Braves take big-strikeout reliever from Triple-A Cubs in Rule 5 draft

Armando Rivero had a 2.13 ERA in 43 relief appearances for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs last season with 105 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings. The Braves took him in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. (Icon Sportswire)

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Armando Rivero had a 2.13 ERA in 43 relief appearances for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs last season with 105 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings. The Braves took him in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. (Icon Sportswire)

OXON HILL, Md. — The Braves acquired a relief pitcher with a huge strikeout rate in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, and it sounds like the Cuban right-hander, Armando Rivero, has a pretty good chance of making their opening-day bullpen.

Rivero, 28, had 2.13 ERA with 105 strikeouts and 35 walks in 67 2/3 innings in 43 appearances for the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa affiliate in 2016, which works out to a eye-opening rate of 14.0 strikeouts per nine innings.

“Look, the Cubs are the best team in baseball, so if you’re going to Rule 5 somebody, do it from a team that has overflowing talent,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said.

The Braves opened a spot on the 40-man roster just before the Thursday morning draft by releasing right hander Williams Perez, who was 9-9 with a 5.18 ERA in 34 games (31 starts) over two major league seasons. Perez had a 6.05 ERA in 11 starts in an injury-plagued 2016 season.

Rivero, who features a 94-96 mph fastball and an above-average slider that’s his “out pitch,” came with a recommendation and character reference from Braves first-base coach Eddie Perez, who had Rivero on the Venezuelan winter league team that Perez manages.

Rivero was a highly rated Cubs prospect back when they signed him at age 25 to a $3.1 million bonus after he defected from Cuba. He was 12-7 with a 2.70 ERA and 14 saves in 160 games over four minor league seasons, recording 303 strikeouts with 107 walks in 220 innings.

“We had some history with him out of Cuba through our foreign scouting, and we had some familiarity with him with our scouts,” Coppolella said. “Analytically, highest strikeout rate in all of minor league baseball among any pitcher with more than 65 innings.

“Also, maybe this is most important, he pitched for Eddie Perez in Venezuela the past two years. Eddie really liked the person and really like the pitcher. So, we had a lot of boxes checked off from our scouts, from our analytics and from firsthand experience with Eddie Perez.”

The Braves must keep Rivero on their 25-man major league roster for the entire 2016 season, or else put him on waivers and, if he clears, offer him back to the Cubs for $50,000 — half the price they paid to claim him Thursday.

“We’re in a situation where we’ve had some guys who’ve been hurt in our bullpen, we have a little bit of uncertainty,” Coppolella said. “We love the depth and the upside, and this guy adds to it. He’s somebody that we’ve liked for a long time, and to be able to add him here is exciting for us.

“We’ll see what it looks like in the spring, but everything we’ve heard about him has been positive. We think he’s somebody capable of helping us. We’ve heard he’s a great kid, hard worker.”

In the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, the Braves took left-hander Cesilio Pimentel from the Pirates’ Double-A roster. The Dominican reliever, who’ll be 24 in January, had a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances for Single-A West Virginia in 2016 and totaled 48 strikeouts with 15 walks in 51 innings.

Pimentel is 14-15 with a 2.96 ERA in 100 games (17 starts) over parts of six minor league seasons and has 243 strikeouts with 81 walks in 252 innings. He’ll likely start the 2017 season in high-A or Double-A.

The Braves lost three pitchers in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, left-hander Brian Moran to the Orioles, and right-hander Zachary Bird and lefty Luis Miranda, both selected by the Rangers. All three were on the Double-A Mississippi roster and all were selected in the the final eight of the 39 picks made in the minor league phase.

Moran, 28, has a 3.11 ERA in 232 relief appearances in the minors going back to 2009, with 369 stirkeouts in 326 2/3 innings. Bird, 22, had an 8.87 ERA in 28 appearances (two starts) last season at high Single-A Carolina.

Miranda, 22, had an 8.44 ERA in five relief appearances at l0w-A Rome in 2015 in his only experience above the rookie level with the Braves. He had a 4.87 ERA in 22 games (17 starts) in the Mexican Triple-A league this year.