November 2013

New on the 40: Ryan Buchter

Yesterday, I delved a bit into the background of right-hander Wirfin Obispo, the hard-throwing Gwinnett Braves closer who was just added to the Atlanta Braves’ 40-man roster last Friday.  Today, it’s time to do the same for the other newest 40-man addition, left-hander Ryan Buchter.

The 26-year-old Buchter emerged as a bullpen force for the G-Braves last season, compiling a 4-0 record and a 2.76 ERA in 51 relief appearances.  In addition to converting all five of his save chances, the southpaw also ranked among International League relief leaders in strikeouts per 9.0 IP ratio (1st, 14.95) and lowest opponent batting average (3rd, .168).  Buchter’s most impressive work came down the stretch as he posted a 0.00 ERA over his final 14 appearances in August and September.

Much like Obispo, Buchter’s “breakout” season in 2013 came after a well-traveled start to his career.  Originally drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 33rd round of the 2005 draft, the New Jersey native has already been traded twice.  The Nationals dealt him to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for right-hander Matt Avery in 2008, and the Cubs moved him to Atlanta in a deal for right-hander Rodrigo Lopez in 2011.  Amid the ever-changing scenery, including stops in eight different leagues, Buchter put together All-Star seasons in the Class-A Midwest League in 2009 and the Double-A Southern League in 2010.

Buchter’s travels and subsequent learning experiences were featured in a story I wrote for the final regular-season issue of Tomahawk Talk last year.  In it, he reflected on his unlikely discovery by the Nationals, the benefits of being traded, his confidence gained from the 2012 Arizona Fall League, his “rollercoaster” 2013 season in Gwinnett and more.

Ryan Buchter, photo by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves.

Ryan Buchter, photo by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves.

Buchter Breaks Out

Left-hander Ryan Buchter has emerged as a go-to arm out of the Gwinnett Braves bullpen in 2013

by Dave Lezotte (published in Tomahawk Talk, August 26, 2013)

He may not qualify as the biggest prospect arm on the Gwinnett Braves’ roster, but what left-hander Ryan Buchter has been able to do in his first full Triple-A season is nothing short of impressive.  The New Jersey native has held International League hitters to a .178 batting average, striking out 83 over 51 innings in 42 outings this year.

Buchter’s professional career, including stops with the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs organizations, has always been a bit under-the-radar.  Even his signing by Washington came about almost on accident.

“It was a mistake,” said Buchter about his discovery by the Nationals.  “I ended up pitching against somebody who was being scouted already.  I kind of outpitched him, and it all started from there.”

The pitcher being scouted by both the Nationals and the Cubs was Winslow Township High School right-hander Chris Rollins.  The Nationals passed on Rollins in the 2005 First Year Player Draft, but took Buchter in the 33rd round out of Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, NJ.

A draft-and-follow selection, Buchter attended Gloucester County Community College in nearby Sewell, NJ before starting his professional career in 2006 at age 19.  His first two seasons as a Nationals’ farmhand were anything but successful.  In his first year in the Gulf Coast League, he went 1-1 with a 7.24 ERA in 11 games, one start.  The next year, he went 1-2 with a 6.82 ERA at Short-A Vermont.  He finally showed some promise in 2008, going 4-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 games between the GCL and Class-A Hagerstown, but was traded away after the season.

The Nationals dealt Buchter to the Cubs in exchange for right-hander Matt Avery on November 3, 2008.  The change of scenery proved to be a turning point in his career.

“Getting traded kind of jump-started me,” said Buchter about the move to the Cubs.  “It made me take a different path in my career.  I started to work a little harder that off-season and it started to show right away.  From there, I kept building and building.  I attribute (my success) to being traded and not wanting to let the new team down.”

With his career refreshed in a new organization, Buchter put together two award-winning seasons in the Cubs’ system.  In 2009, he made his first professional All-Star Game, going 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA and five saves in 38 games for the Peoria Chiefs of the Class-A Midwest League.  A year later, he was an All-Star again in the Double-A Southern League, going 7-2 with a 4.65 ERA in 47 games for the Tennessee Smokies.  His third campaign as a Cub began with mixed results as he split time between Tennessee and Advanced-A Daytona, but another shakeup was imminent.

