VIERA, Fla. – Desperate or at least determined to find another left-handed reliever, the Braves turned to a familiar face Sunday by acquiring veteran Eric O’Flaherty from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade for cash.
O’Flaherty, 31, was one of the best relievers in baseball for several seasons with the Braves and was a big part of some exceptional bullpens while pitching for Atlanta from 2009 until blowing out his pitching elbow in May 2013 and signing with Oakland in January 2014.
The Braves were down to Alex Torres as the only left-handed reliever on their spring training roster after optioning Ian Krol to Triple-A on Saturday, and they hope O’Flaherty can return to something resembling the form he had in his first stint with the team, rather than the rough times he’s had in two seasons since returning from elbow surgery. He was on a minor league deal with the Pirates.
“We’re still trying to settle the last few bullpen spots, and he’s somebody that we think can add some clarity to that situation,” said Braves general manager John Coppolella, adding that he’s not done looking for bullpen help. “There’s still some guys in camp, and we’re going to keep looking elsewhere, too. We’re always looking to try and find ways we can get better and field the best team we can for 2016.”
O’Flaherty will be on the Braves’ opening-day roster and will likely pitch Monday night in a Grapefruit League game against the Astros at Champion Stadium. He signed a minor-league contract with the Pirates that has a $1.75 million salary if he’s on the major league roster.
After posting a 1.99 ERA and .228 opponents’ average in 295 appearances over parts of five seasons with the Braves, O’Flaherty has a 5.76 ERA and .295 opponents’ average in 62 games (50 innings) over the past two seasons, including an 8.10 ERA in 41 appearances for the Athletics and New York 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.
“He’s looked good,” Coppolella said. “He’s had a nice spring for them, and we saw him firsthand when we went over there (to play the Pirates in Sarasota), and he looked really good. We’ve been trying to find a left-hander all spring, and he’s someone that we know, and when our scouts saw him and our field staff saw him, we felt like he’s someone who could help us out.
“Obviously we know this guy is great off the field, and he was great on it with us. So we’re hoping he’ll fill a need and help us get better.”
Four of O’Flaherty’s eight strikeouts this spring came in that two-inning scoreless appearance against the Braves on March 21. In his only game since then, he gave up four hits and a run with one strikeout Thursday against the Orioles.
His velocity is a few miles per hour below what it was in his pre-surgery years with the Braves.
“When we saw him (a week ago) he was 89-92 (mph) and he had the good, hard slider, which was 84-85,” Coppolella said. “He struck out Hector Olivera with that slider. He can use it on right-handers and eat them up. So he’s somebody that we think can help.”
Coppolella noted that, coincidentally, the O’Flaherty trade came on Easter Sunday, one year after the Braves traded away closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres on Easter.
O’Flaherty was part of what was arguably baseball’s best relief trio for several seasons, the Braves’ “O’Ventbrel” combination of setup lefties O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters and closer Kimbrel. There wasn’t a better lefty reliever in either league than Venters during the 2011-2012 seasons, when he produced a 1.31 ERA in 142 appearances, including a spectacular 0.98 ERA in 78 appearances in 2011.