, aside from Matzek, I think Minter dwells at the bottom of this list. Sure, he might get the call-up after the Gwinnett season is over since he’s already on the 40-man, but I cannot fathom what would have to happen in order for him to see the playoff roster.

Caleb Thielbar– There’s not much I can really tell you about Thielbar except he doesn’t walk many, is striking out nearly 11 per 9 innings, is 31 years old, and is eating up every piece of analytical information there is to grab. In my research, he sounds like he’s focused more on his off-speed rather than velocity and that might explain why he has reverse splits this year, which likely hurts his candidacy to be added to a playoff roster. Still, the Braves saw something in him to acquire him right before September, but I think there are other left-handed arms that are ahead of him in the pecking order.

The Hindrance of Being One of the Unlucky 40

Of the above candidates, only AJ Minter dwells on the 40-man roster. Grant Dayton is technically there, but is currently on a rehab assignment from a 60-Day IL stint. If the Braves were to activate him, it’d come at the loss of another on the 40-man. As of now, there isn’t a legit casualty on the 40-man, but the further into September we get, the likelihood that some fringe guys like Rafael Ortega (who I’ve been really impressed with how hard he hits the ball) and 1 year vets such as Anthony Swarzak, Josh Tomlin, and Adeiny Hechavarria, or even Adam Duvall, who’ll be out of options come next year, could become the release that opens up a spot for a surprise candidate. However, that’s only the first hoop to jump through because the Braves would never risk losing a player for nothing if the player being brought up cannot impact the playoffs.

Players that reside on the 40-man roster prior to September 1st (even 60-day IL guys), are eligible for the playoffs, no strings attached. However, there is still a way to add players that don’t meet that criteria, but it’s layered. Details:

“A player who doesn’t meet said criteria for postseason eligibility can still be added to a team’s roster in the postseason via petition to the Commissioner’s Office if the player was in the organization on Aug. 31 and is replacing someone who is on the injured list and has served the minimum amount of time required for activation. (For example, a player on the 10-day injured list who has been on it for at least 10 days, or a player who has been on the 60-day injured list for at least 60 days.) Players who are acquired in September or after are ineligible.”

Concrete, sort of realistic scenario: Let’s say the Braves added Tucker Davidson to the 40-man roster on September 15th. Prior to the playoffs, Anthopolous makes a case for Davidson to be added to the playoff roster because Grant Dayton, who was a left-handed reliever they wanted to carry, hasn’t been able to stay healthy since breaking his toe. From there, the commish has to decide if it’s a reasonable request.

My Personal Choice

I like what Tucker Davidson has done this year, but I think his long-term impact is more important than the risk of throwing him out of the bullpen for a handful of innings, so I’d go with Pfeifer. I’ve been able to watch quite a bit of his outings and that slider is full-on nasty and I don’t remember it being that good in 2018. I do think his position of needing to be added to the 40-man in the offseason might be a plus for his candidacy to pitch in September at the expense of a player that wouldn’t be in the org in November. Still, if the Braves don’t have to go the hard route, they won’t, and in all likelihood I’m writing this for naught and Grant Dayton will be the one chosen to be the 3rd left-handed option in the playoffs. Still, there’s a reason the Braves stocked up late on left-handed relief and there could be a very tough decision coming for Anthopoulos in the upcoming weeks.

Thanks for reading.

Long Live Braves Journal!

Author: Ryan Cothran

Ryan is the site editor and manager of Braves Journal. Follow him on Twitter.

71 thoughts on “Left-handed Bullpen Candidates Battle it out for Gwinnett”

  1. Wonder writeup, Ryan! I’m anxious to see how AA handles all these moving parts. We have some serious 40 man crunch and there might be some painful releases coming up.

  2. In the right panel, DOB is announcing callups of Bryce Wilson and A. J. Minter.

    Not sure if I agree or disagree. Hmm?

  3. I think Tomlin will make the playoff roster and Hech will be kept as Dansby insurance. So my waiver order is Swarzak, Ortega, Duvall and, barring a sudden onset of good health, Dayton. I doubt we need more than 2 spots at most.

  4. @5 Just watch, O’Day is going to go from being a complete non-factor since joining the org to being the cornerstone to our run in the playoffs.

  5. @6
    I truly don’t think that is out of the realm of possibility. He’s literally got the best track record on the team.

  6. He’s a groundball pitcher on a team with a strong groundball defense. If he can just get on the field, he can be a force if used right. I would think that he could be immediately effective if he’s used predominantly against righties starting in low leverage situations. He just needs to get on the field.

  7. Today’s September 3rd, and there are 23 games left in the season. I would think that if there’s anyone that is either not on the 25-man or not injured that will factor into the playoff roster, then it would probably be from this list of lefty relievers. Obviously of these options, Minter is the most likely, and it’s very possible he ends up taking Blevins’ place on a playoff roster.

