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.
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.
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.
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.
In the month since the end of the Gwinnett Braves’ 2013 season, have you been starving for Game Note-style information? Do you have a hunger to read about all the noteworthy achievements for each of the 57 players to don the G-Braves uniform last year?
If you answered “yes” to both questions, you’re in luck. The 2013 Final Report is now complete.
Should 20 pages of charts and bullet points not quench your baseball thirst, keep in mind that there’s only 174 days and two hours until the start of the 2014 season.
The second season officially begins tonight for the Atlanta Braves, who open the best-of-five National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field. It’s no secret that the success of the Braves at the Major League level goes hand-in-hand with the preparation and rehabilitation that occurs here in Triple-A, a connection that became even more evident with the release of Atlanta’s 25-man NLDS roster yesterday. A total of 19 players have connections to the Gwinnett Braves, including 15 that suited up for the G-Braves in 2013.
Luis Ayala, David Carpenter, Freddy Garcia, Jordan Walden and Alex Wood all made brief appearances in Gwinnett this season, and all will be participating in the Playoffs as Braves for the first time. Veterans Ayala (8 games, 0-1, 6.48 ERA) and Walden (1 game, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) appeared for the G-Braves on injury rehab assignments, while Garcia (0-1, 19.64 ERA) and Wood (1-0, 1.80 ERA) each made just one start for Gwinnett. Before turning into a prime set-up man for Craig Kimbrel, the right-handed Carpenter was on Gwinnett’s Opening Day roster, going 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA in six relief appearances. The most interesting inclusion on the pitching staff, however, is right-hander David Hale. Atlanta’s third-round selection out of Princeton University in 2009, Hale worked past a right shoulder strain to go 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 22 games, 20 starts in his Triple-A debut. A September call-up for the first time in his career, Hale was brilliant in two spot starts for Atlanta down the stretch, going 1-0 with a 0.82 ERA, 14 strikeouts and just one walk in 11.0 innings. The Marietta, GA native won’t see a playoff start, but should be an asset in long relief.
The playoff success of the Braves will depend largely on pitching, and the four biggest names on the staff all have ties to Gwinnett. Kris Medlen (2009, 2012), Mike Minor (2010-11) and Julio Teheran (2011-12) are the announced starters for the first three games of the NLDS. Medlen has just one playoff start under his belt (the infamous 2012 NL Wild Card Game), while Minor and Teheran will experience postseason starts for the first time. Kimbrel (2010), widely regarded as the best closer in baseball, will look to extend his dominance into October.
All three Braves’ catchers — Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird and Brian McCann — spent time on the Gwinnett roster in 2013. McCann made a brief stop at Coolray Field on his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, while Gattis (strained right oblique) and Laird (kidney stone procedure) were also with the club on rehab assignments. Gattis also returned to Gwinnett for the final three road games of the season, hitting .461 with three doubles, a home run and one RBI in a tune-up for the stretch drive.
McCann is a career .300 hitter with three homers and eight RBIs in seven NLDS games, all with Atlanta. Laird has limited action in all three playoff rounds, winning the World Series as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and returning to the World Series with the Detroit Tigers in 2012.
Of Atlanta’s five infielders, two played for Gwinnett in 2013. First baseman Freddie Freeman, the International League Rookie of the Year with the G-Braves in 2010, hit .500 with two doubles, three runs scored and two RBIs in three games as he recovered from an oblique injury. That span included the only five-hit game by a G-Brave this season, Freeman’s 5-for-5 performance on April 20 at Charlotte. Infielder Paul Janish started his season on a rehab assignment as he returned from right shoulder surgery, but was later optioned to the Gwinnett roster. In 41 total games, the defensive specialist hit .207 with five doubles and 12 RBIs.
The Braves (and the Dodgers, for that matter) know what to expect from Freeman, who is coming off a career year in which he hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Janish won’t see the starting lineup ahead of Elliot Johnson and Andrelton Simmons, but will be used to spell Chris Johnson at third base in the late innings.
This six-man group (not including Gattis) includes four players who played in Gwinnett in 2013, including three on rehab assignments. Jason Heyward (appendectomy), Jordan Schafer (right ankle contusion) and B.J. Upton (right thigh strain) all used stints in Triple-A to return from injury. Heyward (.300, double, 6 RBIs) and Upton (.333, 3 doubles, 2 RBIs) were both productive offensively, while Schafer (.063, 2 doubles, 2 RBIs) struggled.
Jose Constanza edged out fellow former G-Brave Joey Terdoslavich for the final bench spot given his knack for getting on base and stealing bags. Gwinnett’s “Fan Favorite Player” in 2013, Constanza hit .276 with 17 RBIs and a team-high 21 stolen bases. He strung together an 18-game hitting streak and a 25-game on-base streak this season. He won’t start and isn’t the first option as a pinch hitter off the bench, but expect to see Constanza utilize his speed as a pinch runner.
All 19 former G-Braves and the rest of the Atlanta Braves begin their quest for a World Series title tonight with Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Check back at the G-Blog for further updates on Gwinnett players in the 2013 MLB Playoffs.
Hard to believe, but the 2013 International League season (and our home opener at Coolray Field) is just 85 days away! With April 4 quickly approaching, we’re starting to lift the curtain on some of the things you can expect to see for the upcoming season of Gwinnett Braves Baseball.
The first major announcement occured this morning with the launch of the Fifth Season campaign and logo (pictured left). Celebrations of the anniversary season include a new alumni Bobblehead Series and brand new 5-Pack Plans. The series of five bobbleheads features G-Braves who have gone on to stardom in Atlanta, including Brandon Beachy, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Kris Medlen. Conveniently, you can purchase tickets to all five bobblehead giveaway nights in the Bobblehead Pack, one of the four 5-Pack Plans that were rolled out in today’s announcement.
The 5-Packs also include a Fireworks Pack (all five dates are Friday Fireworks nights), a Best 5 Games Pack (our most popular games including Opening Night on April 4 and July 4) and a Silver Sluggers Pack (five day games). Reinforcing the five theme, each 5-Pack starts at just $50. You can get more details and buy online as well by visiting gwinnettbraves.com/5pack.
To add to the excitement of Season Five, gwinnettbraves.com is hosting a look back at some of the great players that have played for the G-Braves in the team’s first four seasons. Expect to read up on guys like Barbaro Canizares (this week’s feature), Matt Young, Todd Redmond and Mauro Gomez in addition to the likes of Freeman, Kimbrel and others. A new “5th Season Friday” feature will debut each Friday through the end of March.
Is that enough fives for you yet? Me neither. As if the baseball gods had a hand in it, the G-Blog was announced as the 55th most visited ProBlog on the MLBlogs Network for the past year. Fifth place would have been more fitting, but it’s an honor to finish near the middle of the Top 100 in our first year. You can check out the entire list over at mlblogs.mlblogs.com.
Give yourself a high-5 for reading this post and head over to gwinnettbraves.com for more on the 2013 season!
It’s admittedly been some time since we’ve posted here at the G-Blog, but rest assured, there’s plenty going on in the Coolray Field offices since September. We’re working on preparing a tremendous fifth season of Gwinnett Braves baseball, and will have details on what you can expect to see in 2013 sometime after the holidays. Right now, you can prepare yourself for next season by purchasing 2013 Season Tickets or a Holiday Pack.
For preparations on the field, a major announcement was made on November 12 when Randy Ready (pictured left) was confirmed as the new manager of the G-Braves. Ready is just the second manager in club history (since 2009), replacing Dave Brundage, who took the managerial post with Lehigh Valley.
If you haven’t already read up on Ready, here’s a few details. The 52-year-old Dallas, Texas native is joining the Atlanta Braves organization for the first time after spending last year as the minor league hitting coordinator for the Texas Rangers. Prior to 2012 he was the Major League hitting coach for the San Diego Padres from 2009 to 2011. He’s managed a total of eight seasons in the minors, mostly in the Padres system, compiling a 489-466 record. Ready led Double-A San Antonio to a Texas League Championship in 2007 and was elected to the Texas League Hall of Fame shortly after. In 2008, he managed Triple-A Portland of the Pacific Coast League and was named the PCL’s “Best Managerial Prospect” by Baseball America. On top of his coaching career, Ready also played parts of 13 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland Athletics and Montreal Expos.
Our friends over at WDUN talked with Ready by phone last week and have shared the audio clip with us. In the interview, he weighs in on the 2012 G-Braves club, his thoughts on player development and winning at the minor league level, joining the Atlanta Braves organization, how his Major League career has prepared him to manage and more.
Listen Here: Randy Ready WDUN Interview (11.21.12)
Ready’s 2013 Gwinnett Braves club hits the field on Thursday, April 4 for a 7:05 PM game at Coolray Field. That’s still a long ways off, but you can continue to keep up with everything G-Braves by checking out GwinnettBraves.com, facebook.com/GwinnettBraves1 and twitter.com/GwinnettBraves!
