The Braves had another big free-agent departure Wednesday when reliever Eric O'Flaherty signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Oakland Athletics, an exit not unexpected in the Braves' front office.
Arguably the best left-handed reliever in baseball over the past few seasons, O'Flaherty missed most of the 2013 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and isn't expected to be ready until June.
The Braves hoped to keep him, but general manager Frank Wren told O'Flaherty after the season that they would make only a one-year offer because of the surgery, and the offer would be on the table if he wanted to check around and see what else was out there on the free-agent market.
His deal with the A's, who might eventually move him to the closer role, includes incentives that could push the total to $10 million.
"The Braves were pretty awesome about the whole thing," O'Flaherty said. "Honestly, I would have loved to come back. We kind of discussed an amount that teams would have to beat the Braves' offer by for me to go. It wasn't going to be easy for them to beat the Braves on a one-year deal. But when (Oakland) offers that kind of contract, it's hard to turn down."
Another factor weighed into the decision: O'Flaherty, a Seattle resident, married Heather Gualco on Dec. 15, and said they found out this month that her mother has lung cancer. She lives in Washington, and O'Flaherty said it would be important for the couple to be closer to her mother during the difficult months ahead.
O'Flaherty said the A's called the same day of the diagnosis, and he couldn't help but think God had a hand in it.
He's the third key veteran to leave the Braves as a free agent this winter, after pitcher Tim Hudson, who went to the Giants on a two-year, $23 million contract, and catcher Brian McCann, who got a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees.
O'Flaherty had a 1.95 ERA during 2009-12 for the Braves, averaging 69 appearances. He had a remarkable 0.98 ERA in 2011 in a career-high 78 appearances -- lowest ERA in history for a pitcher in 75 or more games. He teamed with lefty Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel to form what was the best relief trio in baseball for a couple of seasons.
Venters and O'Flaherty had elbow surgeries within a week of each other, and arbitration-eligible Venters was re-signed to a one-year, $1.625 million contract, same as he made in 2013. Venters could be back by June.
O'Flaherty was a major contributor both on the mound and in the clubhouse. Teammates said he set an example that younger relievers followed with his work habits and his exhaustive physical and mental preparation. His personality and humor were part of a particularly good bullpen chemistry.
"They were fine without me last year; it's not like things were going to fall apart," O'Flaherty said. "That bullpen is pretty stacked. I don't blame them for not wanting to go two years (on a new contract)."
O'Flaherty's exit leaves the Braves with only one incumbent lefty reliever, Luis Avilan, until Venters returns. They also have lefty hopeful Ryan Buchter, who had 103 strikeouts in 62 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett and limited lefties to a .124 average.
Wren said earlier that the Braves could get by with one lefty reliever if need be, citing the effectiveness of right-handers Jordan Walden and David Carpenter against lefty hitters.
Among the bigger waiver-wire success stories in recent memory, O'Flaherty was claimed from the Mariners after the 2008 season. He had a 1.32 ERA and five homers allowed in 154 appearances from the beginning of 2011 through April 2013.
He gave up three runs and two homers in seven May appearances before the elbow ligament came apart. ------ (c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com Distributed by MCT Information Services