Ryan Buchter is pulling double duty this spring training.
First, there’s baseball, a craft the 6-foot-3 Braves left-hander has been professionally honing for the past nine years at various minor league destinations. After team workouts and games comes dinner. Then class until lights out. The 27-year-old journeyman pitcher, who is coming off a dominant 2013 campaign at Triple-A Gwinnett and vying for an Opening Day spot in the team’s bullpen, is juggling a major leaguer’s spring training workload with college — a route he passed on after graduating from Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., back in 2005.
This is not the easiest of routes. Most players Buchter’s age who have yet to experience a single big-league call-up are inching toward the end of their baseball rope, just a few missteps away from moving on to another career path. His second-consecutive spring trip to Lake Buena Vista could be his last, so balancing the scrutiny of consistently performing well in front of management — a group already blessed with one of the best bullpens in baseball and a deep farm system — with online business classes at the University of Phoenix takes a certain level of commitment and coffee, but Buchter hasn’t given in. Not yet.
This is something he’s working toward since being taken in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft by the Washington Nationals, when his eyes were opened wide and the baseball world got bigger overnight.
"I remember being in rookie ball and looking up at guys who were in Double-A and Triple-A and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, they can hit a guy in the chest every time playing catch.’ I didn’t know I would do it this long. I didn’t know what I was doing," said Buchter, a draft-and-follow selection who tried his hand at Glouchester County Community College (N.J.) before turning pro. "I knew I didn’t want to go back to school. Still doing it, and now I’m back in school. That’s kind of a different path."
Buchter comes from blue-collar stock, and he’s needed to rely on it over the years. His is not a diamond-in-the-rough tale, at least not to date.
His story more closely resembles those of other 33rd round picks: since 2000, only 17 of the 420 players drafted in the 33rd round ever made it to the majors. Most were up for little more than a cup of coffee. Many, like Braves All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, who was taken in the 33rd round in ’07, did not sign and re-entered the draft at a later date. It’s a long walk from the later rounds to The Show, often uphill both ways. Blue collar-type stories. Buchter fits that mold, if there’s room for him.
The New Jersey native wasn’t projected to be drafted out of high school. He simply outpitched another local product the Nationals were scouting at the time and caught their scout’s attention.
The NL East franchise took its time, but eventually took a flyer.
Buchter broke into the minors at age 19, posting a 7.24 ERA in 11 games at rookie ball. He was sent to low-A Vermont, a Nationals affiliate in the short-season New York-Pennsylvania League, and posted a 6.82 ERA, showing control issues. The numbers did improve — his strikeout totals, driven by a mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, in particular: 458 Ks in 366 career minor league innings — but he began bouncing around. He was traded to the Cubs in 2008 for right-handed pitcher Matt Avery, who never made it to the bigs. In 2011, after struggling at high-A Daytona, Buchter was finally traded to Atlanta for pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, another career minor leaguer. It was his age-24 season.
Five years of bus rides can take their toll.
Ryan Buchter has played eight minor league seasons in the Nationals, Cubs and Braves farm systems.
"I like to of myself as I was already hardened. You know, New Jersey and all that stuff," Buchter said. "It seems you see a lot of those guys and sometimes we just have a different makeup. Working-class families, both sides. We always go out and get what we want. We were never really handed anything from up there. And that’s kind of my work ethic that I bring to the field: I go out and get what I want."
The numbers are there now for a potential MLB shot. After adjusting to Triple-A competition in 2012, the high strikeout totals returned for the lanky lefty last season, by far the best of his career. In 51 relief appearances for Gwinnett, he struck out 15 batters per nine innings (the second-best rate in the minors) and walked away with a 2.76 ERA. The Braves invited him back to camp, manager Fredi Gonzalez singled him out by name in interviews and there appears to be an early opening if any left-hander is going to make a run at joining a well-stocked bullpen. This could be his chance. But it isn’t going to be a hand-out.
Sitting at his locker before morning workouts last week in Lake Buena Vista, Jonny Venters watched as his closer, the best of closers, approached from across the clubhouse. Craig Kimbrel stood next to their adjoined lockers and jokingly rubbed his fellow relievers’ bald head. When Kimbrel was asked if he thinks Venters will be able to take the bullpen to another level this season, Kimbrel gave a simple answer.
"I don’t think. I know."
The Braves organization is waiting on Venters — to return to the field, to return to full health, to return to form. Once considered one of the best left-handed relievers and setup men in baseball, an underwhelming 2012 led to a lost 2013 due to Tommy John surgery, his second such procedure. Now it’s a waiting game. Atlanta took a minor chance by signing Venters to a one-year, $1.625 million arbitration deal (it let lefty Eric O’Flaherty move on to Oakland) in hopes that by mid-May or early June he’ll be ready to produce.
"We want Jonny back. He’s got some of the best stuff in the pen. His numbers don’t lie," right-handed reliever Jordan Walden said. "When Jonny comes out healthy, we’re gonna be better than last year."
In the meantime, there are decisions to make, decisions that could affect the future of a guy like Ryan Buchter.
The Braves are, on paper, one of the most complete teams in baseball, but there are two Opening Day roster spots attracting ample attention this spring: the No. 5 starter and the possibility of a second left-hander in the bullpen, working behind breakout reliever Luis Avilan. One decision could affect the other, too. Here are a few hypothetical Opening Day scenarios the management could consider:
"Well, you always like to (have a second left-hander), but there’s some candidates here. I think Buchter’s one of those guys that’s a candidate for that second left-hander. Severino is another guy that supposedly throws the ball real well, so we’ll see," Gonzalez said last week. "The luxury we have: Walden. Having Walden get left-handers out, almost better than he does right-handers, that’s almost like your second lefty."
