On A.J. Minter, the frustration of injuries and the life of relievers

 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Being a big-time baseball prospect is a nice position to be in, no question. You’re taken good care of in the present, and as for the future, well, if things go as planned it will be lined with enough green to set up your family for at least a few generations.

But there is a flip side, as there is in most every occupation. This spring, Braves left-hander A.J. Minter has lived that.

A.J. Minter came to spring training eager to show he was ready to compete at the big-league level. But he developed inflammation in nerves in his pitching arm and was sent to the minors Thursday without throwing a pitch in a Grapefruit League game. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

His name has been bandied about since last summer as a potential future closer or at least an overpowering setup guy – in today’s game, even setup guys can make a relative fortune – and Minter came to his first major league spring training this year eager to show his stuff against big-league hitters and prove to Braves officials that he was either ready or knocking at the door.

Minter, 23, knew that, realistically, he would have to start the season in the minor leagues, since last year was his first pro season and first since returning from Tommy John elbow surgery he had while at Texas A&M. He climbed through three levels in the minor league system last year while working on a strict schedule of one appearance followed by multiple rest days, as mandated by the Braves.

As we’ve noted before, the Braves are erring on the side of caution these days with all prospects and players coming back from surgeries, and are particularly vigilant with pitchers coming back from TJ surgery, guys such as lefty starter Max Fried and Minter, each of whom rehabbed for more than 1 ½ years.

With his upper-90 mph fastball and nasty slider, Minter was dominant at each level at which he participated in 2016, posting 16 strikeouts with nine walks in a combined 16 scoreless innings at low-A Rome and high-A Carolina, then piling up 31 strikeouts with six walks in 18 2/3 innings at Double-A Mississippi while allowing 13 hits and five runs (2.41 ERA).

It worked out to a sparkling 1.30 ERA in 31 appearances with 47 strikeouts and 11 walks in 34 2/3 innings, and a puny .149 opponents’ average and .398 opponents’ OPS. Again, this was his first season after more than a year of rehab from TJ surgery. And the thing is, right-handed batters hit for an even lower average (.144 in 101 plate appearances) against him than lefty batters (.161 in 33 PAs).

That’s utterly dominant.

But again, it came while pitching just 34 2/3 innings and having at least two and many times 3-4 days of rest between appearances. So it was carefully managed dominance. In the major leagues, the Braves and other teams can’t afford to carry relievers who need multiple rest days. Which is why Minter was going to have to go to the minors for at least the first part of the season to show he could pitch well without constraints.

He was eager to do that and hoped to use the Grapefruit League schedule as a springboard before being sent to the minors.

Instead, another arm ailment prevented Minter from throwing even a single pitch in a game before he was sent down Thursday.

Immediately after reporting to spring training and beginning to ramp up his throwing program, Minter developed inflamed nerves in the outer, upper part of his left forearm. He threw one live batting-practice session in the second week of camp before being shut down after reporting numbness in his hand and fingers afterward, symptoms he’d experienced the previous couple of weeks but in this instance were worse than before.

He underwent tests before getting the diagnosis: radial tunnel syndrome, which is caused by pressure on the radial nerve, usually at the elbow. While not considered a serious injury among pitchers, it’s treated with anti-inflammatory medication and rest, and that meant Minter could only watch games and do conditioning work, anxious and frustrated.

“I worked so hard this offseason to get to compete here in spring training and show what I had, but it’s just the way it goes,” he said. “Everything has a plan. I’m just ready to prove myself all over again.”

More than two weeks passed before Minter threw off a mound again, a bullpen session Wednesday that went without incident, he said. But with minor league spring-training games beginning this week and the Braves needing to distribute innings in Grapefruit League games to their regular starters and projected relievers, the Braves have sent down most of their pitching prospects, with Minter and Fried among six pitchers in the latest round of camp roster cuts.

“I’ve just got to get healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Minter said Thursday as he pushed a shopping cart full of his equipment from the Braves’ major league clubhouse toward the minor league clubhouse. “I felt great (Wednesday), arm feels great, just got to go out and prove myself all over again. It’s not the end, we’ll be back – that’s the mindset.”

He’s barely pitched in March, and when the minor league season begins next month Minter might still be in the process of rebuilding arm strength, which could delay his season debut (he remains confident he’ll be ready when the season begins).

Braves general manager John Coppolella said at the beginning of spring training that Minter would be up with the Braves at some point this season, helping them win games. When asked Thursday if he still felt that way, Coppolella said yes.

“I’ve just got to get into a routine of throwing bullpens every two days, get arm strength back up,” Minter said. “They’re going to start me over, just build me back up from the ground, get my arm strength and where my forearm needs to be.”

Aggressiveness and confidence are two traits that the Braves love in Minter. Coupled with his obvious talent, it makes for an intriguing package with a high ceiling, as baseball scouts and officials say. There is seemingly no limit to how good Minter can be. If he can stay healthy.

The aggressiveness and confidence that attracted the Braves to Minter were also readily apparent at the outset of his first major league camp.

“Obviously the ultimate goal is to be a major league pitcher,” Minter said at the start of spring training, before the nerve condition surfaced. “But I want to be the best pitcher in major league baseball. That’s my goal and my attitude and that’s what I strive for. Yeah, hopefully sometime this year I’ll get the call up, but that’s something out of my control. I can only get better each and every day, and take this spring training to my full advantage and just get better and soak up everything here.”

On Thursday, he was sent down without getting a chance to take advantage of the would-be opportunity to show his stuff. To his credit, he didn’t lie and try to pitch with his elbow still sore. And when pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and manager Brian Snitker told him he was being sent down and what the next step was, Minter didn’t protest.

“You want to go in there 100 percent,” he said. “You don’t want to go in there hurt. So I completely agree with Chuck and Snit. Just want to be healthy.”

A second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M – his elbow surgery likely prevented him from being a first-rounder – Minter has all the qualities that make an elite relief pitcher. But until he can stay healthy, that won’t matter. And because he didn’t get a huge signing bonus out of college (he received $814,300 as the 75th overall pick) and won’t make much while in the minor leagues, a big pay day for Minter couldn’t be expected for some time. For some relievers it never comes, at least not the family-set-for-life type of contract.

Teams don’t commonly bestow multi-year deals on relief pitchers before free agency, much less before they’ve even reached their arbitration. Relievers, other than the truly elite ones, are still viewed as fungible assets in baseball. The game can be cruel that way — relievers, whose job is arguably the most demanding on the body among all players, have the least amount of security.

A guy like Minter typically has to produce for multiple years, logging a lot of dominant innings and avoiding serious injury, before he can even begin to think about a fat contract.

So, yes, while being a big-time prospect is a good station in life, with a bit of fame and the potential for fortune, it’s hardly a given for someone such as Minter. There are real-life worries and concerns, and in some ways more pressure than most of us working stiffs face due to the uncertainties, particularly for a young pitcher who already had one major arm surgery before even beginning his pro career.


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