Braves Transactions: Walden, or Life in the Bullpen

11/12 – Atlanta Braves sign RHP Jordan Walden to a minor league contract worth $1M – $3M if he reaches the majors.

Jordan Walden (Jamie Sabau / Getty Images North America)
Jordan Walden (Jamie Sabau / Getty Images North America)

Economy

“Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Walden, or Life In the Woods

A minor league deal is rarely a financial risk, and that’s no different in Walden’s case. If Walden makes the Braves roster, he’ll receive a base salary of $1M for the 2017 season, with incentives that could push the salary all the way to $3M. I would guess those incentives are tied to things like innings pitched or games finished. Basically, if Walden is an important part of a bullpen in 2017, he’ll probably be paid closer to $3M than $1M.

Where He Lived, and What He Lived For

“and there I did live, for an hour, a summer and a winter life; saw how I could let the years run off, buffet the winter through, and see the spring come in.”

Walden burst onto the scene with Anaheim as a rookie closer in 2011, saving 32 games with 10.0 K/9, a good ERA (2.89), and good DRA (3.39) and FIP (2.83) to back it up. In 2012, he was no longer tasked with closing games, but he was still effective: 3.46 ERA, 3.59 DRA, 2.97 FIP, 11.1 K/9. After the season, he was traded to Atlanta for Tommy Hanson. In his first stint in Atlanta, Walden was reliably effective, consistent with what he’d done in Southern California. Traded along with Jason Heyward to the Cardinals in the ’14-’15 offseason, Walden was a massive disappointment in St. Louis. After 10 effective April innings in ’15, Walden missed the rest of the season with shoulder stiffness that turned into a shoulder strain which never healed. He missed 2016 with a strained lat muscle.

{Editor Note: DRA is “Deserved Run Average“, a stat created and maintained by the great guys over at Baseball Prospectus. Essentially, it’s a way to determine which runs are solely the fault of the pitcher. Give it a read, because it’s a great concept. – CJ}

Reading

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”

When Walden was traded to St. Louis, the folks at Viva El Birdos did a nice Pitch F/X profile of him. Read it here. It’s pretty good.

Sounds

“Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside”

One fun sound you’ll hear at ballparks when Walden pitches comes from opposing dugouts. If you listen closely, you can hear opponents screaming “BALK!”, hoping umpires will penalize Walden for his unusual hopping motion. One can hear a baseball whistling through the air. One can hear that same mid-90’s fastball popping against the leather of the catcher’s mitt. I like these sounds. One could also hear bad sounds, though, sounds like “Ow, my shoulder!” Or, conversely, “Ow, my back!” Or “Ow, my elbow!” Staying on the field hasn’t been the easiest thing for Walden, you see.

Solitude

“To be alone was something unpleasant.”

This decade (2010-2016), only one pitcher has had an ERA under 4 and a K/9 of at least 10 in every season they pitched without being a closer for multiple seasons. That pitcher is Jordan Walden, who hasn’t been as trusted in the 9th as the other pitchers to exclusively go sub-4 and 10-plus in that timeframe: Koji Uehara, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, and Kenley Jansen.

Visitors

“I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life;”

Walden grew up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and counts among his friends two contemporaries from his youth: Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Stafford. While he may not be the greatest pitcher from Dallas, he is at least the best to have graduated from Mansfield HS.

The Bean-Field

“My enemies are worms”

Brooks Baseball describes Walden’s fastball as “a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of ground balls.”

The Village

“under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs”

He won’t displace Jim Johnson or Arodys Vizcaino, but a path to a bullpen role should be clear for Walden, if he’s healthy. Mauricio Cabrera will probably be in the ‘pen, but his 2016 DRA (4.76) suggests his ERA & FIP may have been misleading, and he’s had command problems in the past. Plus, Cabrera has an option remaining. Jose Ramirez won’t roadblock anyone with Walden’s track record. The same goes for Chris Withrow, who is in his 2nd year of arbitration and, like Ramirez, had a misleading ERA in ’16 (5.56 DRA). With his recent injury history, Walden’s no more a sure thing than the others, but he has some history of considerable success at the MLB level, so if he’s healthy, he’ll have a place.

The Ponds

“But now I had made my home by the shore.”

If Walden is assigned to AAA Gwinnett, he’ll be something of a big fish in a small pond. After Walden, Gwinnett’s reliever with the most MLB success could very well be Chaz Roe.