On May 26, 2011, Buchter was traded for the second time.  The Cubs sent him to Atlanta in exchange for 35-year-old right-hander Rodrigo Lopez.

“I was just sent down to High-A to iron out some kinks,” reflected Buchter on the time of the trade.  “I started throwing well in Daytona with the intention of (moving back up) to Double-A or Triple-A.  When I got traded, (Daytona manager Buddy Bailey) pulled me aside and said ‘I have good news and bad news for you.  The good news is, you’ve been traded.  The bad news is, you’re going back to High-A.’  That was a difficult thing to handle.”

Buchter started his Atlanta Braves’ career with Advanced-A Lynchburg, going 2-5 with a 3.59 ERA and a career-high 15 savs in 2011.  In 2012, he moved on to Double-A Mississippi, returning to the Southern League for the first time since pitching with Tennessee.  Facing familiar competition, he boasted a 3-1 record, 1.31 ERA and four saves in 35 relief outings for the M-Braves.

“I just went out and did what I knew I could do,” said Buchter about his success.  “Just give me an opportunity and I’ll pitch and throw well, especially late in the game.  I embraced the role I was being used in, seventh, eighth, sometimes ninth (inning) and it worked out.”

His stint with Mississippi worked out for a late-season promotion to Gwinnett for his Triple-A debut.  Buchter went 0-2 with a 10.12 ERA in nine outings for the G-Braves, indicating that he still needed some refinement.  A trip to the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League and an extended look in Braves’ Major League camp during the spring helped him regain confidence.

“It helped me iron out some bad habits that I created when I came up here (to Gwinnett),” said Buchter about his fall and spring assignments.  “It made me realize that I can get anybody out.  I can get the prospects out; I can get the big league guys out.  Once you realize that, I don’t want to say the game becomes easier, but you start to have a little more faith in yourself.”

Buchter began his 2013 season on Gwinnett’s Opening Day roster and was nearly unhittable early, postin a 1.00 ERA in nine April outings.  He came back down to earth in the summer months, going 0-0 with a 4.58 ERA in 28 games from May through July, but found his best stuff in August.  Through his first seven games, he went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and one save.

“It’s been a pretty fun rollercoaster,” said Buchter about 2013.  “With pitching, it’s easy to be a perfectionist and want to go out and pick yourself apart for giving up a walk or giving up a hit.  Sometimes the hardest thing is to realize that if you throw up a zero (no runs), it’s actually a good inning no matter what else happens.”

He’s had plenty of those good innings lately for Gwinnett, most of them in pivotal spots.  With the departure of closer Cory Rasmus to the Los Angeles Angels in a July trade, Buchter has been given more opportunities to pitch with late leads and in save situations.  Pitching in tight ballgames is something he relishes.

“The game’s a little more fun when you’re out there and you’re up by one, down by one and you know your team needs you to throw up a zero,” said Buchter.  “It’s something that I’ve learned to embrace and I look forward to a one-run game.  I get a little antsy in the bullpen hoping they’ll call down and say my name, that way I get a chance to come in.”

Buchter has climbed to the top of the league in relief strikeouts thanks to a fastball that sits in the mid-90′s and a willingness to challenge hitters with it.  For the left-hander, getting ahead in the count quickly is the key to his prolific strikeout numbers.

“If I get ahead, a lot of times my success rate is a lot higher than a lot of guys,” said Buchter.  “Get strike one, and then I try to pitch to one side of the plate for righties and lefties.  If I get two strikes on a guy, then I’ll try to put him away.  It’s a very simple game plan.  A lot of fastballs; then I’ll mix the cutter in and then try to put them away with the breaking ball.”

Buchter’s professional career started with an unlikely discovery, progressed with three different organizations and has resulted in a 2013 season that has him closer than ever to the Major Leagues.  While he waits for a shot at Atlanta’s bullpen, he remains optimistic and focused.

“Obviously, you’re waiting for your turn, and for a lot of bullpen guys, it’s luck,” said Buchter.  “It’s luck and what the team has planned for you.  They may have a plan for you, they might not, but you’ve got to continue to stay focused on the task at hand down here (in Gwinnett).  It’s good to just keep your mind on things down here and do your job every day.  If you don’t do your job here, they’re not going to be looking for you anyway.”

The Atlanta Braves will certainly be giving Buchter a long look when Spring Training starts up in February.  For the first time in his career, he has the stability that comes from being on a Major League 40-man roster.

-DL

New on the 40: Wirfin Obispo

Late last Friday, the Atlanta Braves announced the addition of two 2013 Gwinnett Braves to their 40-man roster.  Left-hander Ryan Buchter and right-hander Wirfin Obispo, the back-end of the G-Braves’ bullpen for the bulk of the season, have both been added to Atlanta’s 40-man for the first time in their careers.

Today, the focus is on Obispo, the hard-throwing Dominican Republic native who first turned heads during Spring Training.  An impressive Cactus League run — 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA and eight strikeouts over six outings — earned him serious consideration for a bullpen spot in Atlanta, but Obispo wound up spending all of 2013 in Triple-A.  After a slow start, some minor adjustments on the mound brought him back strong, and he went 2-4 with a 3.53 ERA over an International League-leading 54 appearances.  The July trade of right-hander Cory Rasmus to the Los Angeles Angels thrust Obispo into the Gwinnett closer’s role, and it is there that he truly shined.  He converted nine of 11 save chances from mid June through September, posting a second-half ERA of 2.55.

While the Braves wait to see if Obispo will be next season’s version of David Carpenter, we look back on what has already been an interesting, challenging career for the former shortstop prospect.  Below is a feature story on Obispo written by Juan Dorado for the eighth issue of Tomahawk Talk last season.

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

The Journeys of Obispo

From the Dominican Summer League to the Japanese League and now finally in the U.S., right-hander Wirfin Obispo has been on an amazing journey

by Juan Dorado (published in Tomahawk Talk, July 18, 2013)

On the first week of July each year, the International signing period begins.  Major League teams scatter around the Caribbean Islands in search of the next great Latin-born player.  In 2002, a young shortstop from the Dominican Republic by the name of Wirfin Obispo was signed by the Boston Red Sox organization, and so began his well-traveled baseball career.

Nineteen years old at the time, Obispo was assigned to the Dominican Summer League Red Sox.  In 37 games, he hit .211 (24-for-114) with four doubles, one triple and five RBIs.  Despite being two-to-three years older than most players on his team and yet struggling at the plate, Boston decided to bring the right-handed hitting infielder back in 2003.  During the spring, however, he suffered a setback and went through his first real injury as a ballplayer.

“After I came back for my second season, I suffered a leg injury,” recalls Obispo.  “The Boston Red Sox organization didn’t think I could really play after that, so they decided to let me go.  Honestly, I don’t think it could have worked out any better.”

Obispo was unemployed, but not discouraged.  He spent the off-season rehabbing and getting back into shape for a winter workout with the Cincinnati Reds and International Scouting Director Johnny Almaraz.  While working out in front of Almaraz, the fleet-footed, strong-armed, 160-pound shortstop was asked if he had ever thought about pitching.  Even though he had spent his whole childhood and professional career as a shortstop, Obispo was open to the idea.

“In 2004, when I was working out for Cincinnati and Johnny Almaraz, he told me that he wanted to see me as a pitcher,” said Obispo.  “He looked at me as a shortstop (prospect) but then he asked if I would like to pitch.  I was glad to go out and pitch for him, so I went on the mound and he saw that I had a good fastball.  After that, he signed me, but this time as a pitcher.”

On January 23, 2004, with the support of Almaraz and the Cincinnati Reds organization, the right-hander signed as a minor league free agent.  Obispo spent the next three seasons as a pitcher for the Dominican Summer League Reds.  He excelled in the role, appearing in 47 games, 26 starts, and posting an 8-11 record with a 2.38 ERA.  The fireballer struck out 204 batters while walking only 58 during his rookie ball career.

Obispo was great in his first two stints in the DSL, but it would take until 2006 for the Reds to really take notice.  Now primarily a starter, he went 4-5 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 starts in the DSL, limiting hitters to a .168 batting average and striking out 93 in 79.1 innings.

