LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After pitching in three different organizations in two years since leaving the Braves, and going through the arduous Tommy John-surgery rehab process along the way, Eric O’Flaherty looked like a relieved reliever as he stood in the Braves clubhouse in Braves gear Monday.
The left-hander was traded back to the Braves from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday in exchange for cash considerations.
“(The Pirates) called my agent a day or two before and said I was kind of on the outside looking in, so they’re going to try to find me a good place to land,” said O’Flaherty, a non-roster invitee who wasn’t going to make the Pirates’ opening-day roster. “Nowhere better than here for me, so I’m glad to be back.”
O’Flaherty, 31, pitched for the Braves from 2009 until blowing out his elbow in May 2013, and for a couple of seasons he was arguably the best lefty reliever in baseball. He signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Oakland in January 2014 while still recovering from elbow surgery.
After posting a 1.99 ERA in 295 appearances over parts of five seasons with the Braves, O’Flaherty had a 5.76 ERA in 62 games (50 innings) over the past two seasons, including an 8.10 ERA in 41 appearances for the Athletics and Mets in 2015.
In 10 Grapefruit League appearances for the Pirates this spring, he had a 2.89 ERA and allowed 15 hits, eight runs (two earned runs) and two walks with eight strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. Four of his strikeouts came in a two-inning scoreless appearance March 21 against the Braves.
“He pitched two innings against us and he was obviously not the old O’Flaherty with his velocity,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “but his breaking pitches were there and his command was there, and his fastball had some life to it. He’s healthy, full two years removed from Tommy John, and we feel like he still has a lot left in his tank.
“But I also love the presence he’s going to bring to that bullpen. This guy’s a quality, quality person.”
O’Flaherty will be on the Braves’ opening-day roster – he’s the only lefty reliever still in camp after the team sent Alex Torres to the minors on Monday. He signed a minor-league contract with the Pirates that included a $1.75 million salary if he’s on the major league roster.
O’Flaherty was especially pleased to be back with Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.
“Definitely,” he said. “I’ve made some pretty good strides this spring; I feel pretty close to where I want to be. But it’s going to be good to be somewhere where they know when I’m at my best. That was a tough thing going through the rehab process changing teams. I don’t know if they really understood or had an idea of what I looked like at my best. I’m getting pats on my back, thumbs-up, and I probably wasn’t quite right. So it’s good to be back here with Rog.”
He still doesn’t throw quite as hard as he used to, but O’Flaherty has seen some of velocity return this spring and has learned to pitch with what he’s got now rather than trying to replicate what he once was.
“Last year I didn’t have very good stuff, but this spring I’ve been back to 90, 92 (miles per hour), throwing stuff where I want to,” he said. “So I feel pretty much right back where I was. It’s just a matter of putting some good outings together.”
The hardest part of rehabbing from elbow surgery was the tedious process itself, but being in unfamiliar surroundings added to the frustration for O’Flaherty.
“You’re kind of in a hurry to be back to the player you were before the surgery, and sometimes you’ve got to figure out who you are now,” he said. “I think I kind of focused on the past a lot, trying to get back to that velocity and the stuff before, rather than just going out and competing. More than anything I’m just excited just to compete again….
“I’ve bounced around a little bit for the past few years, so it’s nice to be somewhere where everyone respects you and you know everybody. It’s nice.”