Of all the franchises in baseball, the Braves know better than any the importance of a strong rotation. The historic trio of starting pitchers Atlanta had in the 1990s and into the new century produced one World Series title and a record 14 consecutive division championships.
So if the Braves are going to do anything special this season, the starting pitchers must lead the way. Sure, the offense must be more consistent in the second half to maintain the current division lead, but if the rotation falters in October, it all will be for not.
Therefore, the structure of the rotation is important. Atlanta entered Saturday’s play sixth in baseball and in the NL in earned run average for starting pitchers with a mark of 3.61. That went up a bit with another unimpressive performance from left-hander Paul Maholm, who now has a 6.46 ERA in his last seven starts.
For the most part, it’s been difficult to complain too much about the rotation this season. Maholm has been pretty much what he always has been – a middle-of-the-rotation starter that is going to give a team innings and be around .500. Tim Hudson is now at .500 after a great start Friday night. Hudson has been great at home (4-0, 2.83 ERA) but has struggled more away from Atlanta (3-7, 5.16). However, Hudson has a 2.78 ERA in his nine starts since the first of June.
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Mike Minor has been Atlanta’s best starter this season. With the exception of a rough four-game stretch between mid-June and his first start this month, Minor has been really good. Julio Teheran had three bad starts to start the season, but since then has an ERA of 2.69. And Kris Medlen has done really well except for this month. Medlen had a 3.02 ERA entering July, but he’s given up 13 earned runs in 15.1 innings in his last three starts.
Is this rotation good enough to shut down strong offensive teams in October? Some have wondered if the Braves need to go look for an ace pitcher, one that would be the automatic slam-dunk starter for a game one in a playoff series. Now, if they had to decide, they might have to go with whichever starter has been pitching best at that particular time. There is no true ace on this staff.
Hudson would probably get the nod, but that would be as much about his experience as the 38-year-old veteran as anything else.
The interesting twist to all of this is the pending return of right-hander Brandon Beachy, who is perhaps one more rehab start away from coming back from Tommy John surgery. Beachy did well in his Friday night start in Triple-A, and the reports had him feeling better than he has been at any time during his recovery.
What happens when Beachy is ready to rejoin the rotation? That decision, and dilemma, was postponed last month when Beachy needed more time. But it’s on the front-burner yet again now that he’s almost ready.
The easy call would have been to perhaps trade Maholm, but his struggles recently and now an apparent wrist injury he suffered Saturday might kill those chances of trading him before next week’s trade deadline. Maholm is a free agent after this season and with all the depth is not coming back to the Braves.
Then there’s Alex Wood, the former Georgia Bulldog who did well in his time in the Atlanta bullpen. The Braves have sent him down to Triple-A to stretch him out to start again, and there have even been rumors Wood might come back up to Atlanta to join the rotation this summer.
So if Beachy came back and they wanted Wood in the rotation, two current members of the rotation would have to go. Would the Braves trade one of those seven starters to get a pitcher that could serve as an ace? Or is there a position player the Braves have targeted that would cost one of these seven pitchers?
It’s a good problem to have, but it also makes you wonder if this is just a collection of good starters that does not have a true shutdown starting pitcher that usually helps a team win a World Series.
Wouldn’t it be ironic, in a season when the inconsistency on offense has been something that has kept the Braves from having an even larger division lead, if it was the rotation that kept the team from truly being special? Sometimes there is a difference between good and great, and the Braves need this rotation to be great – like it was in 1995 – to raise another World Series flag at Turner Field.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/ . Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .