Healthy A.J. Minter striving for breakout season in Atlanta bullpen

Perhaps no reliever in Atlanta Braves camp this spring brings as much excitement to the table as left-hander A.J. Minter. A strikeout machine with electric stuff and the mentality to match, Minter’s only major hurdle to reaching his potential has been getting healthy.

And that’s a designation he’s been striving for over the past three years.

Minter, 24, has lit up the radar gun and piled up the punch-outs over the past few seasons, including an impressive stint with Atlanta in 2017. Despite eye-popping numbers that included an average of 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 big league appearances, Minter was still reestablishing himself after Tommy John surgery during his final season at Texas A&M in 2015.

A few other assorted maladies had cost him time as well, but for the first time in the last three seasons, Minter was finally able to head into a winter in which he would not spend the bulk of his time rehabbing from an injury. That was a relief for the young lefty reliever.

For the first time in a long time, Minter was able to focus solely on training.

“I feel real good,” Minter said upon reporting to camp this spring. “It was an offseason where I could kind of sit back and just kind of work on my body, listen to my body and make sure it’s healthy and ready for 162 games this year. That’s the ultimate goal.”

The burden of working his way back from injury and all of the uncertainty that comes with it is something that Minter was happy to leave behind this winter. He got to be a normal pitcher having a normal winter.

And just what is that like?

“It’s new to me, so I couldn’t really tell you,” said Minter. “It’s my first time having a true offseason where I can go in and rest for that first month, eat whatever I want and kind of relax that first month, but by the time the end of October came I was back working out.”

The opportunity to get into a regular routine was not lost on Minter, who brought a wealth of knowledge gleaned from having to go through the extensive rehab programs in recent years. That experience helped Minter tailor his regimen to achieve the results he wanted.

“I didn’t start throwing until December,” he said. “The difference was lifting smarter. Rather than lifting heavy weights, I’d get in there and focus on what I need to get ready for this year.”

Utilizing an upper-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider, Minter’s minor league numbers illustrate just how dominant he can be. He posted a 2.77 ERA while striking out 77 men in 59 innings and holding opponents to a .182 batting average in the minors.

Minter parlayed those numbers into big league success, but not before having to work out a few kinks with Triple-A Gwinnett. When the call came to join Atlanta, he felt ready for the challenge.

“That first month in the big leagues felt like a whole year, it really did,” said Minter of his late-season call-up. “I learned so much and it felt like forever up there. It’s definitely something to remember for the rest of my life. But before that, in Triple-A, I struggled. I remember there were seven consecutive outings where I was giving up runs. And I couldn’t figure out what it was. I didn’t know if it was mechanically or mentally. Honestly, what it came down to was just confidence.

“I didn’t have confidence at Triple-A. I was trying to do too much and trying to catch up from half the year I lost rehabbing. I was trying to do too much. I was trying to impress people and I got outside of myself. Then I remember it was three good outings in a row and I got called up just like that. So it was definitely a learning experience, that’s for sure.”

With some big league innings under his belt, Minter enters spring training vying for a prominent role in the Braves bullpen in 2018. Atlanta has been cautious with Minter’s workload and he will have to prove he is capable of throwing on consecutive days on a regular basis, something he has done just once in his professional career.

His manager, Brian Snitker, is already a believer in the potential impact a healthy Minter could make in Atlanta’s relief corps.

“I think we saw it last year,” said Snitker. “He was healthy at the end, but we were aware of how we used him. If you look at his numbers last year, strikeouts per innings pitched and that whole thing was pretty good. You watch him on tape and you see this kid has got a chance of being special.”

In order for Minter to make an impact, he knows there’s one major key to success.

“Just to stay healthy this year,” said Minter. “It might be kind of selfish goal to have, but I’m just here to help this team as much as I can. And that means me staying healthy the whole year, not missing any outings and just doing my role wherever that is.”

Minter has the stuff to be a late-inning force, but with Arodys Vizcaino around, the ninth inning duties may not be up for grabs. Even if the closer’s job belongs to someone else, Minter knows there are plenty of important outs to be accounted for.

“Whether that’s in the sixth inning or getting some late innings to close a game out, I’ll be here to do my job. Get one out or three outs,” said Minter of the bullpen competition. “It’s a great thing to have, it’s a great problem to have. We’re all here to support each other and push each other, so it’s awesome to have someone there to push you forward and make you better as a player and as a teammate.”

Minter may have walked through the door last spring as a relative unknown with tempered expectations, but won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. He returns armed with big league experience and the confidence he can get the job done against major league hitters. Snitker felt fortunate to get a sneak preview of Minter’s arsenal in 2017.

“I had just heard about him,” Snitker said of last spring’s look at Minter. “You see things the year before where he’s literally striking out the side on nine pitches and things like that. Talking to guys who played behind him, it was really impressive what they had to say and then we saw him and how he handled things. The stuff is really good. He’s got a chance of being absolutely electric, and like I said, playing a big part in our bullpen.”

The Braves have battled through challenging times during the current rebuild, but now the club is finally seeing many of the great young players that were drafted and acquired to build the future all converging on Atlanta. A wave of talent is in big league camp this year, knocking on the door.

“As a team, you know people are saying ‘it’s still a rebuilding year’ but we have a pretty damn good team,” said Minter. “It’s young, but it’s exciting to see. Getting to play with all these guys going up through the system, it’s just a chemistry that I feel is unique.”

With opportunity knocking, it’s up to Minter and others to answer.

“At the end of the day, it’s a new year, a new challenge ahead,” said Minter. “The goal is just to pick up where I left off. I’m coming into this spring training ready to rock and roll and just excited to get this year going.”

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