Now these are the droids we’re looking for. The 2020 Braves bullpen was extraordinary, and A.J. Minter was a big part of why — by far the best homegrown reliever in the pen.

It felt like it was a long time coming. Ever since before Minter got his first cup of coffee in 2017, he has had to face the impossible “next Kimbrel” hype.

Ever since I read this article six months ago, I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy of people tagged as “The Next Michael Jordan,” which sort of applies here. We haven’t had quite as many “next Kimbrels” as the NBA had “next Michael Jordans,” but if the more injured-than-brilliant Shae Simmons was Harold Miner, Minter looks like he could at least be Jerry Stackhouse.

[Disclaimer: reading over it again, the above paragraph might be illegible nonsense. Forget it; I’m rolling.]

I was surprised by a couple of things about the back of A.J. Minter’s baseball card. One is that he’s listed at six-foot-nothing; I thought he was maybe an inch or two taller.

Second is that he’s one of the only three major league pitchers born in Tyler, Texas, and the other two are ’80s Pirates RHP Lee Tunnell and our own Josh Tomlin; I thought that cities like Tyler, Texas grew fireballing pitchers like kudzu, but he’s the only player from his high school (Brook Hill in Bullard) to make the majors.

That’s the part that’s maybe a bit surprising; let’s talk about the stuff that’s not.

Minter was a member of the Braves’ very productive 2015 draft class. The Braves had five picks in the first two rounds; Minter was the last of the five, taken with their second pick in the second round, after Lucas Herbert, and right now he looks like the second-best player in the class.

The #1 pick was Kolby Allard, who blew threw the minors and was traded straight-up for relief ace Chris Martin; his first 87 major league innings have been unpromising, but he’s still just 23.

Then came #2 Mike Soroka and #3 Austin Riley. Soroka’s one of the better pitchers in the league, and Riley is at worst a bench player, which is actually a good outcome for the 41st overall pick. (The best player ever taken in that slot is Fred Lynn; the rest of the best are mostly pitchers like Dan Plesac, Sean Doolittle, Joba Chamberlain, and both Lance McCullers Sr. and Lance McCullers Jr. Riley’s power could keep him in the majors for ten years and he’d be in pretty good company with those guys.)

Back to Minter. He spent all of his freshman and sophomore years at Texas A&M in the bullpen, dealing with thoracic outlet syndrome as a freshman. He moved to the rotation for his junior year, but went down with Tommy John surgery after just four starts; the Braves took him a month later with the 75th overall pick in what may have been an overdraft for money reasons; listed him as their 143rd-ranked prospect due to his injury concerns and lack of an offspeed pitch.

But he torched the minors and got called up barely two years after the draft. As John Sickels wrote in September of that year:

Minter’s 2017 season got off to a late start due to forearm inflammation but once on the mound he was very effective once again, with a combined 3.33 ERA in 24 innings between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A with a 30/12 K/BB. In the majors so far he’s remained very impressive, fanning 12 men without a walk allowed in his first 8.2 innings of work.

Listed at 6-2, 205, Minter varies between 94 and 98 MPH with the fastball and 88-92 MPH with the slider. This is hard and nasty stuff and he locates it very well.

The only real question for Minter is durability. He threw just 58 innings over three seasons in college and just 59 over two seasons in the minors. He’s clearly ready to thrive in the majors and he’s got a shot at closing if his arm holds up.

His final stats were extraordinary: 15 innings pitched, 26 strikeouts, two walks, five earned runs, FIP- of 23. He had another good year in 2018, a 3.23 ERA / 2.72 FIP in 61.1 innings, and a very pleasant 3.14 K/BB ratio.

But the following season, 2019, was absolutely miserable. He got into an early-March car accident which led to shoulder inflammation. That stole his spring training, he was up and down in the majors and minors during the year, and he just really never did get right.

This Georgia personal injury lawyer pointed out that seemingly minor injuries following car wrecks can actually worsen over time, and that’s undoubtedly what happened; in his first 29 innings of the year, Minter’s walk rate and homer rate both doubled, pushing his ERA over 7.00, before the team finally shut him down for the season in September with shoulder inflammation.

So, Minter is now 27. He’s dealt with shoulder pain quite a bit in his career, from thoracic outlet syndrome to the inflammation in 2019 that was quite possibly car accident-related. Hopefully, the Braves medical staff will be able to treat him with kid gloves, as it’s very clear that telling him to pitch through the pain benefited neither him nor the team in 2019.

He may not have the durability to be a bellcow, but when he’s got a clean bill of health, he’s a heck of a setup man. Here’s hoping the team can manage his usage effectively and keep him that way.