Braves return focus to staff

It was 10 minutes before the fourth game of the 2008 season. Atlanta general manager Frank Wren was having dinner in the Turner Field press box when his phone suddenly rang. It was Braves manager Bobby Cox.

Wren knew it couldn’t be good news.

“He never calls me that close to the game,” Wren said.

Mike Hampton, trying to come back after missing two-and-a-half seasons, had pulled his left pectoral muscle in the bullpen. He was not going to be able to pitch that night against Pittsburgh.

“I should have known right there what we were in for,” Wren said. “A lot of things just went wrong.”

Hampton went back to the disabled list and didn’t pitch until late July. Tom Glavine pulled his hamstring in mid-April and went to the disabled list for the first time in his career. Six weeks after coming back, Glavine hurt his shoulder and pitched only once more after June 10.

John Smoltz looked great in April, but it was obvious something was wrong. He looked uncomfortable on the mound, walking around between pitches allowing the pain to subside. After taking May off, Smoltz tried to come back as a reliever. But his appearance on June 2 was be Smoltz’s final game in a Braves uniform.

And then the ace, Tim Hudson, went down in late July. Hudson’s elbow finally gave out, and he had Tommy John surgery on Aug. 8.

The Braves had to scramble. A rookie named Jair Jurrjens went from being the fifth starter to the No. 1 spot by the end of the season. They turned to a minor league free agent named Jorge Campillo to make 25 starts. And the Braves had to put young pitchers, like Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton, in roles far too demanding for their experience level.

The result wasn’t good — a 72-90 record and a fourth-place finish in the NL East.

For years, the Braves’ success was built around starting pitchers. Smoltz, Glavine and Greg Maddux made the Braves consistent winners. And after three years of not making it to the playoffs, the Braves’ focus will again be on the starting rotation.

The Braves’ top four starting pitchers in innings pitched last season were Jurrjens (188-1/3), Hudson (141), Campillo (137), and Reyes (110-1/3). Those top four combined for only 100 starts and 576-2/3 innings pitched.

By comparison, the Braves’ rotations in the 1990s were always at the top of the list in innings pitched. From 1991 through 1999, not counting the two seasons affected by the player’s strike, the Braves’ top four starters averaged 906-2/3 innings pitched each season.

So Wren made fixing the rotation his offseason priority. He identified San Diego right-hander Jake Peavy as his main trade target. Peavy is from Mobile, Ala., and for years the Braves heard Peavy wanted to play in Atlanta.

Negotiations with San Diego about Peavy were endless, and Peavy surprisingly never seemed motivated to come to Atlanta. Wren believed he had a deal done more than once, only to have Padres general manager Kevin Towers pull back.

The Braves reportedly offered shortstop Yunel Escobar, outfield prospect Gorkys Hernandez, reliever Blaine Boyer, and left-handed pitching prospect Jeff Locke. San Diego first wanted top prospect Tommy Hanson and then held out for right-handed starter Charlie Morton.

“We were offering by far the richest package of any team they talked to,” Wren said. “There were a lot of dynamics going on in this deal that I’ve never witnessed in any other deal.”

So Wren turned to the Chicago White Sox. He called originally about reliever Boone Logan, but when he learned Javier Vazquez was available, the talks expanded.

Vazquez had a mediocre 2008 season for Chicago, going 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA in 33 start.

But his durability intrigued the Braves. Since 2000, Vazquez has averaged 215 innings pitched per season along with 196 strikeouts per year.

“I think people have the misconception that he’s an average-type guy just looking at his record,” Wren said. “But I don’t think you would hear that from most other clubs and most hitters that face him. He’s in the top five in the American League in strikeouts and in the top handful in innings pitched every single year. That’s the mark of a guy with pretty good stuff. I think he really gives us some strength in our rotation.”

Wren then turned to the free agent market and targeted Toronto right-hander A.J. Burnett, who led the AL in strikeouts last season. Burnett has had some injury issues in the past, but there was no doubt his stuff would work as a top-of-the-rotation starter.

At the winter meetings in December, Wren thought he had a deal in place with Burnett, but then the New York Yankees got involved. The Yankees offered the same deal the Braves had on the table (five years, $82.5 million) but also the chance for Burnett to play closer to his Maryland home. Burnett’s wife, Karen, does not like to fly, and that was a major issue.

“We knew about A.J.’s wife and her problem with flying. We addressed that in our proposal,” Wren said. “At the last minute, when pushed came to shove, I think they chose to take a three-hour commute vs. a 12-hour commute.”

