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Winkler’s been so good, might be time to try him at closer

After Arodys Vizcaino gave up two runs and three hits in the ninth inning Tuesday for a blown save in a 3-2 loss to the Cubs, Braves manager Brian Snitker mentioned possibly using Dan Winkler in some save situations in addition to the pair he’s currently using in the closer role, Vizcaino and left-hander A.J. Minter.

A look into Winkler’s statistics through the first quarter of the season gives ample evidence to back such a move. Winkler has been tremendous.

After missing much of four seasons recovering from two major elbow surgeries, the right-hander – still a rookie at 28 -- has pitched so well as a middle reliever and setup man this season that he could get serious consideration for an All-Star berth if he keeps it up for the next month.

Winkler and Shane Carle have been the Braves’ most effective relievers, with Winkler posting a 0.98 ERA, .115 opponents’ average and microscopic 0.65 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) in 20 appearances through Tuesday.

“Whenever the phone rings I’ll be ready,” said Winkler, who as of Wednesday had not spoken with Snitker about the possibility of closing, but had heard about the manager’s postgame comments the night before. “ I understand there’s going to be situations where Vizzy and Minter are down (unavailable), and we’re going to need somebody else. But right now Vizzy is our closer, and if we’re all healthy, he’s coming in. 

“Just because he didn’t throw well last night doesn’t mean he’s not going to come in tonight and get the save. I’m excited for an opportunity, but then again, I want everyone to succeed. That’s just kind of how I approach it.”

Here’s where the mind really starts to conjure closer possibilities for Winkler: He had a whopping 27 strikeouts with only five walks in 18-1/3 innings, with a .194 opponents’ OBP and .358 opponents’ OPS. 

With runners in scoring position, he allowed just a .111 average (2-for-18) with no walks and nine strikeouts before Wednesday. And in the late innings of close games, opposing hitters were 4-for-34 (.118) with two walks and 16 strikeouts against him.

The only two earned runs Winkler allowed came in freezing, wet and basically unplayable conditions at Chicago on April 14. In 13 appearances since then he had surrendered two hits and two walks with 16 strikeouts in 10-1/3 scoreless innings, for a .061 opponents’ average.

Winkler has been a strikeout machine since his minor league days with the Rockies, who lost him to the Braves in the December 2014 Rule 5 draft when they left Winkler unprotected while he was rehabbing from Tommy John elbow surgery. 

He uses a starter’s repertoire as a reliever, complementing low- to mid-90s fastballs with a cutter, slider and occasional change-up. Most relievers rely on one or two pitches.

Despite the big strikeout totals, Winkler downplays the notion that he has closer stuff. And when a reporter mentions that closers get the big contracts, Winkler smiles and says, “I know, but money’s not everything.

“I don’t throw 98. I’m 93, 94, but to be able to have a cutter and a slider and maybe a change-up against lefties, I think that helps me a lot. Back-door cutter, back-door slider to lefties, too, I feel comfortable doing that. So I think that helps me a lot.”

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. So much so that a team without a dominant closer might just take a look at him in the role.