ATLANTA — David Carpenter bounded into the clubhouse following a session at the team’s early pitching camp and couldn’t hide his enthusiasm. After a year away, he was with the Braves again, back where he’s had the greatest success of his five-year career.
"You smile. That’s the best way I can put it," he said Monday.
The role of the 30-year-old right-handed reliever has changed since he was last in Atlanta. Once the primary setup man for the Braves, a down season with the Yankees and Nationals has Carpenter trying to distance himself from a crowded list of contenders to simply make the 25-man roster.
But for now, all he’s attempting to do is prove that he’s healthy and returned to form.
"It’s just pretty much showing that ‘Hey, I’m myself again’ and show that you’re ready to work and all that stuff and just see where (manager) Fredi (Gonzalez) and (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) and (general manager John Coppolella) and (president of baseball operations) John Hart have in mind and just go from there."
In 2013 and ’14, the one-time catcher emerged as a steady compliment to All-Star Craig Kimbrel for the Braves, posting a 2.63 ERA with 10 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.121 WHIP over 126 2/3 innings. But he was traded Jan. 1, 2015 to the Yankees along with Chasen Shreve for Manny Banuelos, and Carpenter threw just 18 2/3 innings in 22 games in New York before being dealt to the Nationals.
"Just kind of got out of sync up there in New York; wasn’t exactly sure what it was," he said.
Back in the National League, Carpenter appeared to be finding his footing, allowing one run over his first 5 2/3 innings. But after a June 30 outing against the Braves at Turner Field — the game in which he allowed that single run — Carpenter began experiencing an issue in his arm.
The problem was, he and the Nationals medical staff couldn’t agree on what the root of it was, with the team believing it was general shoulder discomfort. On the mound, he couldn’t help but fixate on the issue instead of concentrating on the hitter.
"That was one of the things that was tough near the end was, just trying to get that thought out of my mind," Carpenter said.
It was eventually diagnosed as bicep tendinitis and Carpenter sums up the entire situation as a "miscommunication."
"What a doctor was saying, what different people were saying, never really got on the same page." he said. "The worst part was I knew what it felt like. I tried to explain to them ‘Here’s what it is. Let’s do this.’ But they wouldn’t really go with me on that."
Carpenter was placed on the disabled list July 17, and after playing in three rehab games, he was outrighted from Washington’s roster. He would have been under club control for two more seasons, but now found himself having to opt for free agency, and returned to the place where he had his greatest success.
"I grew up cheering for the guys that played here," the West Virginia native said, "so to get to have the opportunity to come back here and try to see what I can do, it’s a blast. I’m looking forward to it."
The question, though, is when he’ll do it if he makes the team? In 2013, 26 of Carpenter’s innings came in the eighth and a year later, he had 38 in that frame, two seasons in which opponents hit .198 and .256, respectively, against him. The hard-throwing righty’s place is in those late-inning, high-leverage situations.
But much has changed, aside from Kimbrel having been traded to the Padres, and now the Red Sox. The back end of the bullpen is seemingly solidified with the Braves having revitalized veterans Jason Grilli (2.94 ERA, 24 saves in an injury-shorted season) and Jim Johnson (2.25 ERA, nine saves in 48 IP before being dealt to the Dodgers) and 24-year-old Arodys Vizcaino coming into his own with nine saves and a 1.60 ERA.
Carpenter is fighting for a spot along with a number of veteran relievers in former All-Star Alexi Ogando, Alex Torres (one of the few left-handed options), Jhoulys Chacin, not to mention the collection of young arms that could help to bolster the major league bullpen if they can’t make the rotation (i.e. Mike Foltynewicz).
"Just seeing what is coming back, you’ve got Grilli — coming back off of his injury — who has done really well in the past and knows how to get people out out; Jim Johnson, who turned it around last year and did really, really well," Carpenter said. "Then you’ve got some young guys, Vizcaino, and a handful of other guys that came up and made an impact and threw the ball really well. It’s exciting what can happen."
Carpenter figures his familiarity with the Braves staff will be key, as well as Gonzalez and McDowell’s knowledge of the kinds of situations he can thrive in. "Trying to go into a different situation trying to learn where you’re going to be used, that’s tough to feel out," he said.
He’ll head down to spring training with that weighing in his favor, along with his health. Carpenter is no longer experiencing any discomfort and is confident he is healed.
"When I can pick up a ball, play catch and then just all of a sudden just uncork one that goes 300 feet, no problem? That in my mind let’s me know … we’re good to go," he said.