Buford Farm

“I should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state”

If, in Buford, Walden churns out a sparkling ERA due to low HR rates, don’t be overly excited. Gwinnett is one of the toughest environments for home run hitting in the International League. In fact, it’s a significant pitcher’s park compared to most minor league venues.

Higher Laws

“In earlier ages, in some countries, every function was reverently spoken of and regulated by law.”

Is it a balk? There’s some disagreement, but it doesn’t really get called. As long as things stay that way, we can all sit back, judge for ourselves, and enjoy the King of Hops.

Brute Shoulders

“Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter.

While I’m excited about Walden’s return to the Atlanta organization, the last place he had considerable success, I urge caution. Shoulder strains and injuries can be bad news, and they often portend the beginning of the end of a career. While none of us want that for Jordan, it can’t be ruled out as a possibility, unfortunately. His velocity will be something to watch in training camp. If he’s pumping gas again, the rest of the rebound might follow. If he’s sitting in the high 80’s, he might not see Buford.

House Warming

“It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood”

Jordan Walden has never batted in the major leagues. 243 games into his career, you’d think some strange situation might have presented itself, but it hasn’t. Since his debut season of 2010, Walden is only tied for the 39th most appearances among players without a plate appearance. The most? Joe Smith has appeared in 466 games over the last 7 seasons, and he hasn’t batted in a single one (he did, however, bat in his rookie and sophomore seasons with the Mets).

Former Inhabitants

“For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods.”

How did Atlanta’s minor league deal, veteran spring training invites fare last season? David Carpenter (the one that was good for our good teams, not bad for our bad one) didn’t make it out of camp. Jhoulys Chacin made the team and made 5 starts before Atlanta traded him to Anaheim for prospects. David Holmberg was cut and wound up playing minor league ball in the White Sox system. Kyle Kendrick wound up, like Chacin, with the Angels, albeit in their minor leagues. Alexi Ogando made the roster and proceeded to walk 6.5 batters per 9. Alex Torres was cut and spent the year with San Francisco’s AAA affiliate, where he had a 9.03 Deserved Run Average. Chris Volstad was cut, signed with the White Sox, and started 27 games for the Charlotte Knights. Unsurprisingly, it was a mixed bag.

Winter Animals

“They tell me that if the fox would remain in the bosom of the frozen earth he would be safe,”

A year ago, Walden entered camp full of optimism. While St. Louis reportedly approached him about a surgery to correct some problems, he instead adopted a training schedule he implemented back home in Dallas. I don’t know if it worked, but Walden didn’t pitch in 2016. And to make matters worse, he failed to show up for a rehab assignment in September. It was a disappointing end to his Cardinals career. I don’t know if we’ll hear about a 2016-2017 offseason rehab, but if we do, take it with a grain of salt.

The Pond in Winter

“Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work”

As the workers finish constructing SunTrust Park over this winter, the biggest question seems to be how the park will play. As we mentioned earlier, Walden could look good in Gwinnett, where home runs are hard to come by. Will that be the case at STP? It’s hard to say, but with a projected 16-foot fence stretching from right-center to the right-field foul line, lefty batters may struggle to reach the seats. It’s all speculation, of course, but at this point, it’s all we have. Executives expect it to play similarly to Turner Field (neutral to pitchers or hitters) because, while the fence is high, it’s closer, moved in by 15 feet or so. If Walden plays there, his groundballing nature could offset any surprises the park has in store.

Spring

“I am on the alert for the first signs of spring”

In 92 days, we’ll see them. They can’t arrive quickly enough.

Conclusion

“There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

Are you sure you didn’t mean SunTrust, Mr. Thoreau? Whether it’s the dawn of a new stage of Jordan Walden’s career, or the Atlanta Braves in general, there is hope in signings like this. Spring Training invites, minor league deals, these are the feel-good moves of winter. They reek of optimism, optimism we annually talk ourselves into, even if we know better. I welcome more of these moves, fully knowing they’re more likely to go the way of Kyle Kendrick than Jhoulys Chacin. They have me thinking about Jordan Walden’s fastball a full 19 months after he last threw one. That’s absurd, and it also happens to be what’s awesome about baseball.

Go Braves, and best of luck to Jordan Walden.

About Brent Blackwell 172 Articles

Brent Blackwell also writes for College Football By The Numbers at www.cfbtn.com.

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