Minter best relief prospect since Kimbrel

Braves hope lefty can make statement in Spring Training

Minter best relief prospect since Kimbrel

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Braves squad each day this week. Today's topic: Who might surprise?

When the Braves opened Spring Training in 2010, they welcomed rising prospect Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, a left-handed pitcher who had remained in relative obscurity while spending the previous six seasons within the Atlanta organization.

By the end of the 2010 season, Venters and Kimbrel were key pieces within a bullpen that helped Bobby Cox reach the playoffs during the final season of his Hall of Fame managerial career. One year later, these two relievers were part of a dominant bullpen trio that included Eric O'Flaherty, who had been relatively unknown until the Braves claimed him off waivers and brought him to camp in 2009.

Who might surprise for each club in 2017?

Given the success he had during his first full professional season last year, A.J. Minter will not be coming to his first big league Spring Training this year as an unknown underdog candidate. And if he lives up to his tremendous potential he could surprise many by giving the Braves reason to debate whether he should make an immediate leap from Double-A to the Majors, even though he worked a moderated schedule while returning from Tommy John surgery last year.

"We're going to turn him loose and there will not be any restrictions," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. "He's an impressive young man. We've certainly liked what we have seen from him."

The Braves will have more experienced relievers in camp to satisfy the expectation Minter will spend at least a little more time in the Minors. But at the same time, they plan to keep an open mind while providing as many opportunities as possible to this southpaw, who posted a 1.30 ERA and limited opponents to a .149 batting average while logging 34 2/3 innings during his first pro season last year.

Minter registered 47 strikeouts and issued 11 walks as he faced a total of 134 batters while pitching for Class A Rome, Class A Advanced Carolina and Double-A Mississippi in 2016. He surrendered five hits over the 16 scoreless innings totaled at the Class A levels and then allowed just one run over the first 15 innings he worked for Mississippi. Four of the five runs he surrendered over the entirety of the season were tallied against him during an Aug. 24 game against Biloxi.

Had Minter not undergone Tommy John surgery during the early portion of his final season with Texas A&M, there's a strong possibility he would have been taken with one of the first 30 picks in the 2015 MLB Draft. The setback affected his stock enough to allow the Braves to gladly take him with the 75th overall selection, their fifth pick of the Draft.

Minter had at least three days of rest between every appearance last year. So at this stage of his career, it would be beneficial for him to get additional time in the Minors. But he'll have a chance during Spring Training to turn some heads and show why he's the best relief prospect the Braves have had since Kimbrel.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.