When Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell opens his preseason camp at Turner Field on Monday, right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins will be ready to start trying to fulfill the promise that enticed the team to trade away Jason Heyward.
There was a brief time, though, when Miller and Jenkins weren’t so sure about leaving the Cardinals’ organization.
For Miller, 24, moving from the Cardinals to the Braves meant swapping one pitching-rich organization for another. The difference is that St. Louis’ starting rotation is veteran-heavy and topped by Adam Wainwright, who has finished third or better in NL Cy Young voting four times.
By contrast, Atlanta’s rotation is headed by 24-year old Julio Teheran and also includes Alex Wood (24) and Mike Minor (27). The Braves have a history of giving young pitchers a chance to prove their worth and Miller has a shot to be the No. 2 starter this year.
Miller said when he was apprehensive when heard he was being traded because at first he didn’t know which team he would join. He said he was excited about the change once he learned the Braves were his new team.
“It was comfortable with me and my family,” he said. “My wife, my agents—they all thought it was a good change. I couldn’t agree more. I am super, super stoked for the season.”
The trade initially stung Jenkins because he was a first-round draft pick for the Cardinals in 2010. They gave him a $1.3 million signing bonus to persuade him to turn down a football scholarship to Baylor but he has yet to advance past Class A as a twice-torn shoulder muscle hindered his progress.
Jenkins, 22, said going from touted prospect to traded asset “upset” him at first but he figured the Braves must value him if he was part of the haul for Heyward.
“That kind of put it in perspective,” Jenkins said.
Now Miller and Jenkins will officially start their Braves career with McDowell’s camp. Both pitchers ended the 2014 season strong (Miller with the Cardinals and Jenkins in Arizona Fall League) and each credited Wainwright with helping them make a change.
Miller said he’s been a “stubborn pitcher” in the past, sticking to what he knows even when teammates and coaches who might know better offered him advice. That included Miller sticking with a four-seam fastball that opposing batters constantly fouled off, raising his pitch count.
Miller said Wainwright had encouraged him to learn a sinker but Miller couldn’t settle on a grip he liked. Finally, late last season then-Cardinals teammate Justin Masterson showed him a sinker grip a couple of days before an Aug. 23 start at Philadelphia and Miller decided to use it in the game.
It was the start of a strong run for Miller, who was 5-2 with a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts. Miller said the sinker made a big difference and he now considers it “a huge pitch for me this year that hopefully is going to take me to the next level.”
Miller said the fact that he decided to use the pitch within three days of learning it is a sign that he’s matured.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned is be more open-minded, try to learn as much as possible,” Miller said. “I’m not a veteran guy by no means. I’m not even close to it. I know I’ve got a lot of guys who can help me take my game to the next level.”
Jenkins also received a good tip from Wainwright. But instead of prodding Jenkins to try something new, Wainwright told him to go back to something he’d given up.
While pitching at Henderson High School, Jenkins used an exaggerated leg kick during his delivery. It worked well enough the Cardinals selected him with a supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft and signed him to a $1.3 million bonus, but Jenkins abandoned the delivery when he got to the pros.
“I thought I had to fit in so I started changing my mechanics and my arm slot got a little higher and things were a little out of sync,” Jenkins said. “Adam Wainwright told me, ‘Hey, you are going to be who you are so just pitch the way you want.’”
Jenkins took the new/old delivery with him to the Arizona Fall League and had a strong showing.
“I guess I kind of caught the eye of the Braves,” he said.