NASHVILLE – Marty Reed pulled Manny Banuelos aside last spring. The conversation went as follows, according to the longtime minor-league pitching coach in the Braves and Dodgers farm systems:
"OK Manny, you used to throw 97 with the Yankees," Reed said to his left-hander, who struggled had struggled in the Atlanta Braves’ big-league camp while still bouncing back from Tommy John surgery. "Are you done with baseball if you never get back to that?"
"Say you only get back to 90 miles per hour. Are you going to stop playing?"
"So you’re going to have to figure out another way. You’re going to have to figure out another way to survive and to get hitters out."
Manny Banuelos, almost one year removed from stumbling in his quest to earn a 2015 Opening Day rotation spot, now finds himself firmly entrenched in Atlanta’s plans — at least that’s the plan in December. Banuelos, a former top-30 prospect in baseball, fit the Braves’ early rebuilding blueprint as a high-ceiling arm who became attainable due to injury. Manager Fredi Gonzalez quelled the hype in spring training. Reed, whose work with minor-league arms spans three decades, was not convinced, either.
"When I saw him in spring training, the hopes were high," Reed said. "You say, ‘Gee, this guy’s got a shot at the fifth spot in the rotation?’ and all that stuff. Well, that’s an awful lot to put on a guy coming over from the Yankees and having been hurt. … He got whacked around a good bit in spring training."
Fast forward 10 months and Banuelos is becoming an increasingly important figure in the team’s 2016 plans.
By non-tendering Mike Minor last week, the Braves placed themselves in an interesting situation. The organization is short on MLB-ready left-handers and, a season removed from employing an all-righty rotation almost exclusively after the All-Star break, there are still question marks. Sixty of the team’s final 62 games were started by right-handers in the wake of the Alex Wood trade. Could that be on the table once again?
The primary cause for concern stems from health-related reasons. The list of injury-plagued Braves left-handers is a long one. Minor, one of the better lefties in baseball when healthy, is an unrestricted free agent due to recurring shoulder problems that forced him to sit out last season. Max Fried is an oft-forgotten prize prospect that still has yet to throw a live-game pitch after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Even at the lower levels, top draft pick Kolby Allard has dealt with back issues dating back to his senior year of high school — the Braves attributed the talented teenager’s mere availability at No. 14 overall to his health concerns — and is coming off surgery.
Banuelos is still a member of this list until proven otherwise.
The 24-year-old has still yet to pitch a full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, and after some promising flashes at the major-league level last season, he was eventually sidelined due to a bone spur in his left elbow that required arthroscopic surgery in September. However, the Braves front office still has high hopes for the only MLB-ready southpaw on its 40-man roster.
"I actually spoke with Manny’s agent last week and he said it’s the best Manny’s felt in five years," Atlanta general manager John Coppolella said. "He had the same type of bone chip surgery that I believe (Braves reliever) Arodys Vizcaino had. When we made the trade to get Arodys, he was (throwing) 93-96. When we saw him last year when he was healthy and feeling good, he was 97 to 101. We think there’s a chance that Manny’s stuff can take a step forward.
"And even with what he had presently, he was pitching hurt the last couple of outings, he pitched very well even with what he had. He’s a big part of our plans."
Banuelos, the former Yankees prospect acquired in the David Carpenter-Chasen Shreve deal last offseason, started six games for the Braves last season, posting a 5.33 ERA and 5.43 FIP in 25 1/3 innings pitched. That will not get the job done for a team expecting to take significant steps forward in 2016; however, Banuelos’ numbers were bogged down by his late-season arm issues. The bright spots still stand out — outdueling Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer in his MLB debut, working out of trouble in a one-run start against Milwaukee — but it’s incumbent upon Banuelos to earn and then hold on to any rotation time he’s given.
Atlanta’s trade of former No. 1 starter Shelby Miller on Tuesday night puts further stress on the rotation as a whole, both righties and lefties, as there are (presently) three open spots behind Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler. The team signed veteran free-agent Bud Norris to a one-year deal and still has low-ceiling arms Ryan Weber and Williams Perez, two more right-handers that combined for 25 starts last season. There’s also young arms like the erratic but extremely talented Mike Foltynewicz, Tyrell Jenkins and incoming Diamondbacks prospect Aaron Blair.
Still, not a single one of those names answers the southpaw question.
One of the candidates Coppolella referenced is considered the team’s long-term solution to its lefty puzzle. Powerful left-hander Sean Newcomb is the team’s No. 1 pitching prospect and, after overpowering Double-A competition in the Angels system, he projects as a potential 2016 call-up. As the Braves GM put it, "Newcomb isn’t far away."
Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said that, unlike the organization’s other left-handers who are getting close, there are "no limitations" on the franchise’s new prospective ace. Still, it doesn’t sound like Newcomb is an Opening Day staff candidate (for a variety of reasons, some financial).
"We’re going to see him in spring training and let him get a taste of big-league camp," Hart said, "and send him out."
All of which leads back to Banuelos. For the second consecutive offseason, the young arm is expected to contend for a rotation spot … only this time, he serves as the only viable lefty option on payroll. Can he pick up his production and handle the fifth spot? Could the all-righty rotation make a comeback? Will the team add a couple more low-cost options over the course of the offseason as insurance policies?
Newcomb is the not-far-off future, but the Braves could use a healthy Banuelos right away in 2016.
"For his sake, make sure he’s healthy," Gonzalez said of Banuelos. "It’s always nice to have a little different feel to bring a left-hander in there or vice versa, dominated to one side. But for his sake and our sake, I would love to see Manny come to spring training healthy and compete."