Eric O’Flaherty is coming home — sort of.
O’Flaherty, a 2003 Walla Walla High School grad who began his Major League Baseball career with the Seattle Mariners in 2006, is back in the American League West after five successful seasons with the Atlanta Braves.
The left-handed relief pitcher signed a two-year free-agent contract on Wednesday with the Oakland Athletics. The deal is worth $7 million.
O’Flaherty is still recovering from a season-ending left elbow injury last May that resulted in Tommy John surgery. He is about eight months into a recovery process that usually takes 12-18 months for pitchers.
“It was an opportunity, with a guy coming off an injury, to potentially get a good deal,” A’s assistant general manager David Forst said of the O’Flaherty signing. “When he’s healthy, he’s been one of the best left-handed relievers in the game the last three years.”
Over the past three seasons, O’Flaherty’s 1.45 ERA in 161 appearances is the lowest among all relievers in baseball with 125 or more innings pitched.
Working exclusively out of the bullpen, O’Flaherty boasts a career 2.85 earned run average and a 1.243 WHIP over 319 1/3 innings pitched. He has struck out 245 batters and has a 20-9 won-lost record.
He was at his best in 2011 when he recorded a 0.98 ERA, had a 1.086 WHIP and struck out 67 in 73 2/3 innings. He followed up in 2012 with a 1.73 ERA, a 1.151 WHIP and fanned 46 in 57 1/3 innings.
The A’s put O’Flaherty through a thorough physical examination before the signing and Forst said the A’s are pleased with the pitcher’s progress. Furthermore, a National League scout who has watched O’Flaherty extensively doesn’t anticipate any problems with the lefty’s recovery.
“I always thought of him as a strong, durable guy,” the scout said. “I would think that he would bounce back pretty well.”
When O’Flaherty suffered the injury last May, it ended his first free-agent season and clouded his baseball future. But the Walla Walla native vowed he would make his return.
And while he hoped he could remain in Atlanta, he realized he might be required to relocate.
“You want to be somewhere you have had success and know everybody,” he said at the time. “I love the people in Atlanta. They have taken care of me.
“We will see what happens. They have a lot of good young guys in that bullpen and I don’t know if they want to take a chance on me or not. Hopefully they do.
“But someone will take a chance,” O’Flaherty said. “And in this case it’s not a very big chance, because I think that I will be even better than before.”
That someone, it turns out, is Oakland.
An added bonus for O’Flaherty is that he is going from one contender to another.
Oakland has won the last two American League West titles while the Braves are the defending National League East champs and have qualified for the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. Both teams figure to contend again in 2014.
And although O’Flaherty wasn’t available for comment, his decision to sign with the A’s probably came down to years. Since he is expected to miss a sizeable chunk of the 2014 season, O’Flaherty is guaranteed 2015 to prove that he is all the way back from the injury.
And at the end of 2015, he will become a free agent again with the ability to negotiate a new contract.
In the meantime, he’s back on the West Coast. And that means three trips each year to Seattle, where he began his big league career and where Walla Walla fans will have the opportunity to watch him pitch in person.
It’s doubtful O’Flaherty will be in uniform when the A’s visit Safeco Field for the first time for a three-game series April 11-13. There’s a much better chance he’ll be part of the team July 11-12-13 and Sept. 12-13-14 for Oakland’s other two trips to the Pacific Northwest.