After allowing the market to calm down during the holidays, Wren looked to the free agent market and also internationally. The Braves pursued Kenshin Kawakami, a right-hander who starred in Japan for the past decade.

The Braves had been interested in breaking into the Japanese market for some time. They pursued Junichi Tazawa earlier in the offseason before he signed with Boston. But with Kawakami they found a pitcher ready to step right into a major league rotation.

The 33-year-old right-hander won 112 games and lost 72 in 11 seasons in Japan. He won the Japanese equivalent of the rookie of the year award and later the version of the Cy Young Award. Kawakami tops out around 90 mph, but he throws an assortment of breaking balls, including an above average curveball.

Wren believed Kawakami would, in effect, replace Hampton as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But he still needed that ace, that workhorse at the top of the staff. And Derek Lowe fit that bill perfectly.

Lowe’s demands, by his agent Scott Boras, scared teams off early in the offseason. He’s a soon-to-be 36-year-old pitcher, and Boras told teams it would take $18 million to sign Lowe. Once the market adjusted itself, Lowe slid right into the slot the Braves had for A.J. Burnett.

Like Vazquez, Lowe has been one of the most durable pitchers in the big leagues. In the past seven seasons Lowe has averaged 208 innings per season, along with winning 15 games per year.

Lowe is not the typical ace, but he has proven he can be a dependable pitcher who can win the big games. He won the deciding game for the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series.

The Braves have raved all spring training about how Lowe is the hardest worker on the club. He has also embraced the role as the leader of the rotation and believes the reworked staff can compete in the NL East.

“You better be able to pitch in our division,” Lowe said. “There are great offenses and teams are going to score. I’m not (New York Mets starter Johan) Santana or (Philadelphia starter) Cole Hamels. Those guys are off the charts. But when you face those guys, you have to compete the best you can, knowing full well they’re probably going to pitch good games more than not. We firmly believe we can stack up.”

Lowe will start tonight in Philadelphia and then again Friday in the home opener against the Washington Nationals. Jurrjens will pitch Tuesday, followed by Vazquez on Wednesday to finish the series against the Phillies. Kawakami will make his Braves debut Saturday at Turner Field.

The Braves have high expectations for Jurrjens as he enters his second full season. The right-hander was 13-10 last year as a rookie, with a 3.68 ERA in 31 starts. As someone who had to pick up the slack after all the injuries, Jurrjens is thrilled with the new editions to the rotation.

“Lowe, Kawakami, and Vazquez are all going to eat some innings,” Jurrjens said. “That’s what we needed last year. The main thing will be to try and stay healthy. I think we’re going to have a good team this year, but staying healthy is the main thing for us.”

The fifth starter will not be needed until April 18, and right now all indications point toward Tom Glavine being ready for that start. The 43-year-old left-hander is determined to get back on the mound after the first injury-plagued season of his career.

If Glavine can’t make it or if he struggles, the Braves have two candidates to step in. Jo Jo Reyes was inconsistent last year after he replaced Glavine in the rotation, but Reyes was outstanding this spring. While he’ll go to Gwinnett to start the season in Triple-A, the Braves won’t hesitate to call on Reyes if needed.

“I think he made the biggest progression from a year ago of any guy in our camp,” Wren said. “Jo Jo really came in and showed us that he was serious about making our club and showing us that if we do need another guy he should be that guy. I think he learned from last year’s successes and learned from last year’s failures.”

But the other option will be the one to watch. Tommy Hanson is arguably the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. He dominated the Carolina League and the Southern League last season, before having a historic performance in the Arizona Fall League.

Hanson was impressive this spring. The 22-year-old had a 2.45 ERA in four Grapefruit League games, with 14 strikeouts in 14 innings. The room is just not there for Hanson right now, but the Braves are comfortable with him going back to the minors for more development.

“I thought he did a terrific job,” Wren said. “I think he could start in the big leagues right now and be successful. But would it hurt Tommy to go to Triple-A? No. Would it help him and strengthen his position? Sure. We feel like it’s just a building block that will allow him to continue to allow him to develop as a pitcher.”

So with Reyes and Hanson available as backup options, the Braves have the insurance to avoid a repeat of the 2008 season. Plus, Tim Hudson’s recovery from Tommy John surgery is going very well, and he is expected back in August.

“Last year we felt we had depth, but it was a different kind of depth,” Wren said. “We had numbers. This year we’ve got numbers and quality, and that’s a much different scenario. All in all, it’s been a very productive spring. We do feel real good about our pitching. We feel like our team has kind of come together.”

And it all starts with the starting rotation.