The following article on former Gwinnett Braves right-hander Eric Junge was to be published in the next edition of Tomahawk Talk, due out August 6. Junge was released by the organization today, but I still wanted the article to see the light of day. Best wishes to Eric as he makes the next step of his baseball journey, wherever that may be.
The Journeys of Junge
By Dave Lezotte (July 25, 2012)
While Triple-A baseball is often regarded a place to see the next generation of star players, it’s even more known as a level for the experienced veteran. Each season, International League rosters are full of players who have tasted Major League success and experienced hardships along the way, only to find themselves with another chance to regain glory.
Nobody on the Gwinnett Braves roster personifies this better than Eric Junge. A 35-year-old right-hander hailing from New York, NY, Junge (pronounced “Young”) is in his 14th professional season. Originally drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th round of the 1999 amateur draft out of Bucknell University, Junge has been to just about all corners of the baseball universe. He’s pitched in seven different Major League organizations including time in the big-league spotlight with Philadelphia in 2002 and 2003. He’s also pitched in the independent Atlantic League as well as overseas in Venezuela, Japan and South Korea.
It’s been a long road for the first-year G-Brave, to say the least. Yet Junge is as determined to pitch now as he was 13 seasons ago.
“I’m going to continue going until my arm falls off or I can’t get a job,” expressed Junge. “What motivates me? I just want to pitch well, I just want to excel. It’s not financial, it’s not necessarily getting back to the big leagues, (…) but it’s just excellence. We play to be good, we play to have excellence and that’s what I strive for.”
Junge has attained excellence at numerous points in his career. In 2001 with Double-A Jacksonville, he became a 10-game winner for the first time in his career as he went 10-11. The next year, he went 12-6 with a 3.54 ERA in his first season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. By the end of 2002, he had made a Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in just his fourth professional season.
Memories of his first big league call-up still immediately come to mind for Junge, even a decade later.
“I remember pitching against the Braves a lot when they had those good teams back in the early 2000’s. That was a thrill for me,” said Junge. “I got to pitch against (Tom) Glavine one time, and just being on the field with some of those marquee Braves teams was pretty cool.”
Junge made his Major League debut with the Phillies on September 11, 2002 against the Florida Marlins. The then-25-year-old earned his first career victory three days later on September 14 in a win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His second and most recent MLB victory came over Glavine and the Braves on September 24, 2002, a game won by the Phillies, 5-3.
He pitched six more times in relief for Philadelphia in 2003, posting no record and a 3.52 ERA. Despite a promising 2-0 record and 2.21 ERA in two stints, Junge wasn’t called upon by the Phillies again and hasn’t been back to the Majors since.
“I didn’t expect it to be that hard to get back (to the Major Leagues), to get a second opportunity,” admits Junge. “But that’s the way things go.”
Since 2003, his journey has taken him just about everywhere imaginable. He pitched in the Phillies system again in 2004 before landing with the New York Mets organization a year later. In 2006, Junge pitched for Triple-A Portland of the San Diego Padres system. In 2007, he suited up for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre again, but this time as a New York Yankees farmhand. After a release from the Yankees, Junge caught on with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish for the duration of 2007.
Then, in 2008, he discovered he’d have to leave the United States to keep his dream alive. Junge spent the next two seasons playing in Asia, going 0-1 with a 6.97 ERA in 11 games with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Pacific League in 2008 and 1-7 with a 7.04 ERA in 12 games with the Hanwha Eagles of the South Korean Professional Baseball League in 2009.
Aside from obvious adjustments in culture, Junge found himself challenged by a different style of play in both countries.
“In Japan and Korea, they sort of play tennis, if you will,” described Junge. “They try to return your serve, the hitters, that is, these slap-hitting guys. You have to adjust your game a little bit. I didn’t have much success in the Asian arena and I think a lot of guys (American players) don’t have success over there. It takes more than a few months, and they (the teams) don’t’ give you enough time to adjust to the game.”
In 2010, Junge returned to the United States and signed a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Angels. He was immediately assigned to Triple-A, where he went 5-3 with a 5.15 ERA in 14 games with the Salt Lake Bees in 2010 and 8-9 with a 5.12 ERA in 25 games in 2011. Simply getting back to affiliated baseball proved to be a victory in itself for Junge.