    But otherwise, I think it’s almost impossible Thielbar or Matzek could do enough to make their way onto the roster. I can’t imagine there’s enough talent there where they could quickly find their way onto the 40-man, then do enough in the remaining 23 games to warrant a spot. And the same can almost be said for Grant Dayton. Let’s say he’s fortunate enough to get into 10 games, and pitching a full inning each game. Is that even enough to get on the roster? I say no, and that’s probably the limit for how much he could find himself on the mound.

    Pfiefer and Davidson are interesting, but like you said, do they want to turn those guys into relievers in September during a playoff race? Would they even get on the mound in September to audition for a spot in October? I do think the 40-man is the ultimate barrier as I don’t know who I would jettison from it other than Ortega to make room for any of these dudes.

  8. I think they’ll bring O’Day in for the playoffs.
    Thanks for the write-up, Ryan, interesting stuff.

    Also, Ryan and Bethany, I just arrived in Boulder and received your shirts. They are AWESOME. Thanks so much.
    Everyone, go grab one while they’re still available.

  9. @9 I agree with Rob. There’s not enough time or innings to get a good look at anyone we haven’t seen before except, maybe, O’Day. The only choices are Minter and Dayton. I don’t think injury is a real issue because of the petition process. The real issue is whether Minter can pitch with the MLB strike zone vs the MiLB strike zone. Assuming he continues to get squeezed by umps, he has to work in a smaller zone. Once he masters the MLB zone, he will be a top reliever/closer.

    I am not sure I see O’Day as a groundball pitcher. I thought his specialty was pop flies. He is not the pitcher he was a couple of years ago. The last time he was healthy, he was more HR prone. His FB sits in the 80s and appears to rise because of his sidearm delivery. If he doesn’t pitch at the top of the zone, he gets hammered – mostly for solo HRs. Elsewise, he gets lots of Ks and popups. He would be a perfect 6-7-8 complement to Luke whose slider dips down for a lot of GBs and whose FB sits in the upper 90s.

    I feel bad for Tomlin who has been great all year and has bailed us out of bad situations so many times. Nobody is talking about it but I think Folty would be a good replacement for Tomlin in the bullpen. If Folty could be relied upon to get 2-3 superb innings at a time, we wouldn’t have to worry if he can go five or more with him as our long man.

    I also think Greene and Melancon have now proven themselves. Martin is still a little inconsistent. I think his spot is shaky. Does anyone realize what Melancon has done to the Dodgers in his career? 0.89 ERA, 9 saves, .468 OPS against. And he has had his most saves against the Cubs and the Cards. I’d say his choice was pretty strategic.

  10. Interesting that they called up Bryse when he was scheduled to pitch the first game of the IL playoffs. I wonder if he’ll go back down to pitch Wednesday if he doesn’t pitch tonight.

    Ultimately, we have several competitions going on with the recent callups. Here’s what I see….

    Martin vs. Sobotka vs. Swarzak vs. O’Day (vs. Walker?) (2 spots)
    Camargo vs. Hechavarria (1 spot)
    Bryse vs. Folty vs. Tomlin (0-1 spot)
    Markakis/Inciarte/Riley(Duvall?) vs. Ortega/Hamilton (2 spots)
    Minter vs Dayton vs Blevins (1-2 spots)

    That’s going to lead to a lot of good players left off the playoff roster….

  11. Anyone think that Acuna’s struggles are mostly due to 40/40 looking reachable this month? He’s trying too hard imho. Once he gets to 40 dingers (hopefully real soon) I bet things start looking a lot better approach-wise.

  12. @Rob
    I truly believe that they moved him to Gwinnett and then to relief to see if they could use him on the big league roster. My guess is Minter gets the first go at it. If he’s unsuccessful, the trial continues. If he shows like he did in 2018, the buck stops.

  13. There will be plenty of opportunity for Minter, O’Day and probably one more pitcher to get a lot of work in. Last 13 game usage:

    Jackson: 8.1 IP
    Greene: 8 IP
    Tomlin: 6 IP
    Martin: 5.2 IP
    Melancon: 5.1 IP

    These guys, especially Greene and Jackson, could use a little bit of rest.

  14. I think Riley, Allard, Wilson, Anderson, Waters, and Wright end up on this list in the next 3 years with Simmons, Wood, Ahmed, Gattis, La Stella, Shreve, Gilmartin, and Drury coming off of it. Lucas Sims has a shot to get on the list if he can have a couple decent relief series, though I expect the 10th spot to require something a little higher than 0.9 bWAR. Since bWAR favors pitchers, and we have a lot of them, that should be the case.

    So the list could become Soroka, Riley, Allard, Wilson, Anderson, Waters, Wright, Webb, and Sobotka being 9 decent bets, and wild cards include Minter, Jeremy Walker, Kyle Muller, and Patrick Weigel. Maybe Joey Wentz.

    https://www.baseball-reference.com/draft/?team_ID=ATL&year_ID=2018&draft_type=junreg&query_type=franch_year&from_type_jc=0&from_type_hs=0&from_type_4y=0&from_type_unk=0

    By the way, the 2018 draft already looks terrible. There’s still time, sure, but it looks just flat out terrible. Doesn’t help that they didn’t sign their top pick, though.

