Jeremy Walker’s career in the minor leagues before the 2019 season had been largely pedestrian. The Braves’ 5th round pick in the 2016 draft out of Gardner-Webb had a career ERA in the minors around 4.00 before 2019 where he was used primarily as a starter, but his performance as a reliever took him from a Double-A also-ran to the major leagues.
What went right in 2019?
The short answer is a LOT. Walker always had the velocity to succeed against professionals, but his pre-2019 offerings were often flat and hittable. As a result, he was fairly easy to square up as a starter and that combined with iffy at times command led to less than desirable results.
However, after starting the season being handcuffed to Patrick Weigel’s starts in Double-A as Weigel worked to build his innings back up, Jeremy began to excel. He missed bats at a much greater rate and as his innings per appearance went down, his stuff played up more and more and his command improved considerably. Finally, after striking out 57 in 58.2 IP against just five (!!) walks, he got bumped up to Triple-A Gwinnett in July. While the walks did creep back up a bit in Triple-A, the Braves liked what they saw enough to promote him to the majors at the end of July. While he never saw much playing time in Atlanta, he performed reasonably well and the Braves kept bringing him back as he was recalled from the minors a total of three times in 2019.
The most encouraging thing about Walker’s 2019 season (other than his otherworldly walk rate in Double-A) was his ability to limit the long ball. He gave up just three all season (90.2 IP) which, given the current playing environment, is a big plus in his column. He has never been a guy who has given up a ton of homers, but the development was an encouraging one nonetheless.
What went wrong in 2019?
The biggest was just the lack of playing time. Despite the Braves’ struggles with their bullpen, Walker was still only able to get six appearances in the majors. A big part of this was just that he could be optioned easily while others couldn’t, but if there was a disappointment from 2019...that would be it.
Another thing that, if he is going to stick as a reliever, is going to have to improve is that he is going to have to do a better job against lefty bats because competition for ROOGYs and roster spots is too tough for him to be a suspect play against them. Lefties have always done well against him and even in 2019, that was the case. Assuming that his walk rate from Double-A is unsustainable (it is), he will have to miss more bats and get better on balls in play. Given his splits, his performance against lefties is the most obvious area for improvement in that regard.
What to expect in 2020?
Given that Walker is cheap and is better than several other options that are more likely to get shown the door in 2020, the smart money is that he is in the Braves organization for the 2020 season unless he gets thrown into a trade. He does have the ability to be a long man or start, so that both makes him appealing to keep around as well as as a potential trade piece. Plus, he is a pre-arb guy so their the financial considerations are minimal.
All of that said, the most likely course seems to be that he will be one of what should be a lot of candidates competing for a bullpen job in spring training. Unless he blows everyone away, starting the season in Triple-A and remaining just a phone call away seems like the most likely outcome.