“I didn’t know if it was even going to happen (returning to affiliated baseball). I pitched my way back in,” said Junge.
It was in the Angels system that Junge learned a pitch that would ultimately increase his longevity.
“I developed a sinker over there with Erik Bennett, he was my pitching coach over there (Salt Lake). We worked on a sinker and that’s really helped me to prolong my career. As my velocity goes down, now I can sink the ball a little bit more and induce more contact.”
Armed with the sinker that helps him get more ground ball outs, Junge is still striving for excellence in his first season in the Atlanta Braves organization. He started off the year 3-1 with Gwinnett before scuffling in May and June. Recently, the right-hander has experienced resurgence, going 2-0 with a 2.86 ERA in four outings from June 30 to July 23.
“Just being aggressive,” answered Junge when asked the secret for his latest success. “(Being) aggressive early in the count with fastballs and using my cutter and slider to get guys off the fastball. When I was struggling, I think I was a little more slider-dominant, pitching backward and kind of looking for answers. There are no easy answers, you just go back to basics. Pound strikes with your fastball and get guys a little more uncomfortable in the box.”
As of July 25, Junge is tied for the team lead in both wins (6) and quality starts (8). While a call-up to Atlanta for his first Major League innings since 2003 is still likely a long shot for Gwinnett’s elder statesman, he remains content with his achievements.
“It was a special experience, and hopefully I can maybe get back (to the Major Leagues) one day,” said Junge. “If not, it’s fine, it’s all been fun. Nobody can take away the feeling of pride I have for my own career. I feel like I’ve exceeded my own expectations.”
Back by popular demand, Gwinnett Braves Game Notes: 7.17.12 GBraves Game Notes
Left-hander Yohan Flande (3-7, 4.37) gets the start for the G-Braves tonight, looking to erase the memory of his 0.2-inning, 6-run outing his last time out at Louisville. He’ll be opposed by left-hander Jeff Locke (7-5, 2.95) of the Indians.
Jose Constanza goes in search of a hit to tie the International League’s longest hitting streak this season, 20 games. He’s already hit in a Gwinnett franchise record 19-straight games coming into the action. Ernesto Mejia has a three-game multi-hit streak on the line as well.
The 7:05 PM game at Victory Field in Indianapolis, IN can be heard on WDUN 550 AM /102.9 FM and WDUN.com.
A new post on your Gwinnett Braves has been long overdue since the start of the final 52-game stretch of the regular season. The G-Braves are off to a 1-4 start since the Triple-A All-Star break and maintain a 1.0-game lead on Durham for third place in the International League South Division. Dave Brundage’s club stands 10 games behind South-leading Charlotte with time still on the clock to catch the Knights, but it’s clear that the time is now to make a move up the standings.
Here’s some of the storylines playing out since the break:
Jose Constanza is on a tear that may not end any time soon.
Constanza entered the All-Star break with a 14-game hitting streak in tact, tying the existing Gwinnett franchise record shared by Barbaro Canizares (2010) and Felix Pie (2012). He’s re-written the record book with hits in five-straight games since, giving him a 19-game hitting streak as of July 17. That streak is the second-longest in the International League this season, trailing only a 20-game streak accomplished by three players including former Toledo Mud Hen Brad Eldred. Constanza isn’t just collecting a hit a night to advance history, he’s often doing it with huge, multi-hit efforts. He’s logged more than one hit in 12 of the 19 games, hitting an impressive .400 (34-for-85) on the streak. Not surprisingly, he’s shot to the top of the IL in batting average, now leading the circuit with a .322 mark.
Ernesto Mejia has been even better since appearing in the All-Star Game.
What’s left to prove for Mejia after his first Triple-A All-Star Game selection? Plenty. He’s continued to do it with his bat, hitting .354 with four homers and nine RBI over the first 12 games of July. The slugging first baseman is riding a three-game multi-hit streak that has raised his average to .308, fourth-best in the International League. He leads the league with 106 hits (amazing for a player with such power to lead in total hits), while ranking second in total bases (189), tied for second in extra-base hits (44), tied for third in RBI (62), fourth in slugging percentage (.549), fifth in OPS (.916) and tied for fifth in home runs (19). If he can keep up the pace, the IL Triple Crown could be within his grasp in his first year at the level.
It’s going to be weird not seeing Todd Redmond pitch every fifth day.
