The Atlanta Braves are blessed to have a pretty full starting rotation. I say blessed because of the dire need many teams have to have quality starting pitchers.
But the Braves have arguable six quality arms, with a seventh due back in midseason from an injury. Plus, there is quality depth in the minor leagues to provide even more options in the coming years.
Right now, on paper, the Braves will have Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado in the rotation. Brandon Beachy, who was on his way to the All-Star game last year before he had to have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, will be scheduled to return in July if his recovery goes well.
So for 2013, the Braves should be in excellent shape. Hudson has been a tremendous pitcher for Atlanta in his eight years with the Braves. He's 105-65 with a 3.52 ERA. While that might not be Maddux, Glavine or Smoltz numbers, Hudson has still been a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter.
He'll be 38 in July, and Hudson will be in the last year of his contract. Hudson has repeatedly stated he wants to finish his career in Atlanta, since he is so close to home. If Hudson does well in 2013, the Braves can probably get another year (or two) out of him at a decent price. He'll make $9 million in 2013, but it probably won't take that much to get him back for 2014.
And with the youth in the rotation, Hudson's experience could be beneficial.
Medlen will have to prove how dominant he can be over the course of a full season. There's no doubt Medlen was great late last season, but now he's not just someone who stepped into the rotation at the end of the year. Medlen will be counted on to be one of Atlanta's top starters from day one and to keep that role for six months.
Minor was outstanding in the last two months of the season, and many believe he's ready to become a pitcher that can win 15-20 games in 2013. The Braves stuck with Minor, despite his early season struggles. He showed signs of becoming a potential ace pitcher, and the Braves will no longer look at him as a young pitcher this season, but as a more experienced starter who is ready to have a consistent full campaign.
Maholm was decent after the Braves brought him over July 30 from the Cubs. He's a very solid number four starter for this club, and he should be able to accumulate 175 innings or more. Maholm will be in his contract year, and after he's seen what middle-of-the-rotation starters have been getting this offseason in new deals, he'll probably have even more incentive to have a solid season. With all the depth Atlanta has, it's unlikely they'd need to bring Maholm back for a long-term deal.
Both Teheran and Delgado need to be in a big league rotation. Neither needs to go back to Triple-A. Teheran has been there for two full seasons, and the Braves do not want him to go back for year three. Delgado was respectable in the Atlanta rotation last year to start the season. He received poor run support, and Delgado often had to pitch when behind on the scoreboard. But he did nothing to make you believe he cannot be a solid starter in the big leagues.
One of these two will have to go to Gwinnet, unless there in an injury to one of the other four starters. Maybe a team will tempt the Braves with a trade offer for one of the two in March, but don't expect Atlanta to just give these guys away. They still have high hopes for both Teheran and Delgado. But only one can win the fifth starter's job in spring training.
There is no reason to believe Brandon Beachy will not come back and be as good as he was last season, when he was arguably one of the top pitchers in the National League before his elbow injury. From all reports, his rehab is going well. He's a strong young man in top physical shape, and with the success of Tommy John surgery, there's no reason to believe he cannot contribute to the Braves late in the season. Once he does return, they'll be careful with him, but if Beachy can be as good as he was last year it'll be tough to hold him back.
Of course, when Beachy is ready to come back, he'll need a spot in the rotation. Sure, he was good enough last year to make you believe they'll just slide someone out and insert Beachy back in, but it's not like he's a veteran that has years of experience as an effective starting pitcher. So if all five spots are in solid shape and no one else is injured, it will be an interesting decision.
When Beachy returns, the Braves could have seven pitchers who arguably deserve to be in the major league rotation. Let's just say Teheran wins the fifth starter's job in spring training. That puts Delgado in Triple-A as the main fill-in on call in case there's a need in Atlanta. As long as everyone is doing well, that's tremedous depth.
The quantity is there. Some are concerned about the quality. Is there a dominant number one? Well, some do believe Hudson has done enough to carry that label. And there's no doubt Medlen pitched like an ace late last season. If Medlen repeats his performance for the full 2013 sesaon, there'll be no doubt who the ace pitcher is on the staff. But that still must be proven over the course of a full season.
Minor could easily take that next step and become a solid top-of-the-rotation starter. But he's got to continue to show more consistency and do more of what he did late last season.
It certainly would have been nice if the Braves would had the ownership that would have allowed the team to pursue free agent Zach Greinke. He has always wanted to be a Braves, and there is a belief it would not have taken as much to get him in Atlanta as it took the Dodgers to get him to Los Angeles. But the team payroll is around the same amount it was a decade ago, which limits the ability to go after a front-line starting pitcher.
Greinke would have given the Braves even more flexibility to trade another starter. But, it does not mean there is not enough depth to have both backups in case of injury or to make another trade.
The Braves will be protected in Triple-A by not only the loser of the fifth starter's competition, but also by Sean Gilmartin. The left-hander had a solid season in Triple-A last year, and he'll return to Gwinnett in 2013. It's likely Gilmartin will show he'll be ready for a potential call-up either late this season or in 2014, giving the Braves yet another option.
Atlanta signed Mexican left-hander Daniel Rodriquez late last season and expect him to be in the Triple-A rotation. There's a lot to learn about Rodriguez, and it's not time to even put him in the Gilmartin category yet, but he's another name to keep in mind.
David Hale and Zeke Spruill will also likely be in the Triple-A rotation. These two are fringe prospects right now, but do have talent and could get more attention with a solid season in Gwinnett.
Looking ahead, if no one is traded, the Braves will have Medlen, Minor, Teheran, Delgado and Beachy ready for the 2014 rotation. Again, Hudson could return as the veteran anchor, making one of the others available in a trade. Gilmartin should be ready to break through in 2014, as he won't need to go to Triple-A for a third year. So he'll either need to be traded or be given a shot to win a job in the Atlanta rotation by then - as long as he does well again in Triple-A.
Keep an eye on Alex Wood, the Braves' second round draft pick last June out of the University of Georgia. He's this year's Gilmartin, and although he'll probably start at a lower classificiation than Gilmartin did last year in his first full pro season, this time next year we could be talking about how Wood is not that far from knocking on the door of the big leagues.
The same can be said for J.R. Graham, who was recently named Atlanta's second-best prospect by Baseball America. Graham was tremendous last year for Lynchburg and Mississippi last year, and another repeat of that could have him as a serious candidate for the 2014 rotation.
This depth will give Atlanta tremendous flexibility to deal a starter, either during the 2013 season or next offseason, if they have a significant need at another position. They may even have enough depth to deal two starters away if the needs are that severe.
Why is this important? Look at how teams are overspending for middle-of-the-rotation starting pitchers this winter? Edwin Jackson just got $13 million a season for four years from the Cubs. He's a .500 pitcher with a career ERA over 4.00. But yet the tremendous need for starters has pushed teams to give big contracts like that. That is usually an indication they simply don't have internal depth to fill their needs.
So as we prepare to analyze the Braves for the upcoming season, the depth in the starting rotation is a major reason this team should be able to compete in the N.L. East once again and potentially win 94 games once again.
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