Well, the Atlanta Braves have certainly changed the face of their starting rotation this offseason. After aging themselves a combined 85 years in a one-week span in November with the signing of 43 year old Bartolo Colon and 42 year old RA Dickey, they started December off obtaining another veteran. The Braves picked up Jaime Garcia from the Cardinals for Luke Dykstra, Chris Ellis, and John Gant.
Garcia, of course, has had an injury-plagued run with the Cardinals. The now-30 year old lefty has been up and down in his eight years with St. Louis, at times — when healthy — showing signs of brilliance and other times being in the doghouse for inconsistencies. He made his first 30-start season last year in four seasons and after coming off of an impressive 2015, he struggled to a 10-13 record, with a 4.67 ERA and 1.38 WHIP with just 150 strikeouts in 171.2 innings pitched.
Any haul for an oft-injured pitcher could be considered a good one, so who did the Cardinals get?
The Braves acquired Rob Whalen and John Gant at the 2015 trade deadline for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. After Whalen left for Seattle in last week’s Alex Jackson deal, neither are in the Braves’ future plans.
Our own John Sickels labeled the 6-foot-5, 205 pound righty one of his sleepers coming into the season, and he did reach the big leagues this season pitching primarily out of the bullpen to somewhat lackluster results sandwiched around a nearly month-long DL stint. Drafted by the Mets in 21st round back in 2011, it took Gant awhile to get above Low-A ball — four years to be precise — but pitched well in both the High-A FSL and Southern League of Double-A once he came over to the Braves.
Gant doesn’t have knock-you-out stuff, but he seems like he can make it work behind his uniquely awkward delivery. He has a fastball that falls in the 88 to 91 mile per hour range, a sinking change up and an ever-evolving curve, all of which he has learned to throw for strikes. As already mentioned, his big league debut wasn’t spectacular — 1-4, 4.39 FIP, and an 8.82 strikeout per nine rate to a 3.78 walks per nine rate, as well as a frightening 1.26 home run per nine rate — but the 24 year old did show he had big league stuff.
He could still be a serviceable back-end of the rotation guy, but a future out of the bullpen seems more likely. Expect him to compete for a roster spot immediately.
Dykstra played through an injury-riddled 2016 for the SAL Champion Rome Braves. Thus far he has proven to be a solid contact hitter, who can put the bat on the ball very regularly. There simply isn’t a lot of power behind it.
Despite being a solid contact hitter, Dykstra has had his critics over the years. He doesn’t strikeout a ton, striking out just eight percent of the time since being a seventh rounder back in 2014. He also doesn’t walk a whole lot, as evidence by his .335 career on base percentage, drawing just 23 career walks in his first 749 plate appearances. Thus, he consistently gets the bat on the ball, carrying a career .300 average, but just 25 percent of his career hits have gone for extra bases, with just two of them being home runs.
He’s quick enough (17 stolen bases in 23 career attempts) and scrappy like his father before him. I caught up with Dykstra the night before he went on the DL to end his season in August and liked what I saw and heard. He has the drive to succeed, the question is whether he will. Still just 21, there isn’t much hope that more power will develop, but if he can improve his on base skills, he could etch out a role as a solid utility infielder in the not so distant future.
Ellis, like Whalen and Gant, didn’t get to spend much time acclimating himself to the rebuilding Braves. The Los Angeles Angels 2014 third rounder came over with Sean Newcomb in the Andrelton Simmons deal. The 24 year old righty had a solid 2016 in Double-A Mississippi this year before struggling a bit in a promotion to Gwinnett.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander has a three-pitch arsenal. John describes his fastball as one which sits in the 90 to 94 range with some sink, despite the fact that Ellis seems to have settled in as a fly-ball pitcher behind a career 0.67 ground out to air out rate. He mixes in a very effective power slider along with a changeup, both of which seem to garner mix results depending on whom you speak with.
Ellis’ big concern is his command, and that didn’t change in 2016. He can certainly miss bats with a career 8.16 strikeout per nine rate, but he has constantly struggled with consistency with a 4.70 walks per nine rate. He posted the best ERA of his young career this season in Mississippi at a 2.78 mark, however a 3.63 FIP tells the better story. There is certainly promise for Ellis, and he wouldn’t be the first pitching prospect to find success in the Cardinals system, but he will likely need more time in Memphis to start the season.
He pitched out of the bullpen for two seasons at University of Mississippi, so despite 56 of his professional appearances being starts, he could be better served out of the bullpen with some past experience there. Expect to see his big league debut at some point this year.
(This article ran on John Sickels’ Minor League Ball).