Braves’ Tyrell Jenkins could accelerate path to majors as reliever

After making 92 career starts in the minors, Tyrell Jenkins' last two outings have been out of the bullpen for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Reinhold Matay/Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

GWINNETT, Ga. — The gig has changed, and so has the vantage point from which he’s watching games. Moving to the bullpen has been an unexpected transition for Tyrell Jenkins.

But if it can get the Braves’ 23-year-old right-hander to the majors that much faster …

"That’s what the goal is, is to get there," said Jenkins, who is the organization’s 12th-ranked prospect in FOXSportsSouth.com’s composite rankings. "Whatever the future holds, that’s to be determined. Right now I’m in the bullpen and if I can help those guys win, I’m down for it."

Jenkins, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder with 92 starts under his belt — including nine this year for Triple-A Gwinnett in which he’s gone 5-3 with a 2.96 ERA in 51 2/3 innings with 39 strikeouts and 19 walks — was moved to a relief role last week.

So far he’s made two appearances, allowing two hits and striking out with zero walks three over two scoreless innings against Durham on June 3, and June 7 he was tagged for four hits and two runs by Lehigh Valley. He struck out one and walked one in that outing.

"It’s just kind of been something different," Jenkins said. "I didn’t really expect it to come and it’s just another kind of adjustment to deal with. Obviously being in the bullpen, you have to be ready to throw at any time. It’s mostly about throwing, recovering and getting ready to throw the next day or the day after."

The move came after Jenkins’ longest outing of the season. He threw seven innings and 107 pitches on May 29 against Syracuse — his previous highs were six innings and 106 pitches — and tied a season high with eight hits. In four of his last six outings he threw no fewer than 101 pitches and he was on pace for a career high 158 2/3 innings as a starter.

But this move wasn’t because of a belief he couldn’t make it as a starter, it was simply to offer a chance to maximize his arsenal of a 92-94 mph fastball and curve. He’s thrown a changeup, though there’s said to be concern it isn’t in line with the other two pitches right now.

But if there is a hang-up with Jenkins’ ability to succeed in the majors, it’s that he’s been more pitch-to-contact than a high strikeout arm in the minors.

That’s backed up by seeing his K/9 go from 8.74 with the Cardinals’ single-A affiliate in 2012, to 4.99 in high-A in ’14. While that figure has steadily climbed back up since being traded to Atlanta after the ’14 season (5.71 with Double-A last year, 5.76 in Gwinnett, and this year back up to 6.42), he sits third on the team in strikeouts despite leading the team in innings by 17.

Jenkins is watching and preparing differently now. As a starter, he noticed the way that batters seemingly jumped on early pitches from relievers.

"They come out swinging," he said. "I know when I was in the dugout watching guys hit I’d always kind of in the back of my mind they’re swinging first pitch off a reliever, knowing either a fastball’s coming or something over the heart of the plate.

"You’ve got to be locked in as a reliever from the get-go compared to being a starter kind of easing your way into the game."

With a base rotation of Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez and Aaron Blair, and John Gant and Casey Kelly as fill ins/bullpen pieces, Jenkins didn’t have a clear path to Atlanta.

But as an option for a bullpen that has already moved Jason Grilli, and could swing more moves with the likes of Jim Johnson, Eric O’Flaherty, Alexi Ogando and Bud Norris, Jenkins may be that much closer to the majors in his new role.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ is out now, and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners’ will be released Nov. 1, 2016.