The Reds decided that Obispo was ready to begin a professional career in the United States and invited him to minor league Spring Training in 2007.  Unfortunately, problems off the field prevented the emerging hurler from pitching in the U.S. for the first time.

Instead, Obispo found himself in another unfamiliar place, and 8,623 miles from his home in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.  With the help of Junior Noboa and Melvin Soto, professional scouts and assistants of the Reds organization, he was shipped off to Japan to play for the Yomiuri Giants.

“It was an incredible experience, one learns a lot over there,” said Obispo.  “It was a little uncomfortable at times.  Technology was fast moving and highly advanced, so it took a while to get acclimated with the environment, but once you get accustomed to it, it becomes like any other place.”

Obispo spent five seasons overseas, accumulating an 8-4 mark with a 4.13 ERA in 30 games between the Yomiuri Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters.  He battled injuries along the way, including a left hand injury suffered on a line-drive come-backer that severely limited his production in 2008.

When he returned to health in 2009, Obispo went 6-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 14 games, seven starts for the Giants.  During the Japanese League postseason, he won decisive games in both the Nippon Professional Baseball Climax Series and Japanese Championship Series, eventually defeating the Yu Darvish-led Nippon Ham Fighters in six games to claim the 2009 JL crown.

After his Japanese contract expired in 2011, Obispo’s desire to pitch in the United States earned him another try with the Reds organization.  Cincinnati signed him to a minor league contract on February 2, 2012.  He spent the season between Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, hurling a combined 96.0 innings and posting a 5-3 record with a 3.00 ERA in 35 games.

Despite his familiarity with the Reds, Obispo opted to try his hand at free agency in the off-season and signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves.  An exclusive clause guaranteeing him an opportunity to pitch in Major League Spring Training was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I’m still very inexperienced playing baseball in the United states.  Including this season, I have only played two years stateside, so I was excited to participate in Spring Training with the Braves,” said Obispo.

Considered a long shot to make the Major League roster, Obispo still raised some eyebrows with a high-90′s fastball and a sharp breaking slider.  He dominated the Grapefruit League in his six appearances, tossing 5.0 shutout innings while giving up two hits and striking out eight.  In the end, his lack of experience prevented him from earning a spot in a deep Atlanta bullpen, and Obispo was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett.

Pitching for the G-Braves, Obispo was greeted rudely by International League opponents.  He went 0-1 with a 5.82 ERA in his first 18 games, a slide that was particularly aggravating given his successful spring.

“I wasn’t doing anything different from Spring Training, but it was like my head was getting in the way,” admitted Obispo.  “I was over-thinking everything, I was doing everything I did before but I was running into bad luck and letting it affect my head.”

Obispo didn’t let his early struggles keep him from improving, and with continuous hard work with pitching coach Marty Reed, he found an underlying problem with his preparation and delivery.”

“Coach Reed helped me out a lot.  He saw that I used to get loose and warm up from the side, but when I pitched in games I was upright, standing straight towards the plate.  He didn’t really force me to pitch from the side, but asked if I was more comfortable from there, so I made the adjustment and began pitching slightly turned.”

The quarter-turn has paid off.  From May 20 through June 27, Obispo went 14 outings, 17.2 innings without allowing a run.  He yielded just four hits and four walks while striking out 18 during that amazing span.  As of July 8, Obispo was 1-1 with a 2.01 ERA and three saves in his last 18 outings, including 22 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.  He posted a 0.81 WHIP and limited hitters to a .133 batting average in that time frame.

With two years under his belt and confidence steadily building on the mound, Obispo is certainly knocking on the Major League door, but he’s not worried about the logistics of finding his way to Atlanta.  Instead, he is concerned with doing his job on a nightly basis.

“I think I would be silly to say I didn’t want to get to the Majors soon, but I would like to finish the season healthy and pitch well wherever I am, that’s the main thing,” said Obispo.  “Like a teammate always told me, ‘I’m just an employee working hard until I get a promotion.’”

Later this week, we’ll focus on the other Braves’ 40-man addition, the left-handed reliever Ryan Buchter.

-DL

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