Braves’ Minor healthy, on schedule with offseason training
ATLANTA — Here’s a concept hidden behind the ongoing and very public search for the final piece to the Atlanta Braves rotation: the fifth starter, whoever he may be, is not the most pressing question facing the franchise’s young staff. It’s an intriguing competition, if only for the sheer volume of candidates. But fifth starters typically carry a fifth starter’s expectations, so whether it’s a rebounding veteran like Wandy Rodriguez or a promising prospect like Michael Foltynewicz keeping the projected production ceiling low comes as part of the territory.
The Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the rotation are, by definition, in a brighter spotlight.
The collective production of one of the most promising young rotations in baseball will likely hinge on Mike Minor and Shelby Miller, two pitchers in need of bounce-back seasons. Two seasons into their respective MLB careers, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood have given little cause for concern. They enter the season as two of the top under-25 pitchers in baseball, capable of handling top-of-the-rotation workloads. Minor and Miller, while similarly experienced, are each coming off the worst seasons of their young careers. Combining their 2014 numbers bears out a borderline fifth starter in the majors (though both enjoyed late-season surges): 0.4 wins above replacement and a 4.19 ERA.
The Braves’ pitching staff was able to afford Minor’s struggles last season — in 25 starts, he put up a career-worst fielding-independent pitching score (4.39) — and it was well-aware of the underlying cause. An offseason medical procedure prevented a normal offseason program for Minor, who didn’t make his first start until May 2 and dealt with shoulder soreness throughout, even missing his final start because of it. That will not be the case in 2015. The 27-year-old lefty said he’s back to full health and is right on schedule with his offseason routine.
"Last year, with the surgery being right before spring training, it kind of put a damper on things and got me behind and then the shoulder just started hurting. It was nice to get to actually work out and to lift and to have a normal offseason," Minor said on Thursday afternoon. "Last year it was almost like starting over again. I worked out before the surgery but then I had to take a month off and then start working out again, start trying to throw again.
"It was a bad combination last year of everything."
Minor is the first to admit that his performance fell short of expectations.
His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up and opposing hitters had relatively little trouble putting the ball in play against him. Of all MLB pitchers to throw at least 140 innings last season. Minor’s 4.77 ERA ranked eighth-worst in baseball. He spent the season evaluating and re-evaluating what was going wrong. Occasionally he found answers, like the six-start stretch spanning August and September where he posted a 2.59 ERA in 41 2/3 innings pitched.
"I’ve actually been thinking about (that stretch) a lot, because next step (in the offseason) being off the mound you start thinking about your pitches and how you threw, your good games, your bad games and what worked and what didn’t," Minor said. "I think last year building off of the two-seamer was the big pitch that I changed after the All-Star break, or after the (Aug. 1) start in San Diego where I had a bad start. I talked to Ervin Santana and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got some great pitches. What’s your grips? Are they the same?’ I started looking around and I found some answers with the two-seam, just from it not being as straight as a four-seam and not giving up as many home runs."
Good health is the starting point of a bounce-back season for Minor.
The southpaw said that he has not suffered any setbacks with his shoulder and that it’s been a normal offseason to date: weight-lifting, running, long-tossing, everything going according to plan. He plans to start throwing off the mound for the first time within the next week, which might even be earlier than usual.
"I’d even say I could even wait longer if I wanted to," Minor said, "but I’d like to get off the mound a little bit earlier just to maybe even if it’s 60-70 percent of 15 fastballs, just to see how it feels."
With the way Minor told the story, the only offseason setback has been his pending arbitration hearing — more of an obligatory nuisance than a problem.
The Braves and Minor were separated by $500,000 in the process (Minor requested $5.6 million for 2015) and with the Braves sticking with their file-and-trial policy, it looks like the starter could become the franchise’s first arbitration hearing since 2001.
"I still don’t like it, because you kind of feel like it’s us against the team or us against the Braves. I don’t want it to be — you don’t want it to be like that," Minor said of the pending arbitration hearing, set to be held in February. "It’s just the business, it’s just part of it. That’s why they call it arbitration. We think I’m worth something and they think that I’m worth something, it doesn’t always work out. You’ve gotta go to a hearing."
Either way, he’ll join Shelby Miller as the potential difference-makers for this Braves rotation, regardless of who comes after them in the pecking order.