Gonzalez has a point. Walden is one of the rare right-handers who boasts better numbers against left-handed batters than he does against right-handed batters. It’s strange enough that he didn’t even know his splits were so outrageous: the former Angels closer holds lefty bats to .202/.283/.316 batting and strikes out 3.44 for every walk; compare that to .246/.316/.379 and 2.42 K/BB ratio against righties. According to Walden, part of this phenomenon has to do with how his changeup breaks. It dives down and away against left-handed batters (as opposed to down and in to righties), which provides an effective change-of-pace pitch for his 96-mph fastball and improved slider.
Simply put, he’s a lefty specialist that hops off the rubber and throws with the opposite arm.
Will the Braves trust those splits to hold up until Venters returns? Can the organization afford making room for Buchter by squeezing someone that contributed to the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball last season? Would the team consider carrying a "third left-hander," in addition to Walden and Avilan?
The good news for the team (though not necessarily for a guy like Buchter’s chances) is that Avilan is already in place, and anything else could be considered icing on the cake as long as he’s healthy. He was excellent in his rookie campaign, posting a 1.52 ERA in 65 innings pitched, much of that the slack picked up in the absence of Venters and O’Flaherty. The Braves essentially just re-shuffled the lefty deck around Kimbrel and kept rolling. Avilan’s strikeout numbers were unimpressive and his opponents’ batting average on balls in play was absurdly low (.204), but he escaped innings damage-free and his Braves teammates seem more than content at having him hold down the pen’s southpaw situations.
"I’ve never seen a guy do what he did last year, besides Craig. But a lefty? I haven’t seen it from a young kid," Walden said. "What is he, 22, 23 years old? That’s crazy because I know him so well, he’s one of my good friends. He don’t care. He’s gonna go out there and throw strikes and he’s gonna get you out. No fear."
Added Venters: "It was unbelievable. He stepped right in and did everything he was asked to do. He was fun to watch and I was excited for him. And I think if he’s the only lefty in the pen at the start of the season, he’ll succeed in any situation that they put him in. His stuff’s that good and he has the right mentality. He’s that type of player."
That’s also a scary proposition for a guy clocking double shifts and looking for an opening. At a certain point, it becomes less about ability and more about opportunity.
On Wednesday afternoon at the Braves’ spring training complex, the Detroit Tigers saw the highs and lows of Ryan Buchter.
In his first appearance this spring, his career arc played out over five plate appearances: one inning, one walk, one hit, one run allowed and two strikeouts. After getting the Tigers’ new second baseman Ian Kinsler to pop out to short, he got himself into trouble, handing outfielder Rajai Davis a free base before giving up the RBI single to Victor Martinez. These were the bad times; the brief loss of command, the little things that can swing an inning against a reliever. But then Buchter closed out the inning with two strikeouts, inducing six straight swinging strikes against Jordan Lennerton and Don Kelly.
Buchter understands these shortcomings. He readily admits that his walks are high. His recent success at the highest minor league level has come with added emphasis on first-strike success — he got out in front of three of the five Tigers he faced (Kinsler swung at the first pitch) — and that’s something he’ll need to continue to stress. But he also knows his strengths and what he can provide for a major league club. At 27, everything is basically on the table, very little clarification needed.
The lefty just trying to catch the next guy ahead of him. And he’s enjoying the chase.
"I always like to come up from the bottom and prove that I can compete at this level. … It’s just something you get used to. I can’t say — I was lucky enough to get an opportunity — so I can’t say I dislike it. But it’s sometimes definitely better than having the spotlight and pressure on you all the time like some of the other guys."
Braves reliever Jonny Venters posted back-to-back seasons of 80-plus innings and a sub-2.00 ERA in 2010 and 2011.
These are ambivalent times for veteran minor league pitchers in the Braves organization. As the franchise continues its push to lock up a talented young core, and as general manager Frank Wren’s draft emphasis on pitching continues to bear fruit, there’s a risk of being left stranded in no-man’s land, between highly-compensated stars and up-and-coming prospects. This is not age-based rationing; it’s a personalized meritocracy with a variety of factors at play. If it wasn’t, Buchter would have beaten the likes of Wood and Avilan and Julio Teheran to the majors.
Still, the Braves organization has developed a knack for this type of "One Man’s Trash…" storyline. O’Flaherty, Carpenter and Varvaro were each waiver wire pickups who turned into productive relievers. Back in 2006, then-GM John Schuerholz & Co. took a chance on an Australian pharmaceutical salesman named Peter Moylan, a converted first baseman who just so happened to impress against the Venezuelan national team in the World Baseball Classic. The farm system is deep, but sometimes a GM needs to cast a wide net. In the transient world of MLB relief pitchers, there’s always someone else waiting in the wings — or on waivers.
"There’s a lot of young guys on the other side (of the clubhouse) right on our backs just waiting for us to slip up," Walden said. "There’s always pressure, so we’ve just gotta do our job and know that there’s guys over there waiting."
After eight minor league seasons, 12 professional teams, an engagement, a move out his father’s house, an associate degree and hours of online college classes en route to his bachelor’s, Buchter would certainly accept a similar step if possible. But he’ll have to take it.
Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, his work in camp could go a long way toward being a top-of-mind addition following a midseason injury or when rosters expand late in the season. He has the ability to contribute at the highest level and the minor league resume to back it up. This spring training, with his career on the brink of another long-awaited accomplishment, Buchter will have to go out and get what he wants.
"Nobody’s going to hand me a job. Nobody’s going to hand anybody else a job. You still have to go out and you have to perform and push from the bottom. Like I’ve always done."