    We’re now far enough out of the rebuild that you can really start grading, at minimum, the 2015 and 2016 drafts. The 2015 draft looks really good right now.

  15. Kind of don’t feel like we are taking this game seriously by bringing in Wilson in the 6th with only a 4 run lead

  16. I know it’s probably good to handle Folty with kid gloves and it was the right decision, but I can’t find myself excited about pulling Mike Foltynewicz after 5 innings. There’s no question whether he has excellent stuff and can get hitters out. It’s a matter of whether or not he’s a top of the rotation starter, especially since he’s about a year away from getting paid significantly more than he is now.

    The purpose of his existence is to help the team win, not protect his ERA. Since being recalled, he has averaged 5 1/3 innings in 6 starts. Not. Good. Enough. You’re talking about a 2-2.5 WAR pitcher that pretty much requires you to carry an extra reliever because of his sheer existence in the rotation. We’re talking about a guy who could make 30 starts and not clear 160 innings.

    Frankly, this points to him being a reliever more than him continuing as a starter. Very disappointing to be thinking that after 112 career starts.

  17. I’m not sure that a pennant-race game that is still in doubt is the moment when you want to be giving Wilson some work.

  18. I’m not sure that a pennant-race game that remains in doubt is the moment when you want to be giving Wilson some work.

  19. @35 should have used the one inning as the jumping off point and now that brief moment of confidence is shot

  20. @34 – I really don’t like making judgments on small sample sizes, and I really, really, really don’t like making judgments on one game, or even one week. (Here comes the but.)

    But, Folty getting bailed out by the ump after going 3 – 2 on a guy who’s never had a professional at bat is Folty in a nutshell.

  21. Not sure if Jackson, Greene, and Melancon are available tonight. Clearly Snitker wanted Wilson to go 2 or 3 innings.

  22. Acuna was having a good night until that at bat. Hopefully he is turning it around. I really think he starting screwing up on the base paths in his quest for 30/30 or 40/40 and now it carried over to his batting.

  23. @42 With Acuna’s talent, I’d have to think that he’ll have to figure out how to balance pursuit of individual milestones with doing what he needs to do to help the team win for 175 or so games a year. I’m sure all of the elite players have had to do that. Mike Trout stole 49 bases in his first full season, 33 in his second, and has only stolen 30 once in the 6 years since. Perhaps Trout identified that his game was not going to be racking up stolen bases. Perhaps the same will be the case for Acuna.

    I’m glad he’s working through this at age 21, though.

  24. By the way, Acuna is leading the league in games played, PAs, ABs, runs, stolen bases, caught stealing, and strikeouts. Talk about leaving your stamp on the game.

  25. @39–agree completely. I’m not giving up on Folty by any means, but he drives me crazy. The walk of the pitcher (even tho the ump called ball 4 a strike) was quintessential Folty. I said to my wife when Chip announced that Zeuch has never had a professional at bat, “he’ll probably walk him.”

  26. Count me as skeptical that chasing the stats are the cause of RAJ’s slump. Everyone has bad stretches for a couple of weeks at a time. His timing has been just a little off. Better now than October.

  27. In DC the Mets pen did Mets pen things and allowed to Nats to close within 1 in the 8th. Fortunately the Nats pen did Nats pen things and gave up 5 in the 9th. Should be a 7.5 game lead.

  28. I should know better than to type that about the possible 7.5 game lead. The Mets pen still has to hold a 5 run lead. Don’t take that for granted.

    Edit: make that a 6 run lead for the Mets.

  29. Ok, so, if you reproduced the situation as close to exactly as what happened today, McCann would be going back to tag at third the way Joyce was going back to tag at second. But because there was no one at second in this scenario, Hamilton could be potentially about to round second going full speed with McCann’s momentum taking him back to third. It’s very possible Hamilton catches McCann.

    I thought too much about this.

  30. Zuk homer. Nats win with 7 in the 9th.

    What astonishes me (beyond how astonishing the 9th inning was) was how people really thought the Mets had turned a corner a month ago.

  31. Francoeur cursed it when he said “that game’s 10-4, the Mets are going to win.” As soon as he said that, I sensed it coming.

  32. I was watching game day of the Mets-Nats. As Diaz kept pumping 100 mph heaters to Suzuki, I thought—Kurt hits that as well as anyone; he’s going to hit one out. Sure enough, bam.

    The Nats will be on a real high when they come to town. Will be a great atmosphere.

  33. Sets up for some great drama with the Gnats this month. I love it. September baseball is the best (when you’re “in it”).

  34. How can you not be happy for Kurt Suzuki? I mean, don’t get me wrong, he can burn in hell, but he’s so lovable.

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