New Brave Jenkins healthy, happy and ready to flourish post-trade

NORCROSS, Ga. — In a parallel sports universe, Tyrell Jenkins might have been one of the brightest stars of the recently concluded college football season, leading high-powered Baylor University — as a quarterback — in its dual pursuit of the Big 12 championship and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

In a parallel sports universe, the sublimely athletic Jenkins — who ran the 4×400 relay race for the Henderson (Texas) High School team as a prepster, during his off days from baseball — might have also cultivated a distinguished college hoops career at point guard.

(A noticeably large point guard … since Jenkins stands at 6-foot-4.)

But real life is all about choices, even in the dreamscape world of athletics. And back in the summer of 2010 — just after his 18th birthday and before the Baylor football season started fall practice — Jenkins made a life-changing decision, bypassing his boyhood dreams of football and basketball glory for the lucrative, but temperamental world of professional baseball.

As a high school senior, "I wasn’t the typical (elite prospect) who expected to be drafted," recalls Jenkins, who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals before triggering his football-scholarship obligation for Baylor in 2010. "I was just ready to play football (for the Bears)."

The last pick of Round 1 in 2010 (50th overall, supplemental choice), Jenkins was selected ahead of MLB notables like Jedd Gyorko (Padres), Drew Smyly (Tigers, now Rays), Addison Reed (White Sox, now Diamondbacks), Tyler Thornburg (Brewers) and Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Adding to the prestige, a number of transcendent talents were snagged in the first round — a group that includes Bryce Harper (Nationals), Matt Harvey (Mets), Manny Machado (Orioles), Chris Sale (White Sox), Christian Yelich (Marlins), Nick Castellanos (Tigers) and Taijuan Walker (Mariners), a prospective Felix Hernandez clone with Seattle.

No pressure, huh?

"You never know how someone else will turn out when you draft ’em," says Jenkins, who was admittedly shocked by his Round 1 fate in the 2010 draft. "You always see potential, but potential doesn’t always pan out the way it’s supposed to be."

Don’t be fooled by the modesty of the above paragraph. A few breaths later, Jenkins (career-best 3.28 ERA in the minors last season) exhibited the type of hubris that made him a prominent figure in a top-shelf draft … and eventually prompted the Braves to land Jenkins in perhaps their most storied (or controversial) trade of the last five years.

"All I know is I"m going to put myself in the best position to be a (starting pitcher) — which is what I want to be, long term," says Jenkins, who started all 58 of his minor-league appearances with the Cardinals organization (2010-14).

He soon added: "If i get the opportunity, I guarantee you I won’t let it slip through my fingers. I’m excited, and we’ll see what happens."

* * *

On Nov. 17, Jenkins’ professional world was rocked by the news of the Cardinals and Braves excecuting a four-man swap before baseball’s Winter Meetings, with St. Louis getting Jason Heyward (reigning Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the most popular Brave of the decade) and reliever Jordan Walden, and Atlanta receiving Jenkins and Shelby Miller, who accounted for 25 wins, 296 strikeouts and a cumulative ERA of 3.41 in his first two MLB campaigns with St. Louis (2013-14).

But the trade didn’t really sink in for Jenkins (career ERA of 4.23) until the following morning.

He was upset about leaving the only franchise (the Cardinals) he had ever known. But "then I woke up, called my agent, and realized who I had been traded for (Heyward, Walden). Things kind of got put in perspective, and I kept thinking, ‘This could be a good deal for (me)’ … at first, it was kind of slow and shaky, but now I’m into it. I’m excited."

In the Cardinals’ system (varying levels of A-ball), Jenkins viewed himself as a ‘middle piece’ of a deep pipeline of pitching prospects.

With the Braves, who have undergone a substantial overhaul in the last three months (without ever using the R-word that rhymes with "tree-tilding"), Jenkins will likely encounter a similarly stellar cluster of under-24 power arms — some of whom are vying for the No. 5 spot in Atlanta’s 2015 rotation.

According to MLB.com’s revamped rankings, Jenkins (2.24 ERA in six Arizona Fall League starts) stands as the Braves’ No. 11 prospect and sixth-best pitcher, behind Mike Foltynewicz (No. 2 prospect), Lucas Sims (No. 3) and Max Fried (No. 3), among others.

Throw in the fact that Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller and Alex Wood — all 24 years old — are under team control, salary- wise, for the foreseeable future … and it’s fair to wonder if Jenkins has simply moved from one dog-eat-dog franchise to another.

"The Braves have always been a pitching organization," said Braves personnel czar John Hart in mid-November, in the wake of the Heyward swap. "We have the makings of a quality young rotation."

Luckily, Jenkins (who notched six-plus strikeouts in three of his final starts with the Cards’ affiliates) finally has health on his side.

"I feel great. This is my first healthy offseason since my first year (in the minors)," says Jenkins, who has torn a shoulder muscle twice in the last five years. "I was able to lift as much as I wanted to, run as much as I wanted to. I feel about as good as I can right now."

Let’s put the above line in perspective: When Jenkins says he’s healthy and feeling great … we’re talking about the same athlete who regularly churned out sub-50-second 400-meter runs in high school — without training. Just because.

"(The track coaches) just asked me to run when they needed someone, like an extra leg. I would just run … and then play ball the next day."

Speaking of high school, in the course of Jenkins’ pro tenure with the Cardinals, a handful of coaches attempted to alter his delivery, namely the leg kick and arm angle/release point.

But through the injuries and inconsistencies on the mound, the Texas-bred right-hander came to a five-years-in-the-making epiphany — thanks to a mound mentor in the majors.

(Cardinals ace) "Adam Wainwright told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to be who you are,’ so I went back to pitching how I (threw) in high school and things got a little easier, more natural," says Jenkins, whose childhood pitching role model was Roy Oswalt, the longtime Houston Astros ace (163 victories, 3.36 ERA, 1,852 strikeouts).

"My hope is to make the big leagues (in the near future) … and stay there."