O’Flaherty ready to shine for NL’s best bullpen

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When it comes to MLB ’13: The Show, Eric O’Flaherty isn’t one to hide his disdain.

It’s not just that with a player rating of 83, the video game has the Braves setup man as the lowest-ranked member of the bullpen, trailing Craig Kimbrel (99), Jonny Venters (87) and Jordan Walden (85).

The left-hander’s biggest beef lies with what he throws, and what he doesn’t throw, in the game.

“They’ve got me with a four-seam (fastball) and a changeup, which I don’t even throw anymore,” he said. “And I don’t even have a sinker.”

The digital O’Flaherty should take note. The flesh and bones O’Flaherty has scaled back on that changeup, tossing it a career-low 3.5 percent of the time in 2012, while throwing that missing sinker 51.1 percent.

But this spring, we have yet to see any of the real-world O’Flaherty’s repertoire. He’s still waiting to make his Grapefruit League debut after suffering a slight left groin strain in the first week of spring training.

But after a bullpen session on Tuesday, O’Flaherty is that much closer. He expects to throw in a simulated game later this week and after that the plan is to have him appear in one of the Braves’ upcoming games, potentially this weekend.

With camp extended by a week this year due to the World Baseball Classic, O’Flaherty says there’s not as much urgency to push his return but that doesn’t make it any easier.

“We have some extra time this year anyway, but you want to get in games and start working on stuff, for sure,” he said.

He also can’t wait to get into the mix in what has the potential to be the best bullpen in baseball.

They already had O’Flaherty – he went 3-0 last season with a 1.73 ERA in 57 1/3 innings and gave up just one earned run in his final 39 appearances – to go along with Venters, an All-Star in 2008 with 258 combined strikeouts in the last three seasons and Kimbrel, who had 42 saves and fanned 116 batters in 62 2/3 innings.

It was a trio that led the way as Atlanta went 83-1 when leading after eight innings. On the whole, the bullpen finished second in the majors with a 2.76 ERA, boasting an opponents’ batting average of .236.

So it came as a major surprise when the Braves went out and added the right-handed Walden, trading starter Tommy Hanson to the Angels on Nov. 30 for the 25-year-old closer-turned-setup man with the ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun.

“Me and Jonny, I texted him that day and was like ‘This is awesome,’ because this is good for everybody,” O’Flaherty said, breaking into a smile. “We’re so deep, I feel like you can spin a roulette wheel and bring someone in.”

The last two seasons combined, O’Flaherty has thrown 131 innings and while he’s posted a 1.31 ERA with 113 strikeouts, he welcomes the opportunity to have a lessened workload.

“You can give guys days off,” he said. “Anytime you have that much depth in the bullpen, it’s nothing but a good thing.”

The Braves also have the luxury of being able to keep teams guessing about what’s coming late in games, something they couldn’t do before when they would use lefties O’Flaherty and Venters before giving the ball to the right-handed Kimbrel.

“That’s kind of been tough the last couple of years. We’ve been assigned an inning and throwing it, no matter what. You could have like a (Jayson) Werth, (Ryan Zimmerman) and (Michael) Morse coming up for Jonny, which is all power-hitting righties. It will help to have (Walden) in the bullpen just to combat that a little bit.”

“We’ve done a good job … but it will be nice to know even if you get in trouble that you got somebody coming in behind you that can get the job done.”

It wasn’t by accident that O’Flaherty mentioned the Nationals. He admits he keeps tabs on the rest of the National League East, saying he’s “just looking forward to the next season.”

Many believe the NL East stands as a two-team race between the two franchises that finished 1-2 in the division last season, both advancing to the postseason.

But O’Flaherty says the Phillies have his attention. After bringing in Michael Young at third base and touting a healthy Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins  to go along with its Roy Halladay-led rotation, O’Flaherty thinks Philadelphia will have a say in who takes the East.

“The tough thing is, I think everybody’s overlooking the Phillies,” he said. “They were beat up last year, they had (Chase) Utley and Howard out for a good part of the year. Their rotation is still deep and they’re still a really good team.

“For us, we’re as worried bout the Phillies as we are the Nationals. We don’t want to let them sneak up on us. I think if you’re aware of them it won’t be that big a deal, but you don’t want to forget about those guys because they’re going to come to play this year.”

So will the Braves, who look to have a definitive late-inning advantage, even if one of their chief members can’t get any respect in the digital world.

“I guess I have to do some more to promote myself, get on Twitter or something,” he said.