Braves lost O'Flaherty, still have powerful 'pen

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- On the January day when Eric O’Flaherty signed with Oakland and officially became an ex-Brave, the superb lefty reliever told me how difficult it would be to leave behind all the Atlanta teammates and coaches he’d become close to. The ever-modest “O” said they’d do just fine without him, making it sound like he’d miss the Braves more than they’d miss him.

Which was untrue, but he did make a point, noting how well the Braves did without him after he blew out his elbow in May.

That's ex-Brave Eric O'Flaherty (left) behind Scott Kazmir, a pair of pitchers the A's added this winter. O'Flaherty was a huge contributor to the Braves since '09.

“They’re pretty deep as it is -- they have about 5 closers there,” O’Flaherty said of the Braves, after he signed a two-year, $7 million deal with Oakland. “I’ll be keeping tabs with all those guys. I met so many great people, and the whole organization, they took care of you the whole time. And the traineers. I loved playing for Fredi, and Roger is a great pithcing coach.

“It’s the relationships, I’m going to miss a lot of those guys.”

It remains to be seen how much the Braves will miss O’Flaherty, but I think his absence will be significant. Not only as a proven setup guy on a team that has outstanding lefty Luis Avilan and several others with either relatively little major league experience or with concerns about whether they can get through an entire season healthy and at their best when needed the most. They’ll also miss his leadership and the great example that O’Flaherty set with his work habits and his preparation.

Avilan would be the first to tell you how big O’Flaherty has been in his development as a pitcher, particularly the mental side of the game. Of course, O’Flaherty also downplays that.

“Our lockers were right next to each other last year,” O’Flaherty said. “He’s just a real smart guy, one of those guys who wants to listen to you, he’s all ears. They’re the kind of rookies you like to see come up. But it’s not like he doesn’t have much to work with -- the guy has a 94-mph sinker.”

O’Flaherty had a 1.95 ERA during the 2009-2012 seasons with the Braves, averaging 69 appearances during that four-year stretch. His 0.98 ERA in 2011 was major league record for 75 or more appearances. The dude was terrific, arguably the best reliever in baseball that season and the best left-handed reliever in the majors during that four-year stretch.

He teamed with fellow lefty Jonny Venters and overpowering closer Craig Kimbrel to form the best relief trio in the majors for a couple of seasons. Before the two lefties had elbow problems, "O’Ventbrel" was an absolute force – as close to get-a-lead-through-six-and-it’s-over as we’ve seen in baseball in quite some time.

Venters and O’Flaherty had elbow surgeries within a week of each other last May, and the arb-eligible Venters was re-signed to a one-year, $1.625 million contract, the same amount as he got last season. Today (Wednesday) at Dark Star, Venters is scheduled to throw off a session in the bullpen, his first time throwing off a mound for the first time since that surgery.

Since it was his second Tommy John surgery, the rehab for Venters could be closer to 13 months than 12, but that’s still to be determined. The Braves expect him back by early June, unofficially.

If Venters comes back close to what he was before all his health problems started in 2012, then he’s one of those “about five closers” that O’Flaherty was talking about. The others are Avilan, one-time Angels closer Jordan Walden, obviously Kimbrel, and, well, the fifth I’m not sure about. If O’Flaherty was actually thinking of that specific number (five), maybe the other was David Carpenter, when he’s in a groove.

But we digress. His point was a valid one. The Braves now have a lot of power arms in a bullpen that led the majors in ERA (2.46) last season despite going without Venters for the entire season or O’Flaherty for most of the season.

“We’re basically going to have the same bullpen,” Avilan said. “I hope we’re going to do the same job as last year. We have very good pitching, and I think we’re going to be pretty much the same.”

Among the quality arms they added was another potentially big-impact reliever sidearmer Luis Vasquez, who throws 94-97 mph – a lot of velo and movement for a guy slinging it from the side. He signed as a minor league free agent, and scouts and others who saw the former Dodgers prospect overwhelm hitters in the Dominican Winter League were quite impressed.

Vasquez is scheduled to throw batting practice today, his first time facing hitters since straining a lat muscle about six weeks ago in a Dominican league playoff game. There’s plenty of time left in spring training for him to get all the innings he needs to prep for the season.

Luis Avilan's emergence over the past two seasons was a big reason the Braves believed they could afford to let O'Flaherty leave as a free agent. Avilan credits O'Flaherty for helping him learn the mental side of relief pitching.

More than a month before Kimbrel would sign a four-year, $42 million contract that includes a fifth-year option, I asked the ex-Braves lefty about him.

“That’s a guy that I’ll always be watching, just to see what he does next,” O’Flaherty said. “Theyre’s nobody in the game that can compare to him, and you hear it all the time from guys -- ‘God, that dude is the nastiest I’ve ever faced.’ And when he came up he was throwing all over the plate. It’s just been fun to watch him grow up and become more of a pitcher and not just a thrower. He’s always in a good mood, great guy to have in the clubhouse.”

His former Braves teammates say the same things about O’Flaherty. Now, we’ll see how much they miss him.

If they can avoid significant injuries to the key guys at the back of the ‘pen, the Braves should do just fine without O’Flaherty. But if they don’t, or if some of their lesser experienced guys falter during the long season, it’ll only be natural to wonder how much of a difference it could have made to re-sign the guy who said all along that he wanted to return to Atlanta and that any other team would have to pay quite a bit more to than the Braves to lure him away.

• Speaking of great stuff:  Here is  M. Ward and Lucinda Williams doing a terrific cover of Don Gibson’s classic “Oh Lonesome Me."  Which doesn’t sound much at all like Gibson's original version here , other than the fact that both are great versions.  Actually, M. Ward and Lucinda’s version sounds a lot more similar to Neil Young’s version here , from After the Gold Rush.

“OH LONESOME ME” by Don Gibson

Everybody's going out 

And having fun 

I'm a fool for staying home 

And having none 

I can't get over how she set me free, 

Oh lonesome me 

Don Williams

There must be some way 

That I can lose these lonesome blues 

Forget about my past and 

Find someone new 

I've thought of everything from A to Z 

Oh lonesome me 

I'll bet she's not like me 

She's out and fancy free 

Flirting with the boys with all her charms 

But I still love her so, and brother 

Don't you know it, I'd welcome her 

Right back here in my arms

About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.