Winkler making strong bid for Braves bullpen spot

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s been about 20 months since Dan Winkler had Tommy John elbow surgery, and the Braves have finally begun to push him to find out if he’s ready for the rigors of regular bullpen work.

So far the right-hander has passed the tests, important because the Braves have to make a decision: Keep Winkler on the major league roster for at least the first two months of the season or offer him back to the Rockies for $25,000, half of the claiming price the Braves paid when they took him from the Rockies in the Rule 5 draft in December 2014, when he was six months into elbow-surgery rehab.

Considering how well he pitched for the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate before the injury – 12 starts, 1.71 ERA, 71 strikeouts with 17 walks in 70 innings – Winkler would presumably be welcomed back quickly.

Keeping him would seem like an easy decision for the Braves, given the way he’s pitched this spring and the inconsistency or health status of other Braves relievers. Winkler has a a 2.70 ERA with 16 strikeouts and no walks in 10 innings over eight appearances, and struck out the side Tuesday night against the Orioles.

Winkler has always relied on a low-90s fastball with good movement and control, and a delivery that makes it hard for hitters to see the ball. But this spring, all the rehab and strengthening he’s done has helped the 26-year-old right-hander add a little to his fastball.

“I’ve been up to 94 (mph),” he said. “I haven’t seen a 94 since college, so that’s good to see that. Might just be the time off, or maybe I’m relieving now, where I was starting before. I don’t know, it’s been good though.”

Still, the Braves wanted to be reasonably certain they could use Winkler more than every few days if he’s going to have a spot in the bullpen. He still hasn’t pitched in consecutive games, and when he pitched Sunday and Tuesday it was only the second time this spring he pitched twice in a three-day span.

To add to the test Tuesday, the Braves had Winkler warm up during the sixth inning, as if he were going to enter the game at that point. Then they had Jason Grilli pitch the seventh inning and Winkler warmed up again and entered the game to start the eighth inning.

The reason for that: It’s common for a reliever to warm up more than once during a game, because sometimes he’ll warm up and then sit back down because the situation changes or the matchups become more favorable for another reliever in a particular inning.

Winkler passed the test in splendid fashion, striking out all three batters he faced, all swinging at third strikes.

“That’s a good test for him,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “because he’s a guy we’ve kind of been – I don’t know if the word’s pampering, we’ve been careful with him, with the Tommy John thing, planning outings every four days. If you’re going to carry him in the bullpen you’ve got to make sure he is able to withstand that worst role in baseball, being a major league reliever.”

If Winkler had been active last season, the Braves would’ve had to keep him on the 25-man roster all season or offer him back to the Rockies. Since he wasn’t activated until September, the rules are different. They have to keep him on the roster for about two months.

Winkler who missed almost the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, making just two September appearances for Atlanta, his first major league games. Then he was sent to the Arizona Fall League to continue pitching and preparing for spring training.

“I feel great,” Winkler said. “A lot better than I did in the fall. Last year at the end of the year (the elbow) was just kind of nagging a little bit. But now, just getting through that little hump everybody talks about, and actually stressing it for the first time….now that I got six weeks off (before spring training) and got to build up and everything, it feels great now and it’s been awesome.”

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