5/19/2013 12:24 A.M. ET
Braves stick with six-man 'pen despite rash of injures
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- When the Braves decided to go with an 11-man pitching staff to create a roster spot for right fielder Jason Heyward on Friday, they certainly were not expecting that primary setup man Eric O'Flaherty might need to undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
But even after an MRI exam showed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of O'Flaherty's left elbow Saturday, Braves general manager Frank Wren said the team would continue to utilize a six-man bullpen, which is also without Jordan Walden, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list Friday because of right shoulder inflammation.
"We're going to go with 11 [pitchers] for the foreseeable future until we need to make a change," Wren said. "We kind of planned that out over the last week or so when we got to this point."
While the Braves were not shocked to learn former setup man Jonny Venters needed to undergo Tommy John surgery this past Thursday, they certainly were not expecting to learn O'Flaherty could face the same fate just one day after Walden went down.
Left-hander Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin will serve as closer Craig Kimbrel's top setup men in O'Flaherty's absence. The club expects Walden will be ready to rejoin the bullpen May 27, when he is eligible to come off the disabled list.
"Historically, teams went with 11 pitchers, that was the norm," Wren said. "It's just in recent years, with the use of bullpens, we've seen 12-man staffs be the norm. So, until you have that real extended, whether it's an extra-inning game or your long man has to fill in and do a four- or five-inning stint, you really don't need that 12th guy. That 12th guy is almost always a safety valve."
O'Flaherty lands on DL, slated to see Dr. Andrews
ATLANTA -- Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez were worried when head athletic trainer Jeff Porter called late Friday night to inform them Eric O'Flaherty was feeling some spasms in his left elbow.
Their concerns turned to discouragement Saturday, when an MRI exam showed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of O'Flaherty's left elbow. They placed him on the 15-day disabled list Saturday, and O'Flaherty will visit Dr. James Andrews within the next few days to learn whether he will need to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.
"Obviously, you're hoping it's just a sprain and a short DL stint, and you get him back fairly quickly," Wren said. "But it doesn't look like that's going to be the case."
When O'Flaherty surrendered a home run in the eighth inning of Friday night's 8-5 win against the Dodgers, he extended his recent struggles. The 28-year-old reliever allowed three earned runs and six hits in the 6 1/3 innings he pitched in May. But before Friday, the Braves were not too concerned about his elbow.
"He's had some tenderness, but not anything abnormal," Wren said. "But last night, after he threw, and actually, after we all left -- I got a call leaving last night, I was halfway home -- that he came back in after starting to do his postgame workout, that he had some abnormal soreness."
O'Flaherty established himself as one of baseball's top relievers when he posted a 0.98 ERA in a career-high 78 appearances during the 2011 season. He compiled a 1.73 ERA in 64 appearances last year and allowed only two earned runs in the 11 2/3 innings he threw during this season's first month.
The discouraging development came only 48 hours after Andrews performed a second Tommy John surgery on Jonny Venters, who teamed with O'Flaherty to serve as Atlanta's primary setup men over the past few years.
To make room for Jason Heyward's return from the disabled list Friday, the Braves opted to go with a six-man bullpen by placing right-handed reliever Jordan Walden on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Wren said he expects Walden to be available when he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 27. The Braves also could soon activate veteran right-handed reliever Luis Ayala, who has been sidelined for nearly a month because of an anxiety disorder.
Despite losing some key relievers over the past few days, Wren said the team will stick with a six-man bullpen until forced to make a change because of an abundant workload or other circumstances, such as an extra-inning game. The Braves recalled rookie right-hander Cory Rasmus from Triple-A Gwinnett to take O'Flaherty's roster spot and provide some bullpen depth.
"We're going to start getting some veteran bullpen arms back that can take some of the pressure off," Wren said. "But it's hard when you lose two guys [Venters and O'Flaherty] like we've lost. We're waiting to see exactly how long Eric's going to be out, but it's not going to be a week or two."
While the Braves are excited about what Alex Wood has done with Double-A Mississippi this season, they do not plan to promote him to Atlanta's bullpen any time soon. The left-hander, who was pitching at the University of Georgia at this time last year, will continue to serve as a starter with Mississippi.
"I don't think we need to disrupt the development of players at this point," Wren said. "We've got to let them continue to develop and grow. He's doing really well, but we're not at the point where we think that would be advantageous to him or us."
Gattis' heroics force Fredi to find him playing time
ATLANTA -- Now that All-Star catcher Brian McCann and right fielder Jason Heyward have returned from their extended stints on the disabled list, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez faces the challenge of finding playing time for Evan Gattis.
With the Braves currently working with a six-man bullpen, there has been reason to wonder if they might stop carrying three catchers by sending Gattis back to the Minors. But those thoughts seemed to disappear as Gattis drilled a decisive two-run, pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning of Saturday night's 3-1 win against the Dodgers at Turner Field.
"It's almost better that you can put him wherever you want in a situation, but sooner or later, we need to get him three to four at-bats," Gonzalez said after Saturday's win. "You can't go from pinch-hit to pinch-hit and survive in the big leagues."
Gattis hit .261 with seven home runs while serving as the primary catcher through the first 30 games this season. The 26-year-old rookie started in left field in six of the first 10 games after McCann returned from offseason shoulder surgery on May 6.
But with Heyward returning to the lineup Friday for the first time since his April 22 appendectomy, there is no longer a regular spot in the lineup for Gattis. His opportunities to play left field and first base are blocked by Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman, and his opportunities to catch are blocked by McCann and Gerald Laird, who has served as the primary backup since McCann returned.
"The guys that you can play [Gattis] for are pretty good players," Gonzalez said. "Do you take Justin [Upton] out? Or do you take [Freddie] Freeman out and let [Gattis] play first? You've got McCann and Laird [catching]."
With all of that said, Gonzalez seems determined to find playing time for Gattis, who has hit eight home runs and collected six-game-winning RBIs through the first 116 at-bats of his career. Both of his pinch-hit home runs were game winners.
"You have to pitch [to] him," Gonzalez said. "You make a mistake, and he can run you out of the ballpark from foul pole to foul pole."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.