One constant over the first four years of G-Braves baseball has been the consistency of Redmond in the rotation. The all-time wins leader in Gwinnett history was shipped to Cincinnati in exchange for shortstop Paul Janish on July 14. Redmond went 34-30 with a 3.78 ERA in 101 games, 97 starts in a G-Braves uniform, making him one of the faces of the young franchise. He’ll certainly be most remembered for his nine-inning no-hitter at Louisville on May 28, 2010, still the only no-no thrown by a G-Brave. Die-hard fans will certainly remember his outstanding 2011 season in which Redmond went 10-8 with the IL’s third-best ERA of 2.92. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be weird not seeing “Red” on the mound at Coolray Field. Even stranger, he may face his old club when his new team, the Louisville Bats, come to town in August.
With Redmond gone, who steps up?
It’s no secret that even when Redmond was still a member of the rotation, Gwinnett starters had been struggling. The question is, who is able to shake off those struggles and consistently win for this team? We’ve seen flashes of dominance from Julio Teheran, Eric Junge, Yohan Flande and Jose Lugo this year, but who takes the reigns as the staff ace? Teheran would be the likely candidate given what he did just a season ago. There’s still time for the 21-year-old to improve upon a 6-5 record and uncharacteristic 4.96 ERA. Randall Delgado served up six runs in his first Triple-A start since being optioned to Gwinnett by Atlanta, but could also ressurect his season with a strong finish in Triple-A.
There’s a whole lot of new faces here.
Terry Tiffee, Cole McCurry, Andy Russell…who are these guys? The G-Braves’ roster underwent nine transactions this past weekend, giving the roster a bit of a new look. Not only the addition of Tiffee, a third baseman who has logged Major League time in Minnesota and Los Angeles (Dodgers), McCurry, a reliever who came over from the Baltimore system earlier this year and Russell (not to be confused with Adam), a 28-year-old reliever in just his second U.S. season after pitching in his native Australia, but also the “re-addition” of Jordan Parraz. Parraz had been out since May 7 with a broken left hand, but went 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles in his first game back with Gwinnett on July 14 at Louisville. Which of the new faces becomes a key piece of the puzzle?
With a slim lead late in the game, who gets the call?
Triple-A All-Star Cory Gearrin is currently on the DL, so who gets the coveted closer’s role? Jaye Chapman posted two saves and a win in three scoreless outings from July 4-12, but suffered a tough letdown in a blown save and loss on July 14 at Louisville. Buddy Carlyle is the active bullpen leader in ERA (2.34) and wins (5), but gave up the grand slam to Bats’ catcher Dioner Navarro that defeated the G-Braves on that same July 14 evening. Don’t count out the rest of the pen, Billy Bullock, Adam Russell, Dusty Hughes and others to get on track, but the late innings will still likely belong to Chapman and Carlyle.
That’s just a small sampling of what’s going on with the Gwinnett Braves just past the half-way point of July. To find out how it all plays out, keep coming back to the G-Blog and gwinnettbraves.com, as well as catching the radio broadcasts with Tony Schiavone on WDUN 550 AM / 102.9 FM and WDUN.com.
Everything I said in yesterday’s post about turning things around can be repeated about tonight’s game. For six and a half innings of last night’s game, it looked like Kris Medlen and the G-Braves were going to halt the slide. Medlen turned in 5.0 scoreless innings, his first scoreless start since 2009 while also with Gwinnett, and the G-Braves held a 2-0 lead heading to stretch time. After the bottom of the seventh, Lehigh Valley had struck for five runs in an inning that featured a hit-by-pitch, missed catch error, wild pitch and balk. The IronPigs went on to a 5-2 win.
So now it’s Jair Jurrjens’ turn to play the role of stopper. The G-Braves haven’t lost five-straight this season, and if they don’t want to reach that point tonight, it’ll be on Jurrjens to look more like that 8.0-inning ace from May 27 than the struggling pitcher that allowed 10 runs and three homers his last time out on June 1. Meanwhile, the lineup has got to produce more than the four runs they’ve scored over the first three games of this series. Facing left-hander Pat Misch (3-8, 5.01) tonight might be the cure to what ails the bats, but keep in mind that Misch is looking to end a three-game losing streak of his own and pitched fairly well against Gwinnett despite a loss on May 29 (7.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 2 ER).
Tonight’s Game Notes: 6.8.12 GBraves Game Notes
First pitch from Coca-Cola Park is up at 7:05 PM, listen in on WDUN 550 AM / 102.9 FM and WDUN.com.