When the Braves sent pitcher Kris Medlen to the minors a few days ago, significantly different conversations were going on in the clubhouses involved.
At Turner Field, the talk centered on how quickly Medlen could “stretch out” his arm and transition from reliever to starter, thereby rescuing the team’s rotation. At the minor league confines of Coolray Field in Gwinnett, the questions centered on whether this unofficially signaled the end of Jair Jurrjens’ career as a Brave.
“I understand it’s a business, and they need to do what they need to do,” said Jurrjens, less than a year removed from being an All-Star. “But you have feelings, and it hurts when you feel like you’re not wanted somewhere.”
And that’s what it feels like?
“If I say no, I’m lying. When you’re doing good, everybody loves you. When you’re doing bad, everybody hates you.
“You hear stuff. When the Medlen stuff happened, people around here, my teammates, were like, ‘Wow, they didn’t even think to call you back up?’ People were asking me, ‘Did they say anything to you?’ It just shows me what I mean to them. It doesn’t feel good, but that’s OK. It’s business.”
Few athletes have suffered such a dramatic career U-turn as Jurrjens. At this time a year ago, he was among the better pitchers in baseball. He went 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA in 16 starts in the first half of the season and was selected to the All-Star game. He was the National League’s pitcher of the month for May after posting a 1.65 ERA in six starts. He was the first Braves starter since Greg Maddux (1994) to start the season with 11 consecutive “quality” starts. His ERA through those 11 starts: 1.82.
Then came the slide. Jurrjens’ right knee began to hurt. He lost strength in his leg. He altered his delivery to try to compensate and messed up his mechanics. He made only seven starts in the second half, going 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA. The problems carried over into this season. Jurrjens made four starts lasting a combined 16 1/3 innings (0-2, 9.37) before being optioned to Gwinnett.
Being sent down wasn’t traumatic for Jurrjens. To the contrary: “It was easier to accept because I knew I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing to help the team out, and I needed to work to get my strength back in my leg. It was probably the best thing that happened to me.”
But what now?
Jurrjens believes he has made progress. Leg strength has come back. Pitching velocity has ticked up. It showed Sunday when he threw eight shutout innings at Rochester.
But he woke up ill Thursday. He spent much of the day passed out on a trainer’s table at the stadium, got up later only for an interview, then went home before the game.
The problem: “Everything,” he said. “Sinus, fever, stomach.”
He was still sick and looked pale Friday but decided to start anyway. Why?
“I felt committed,” he said.
The last thing he needed was for the organization to think he wouldn’t try to pitch sick. But it backfired. He had no velocity or movement on his pitches against Charlotte and was hammered for six earned runs (10 total) and 12 hits in 4 2/3 innings. The fact that manager Dave Brundage left him in seemed like torture.
“I couldn’t even catch my breath,” Jurrjens said.
His strong start last week caught the attention of some scouts, but he doesn’t sense any interest from the Braves. Friday obviously didn’t help. His confidence has taken a shot.
Medlen was designated as the man on deck for the Braves’ rotation. Nor did it help when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez grew uncomfortable a few weeks ago when reporters kept asking for updates on Jurrjens’ status, and he responded: “Without making it sound cruel, he’s a minor league player right now.”
Brundage said Jurrjens’ assignment never was expected to be “short term.”
The Braves shopped Jurrjens in the winter, but his market value was down coming off the injury and a poor second half. It’s logical to assume he’s still available.
“All I can control is my performance,” he said. “If I’m not in their plans, I’ll move on. But I’m not a Triple-A pitcher.”
His first four-plus seasons in the majors indicated as much. But it has been a rough road since, and it’s clear to him now that he’s off the Braves’ radar.
By Jeff Schultz