Braves: Kirby Yates thinks he can still turn back the clock

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The Braves bullpen will be the most competitive of all the roster’s position battles because there are legitimately 13 major league relievers to fill eight spots in the bullpen, and the high upside arms like Kirby Yates make it even more tantalizing of a group.

Yates broke out in his first full season with the Padres, posting a 2.14 ERA and saving 12 games in 65 appearances. In the following season, all he did was record a minuscule 1.19 ERA and 0.890 WHIP with 41 saves and 101 strikeouts in 60 games, earning All-Star honors and Cy Young recognition. However, like most of us, 2020 wasn’t kind to Yates, who would eventually undergo Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entire 2021 season. 

When the Braves signed him back in Nov. 2021, it was expected he would miss most of the 2022 campaign, which is why his contract is structured the way it is — $1 million salary in 2022, $6 million in 2023, and a $5.75 million club option in 2024.

Yates made his debut for the Braves in August and would go on to throw in nine games, going seven innings while giving up four earned runs. Eventually, he was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation, ending his season. He looked like a shell of himself, but the former 26th round draft pick is feeling much better as he distances himself from the Tommy John surgery.

“Just being able to relax and not worry about a whole lot of things,” Yates said, via AJC. “It was a lot of uncertainty last year. There was the uncertainty of, how’s my arm gonna feel, am I going to be healthy? And two, am I gonna be able to get guys out?

Being healthy is one thing; being the dominant closer he was in 2019 is entirely different, but Yates believes he can turn the clock back.

“I tolerated last year, but it wasn’t exactly fun to go through (it) and not be what you were expecting to be,” Yates said, via AJC. “I think it’s a day-by-day thing, piece it together and get better. But I do believe that I can still go out there and be elite.”

One key difference from this offseason that could enable him to become a version of that 2019 pitcher is the absence of rehab. For the first time since that surgery, Yates won’t be focused on recovering from a significant injury.

The Braves aren’t expecting him to be the All-Star closer he once was. After all, the club has a spoil of riches in the bullpen. Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, Joe Jiménez, and Collin McHugh will assume a bulk of the high leverage situations. This allows players like Nick Anderson, Yates, and whoever else makes the roster to throw without as much pressure, which could result in bounce back performances for them. Yates certainly expects one.

“They expect me to be really good. I expect to be an elite guy to help this team win,” Yates said, via AJC. “If I didn’t think I could pitch at a high level still, I don’t know if I’d still be in this clubhouse.”

Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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