What will the Braves do with all these pitchers?

The Braves have lost 60% of their starting rotation and are still right in the thick of the N.L. East race. But what's going to happen when those three starting pitchers return? BravesCenter's Bill Shanks takes a look at all the options.

The title of this article could be suitable for a number of stories on the Braves. We could look at the short-term future and wonder how the Braves will find room for pitchers like Zach Miner and Macay McBride and Anthony Lerew and Kevin Barry in 2006. Or we could look at the long-term future and wonder how in the world some of the younger pitchers in the lower levels of the Braves' system are ever going to get the opportunity.

But we're looking at the immediate future, like the next four to six weeks. Even these questions will be difficult to answer.

Despite three-fifths of their starting rotation being out with injuries, the Braves have the second-best ERA in the National League. Only the Cardinals, whom have yet to have one of their five starters miss a start, have been better. It's simply been amazing that with John Thomson, Mike Hampton, and Tim Hudson on the shelf, the Braves have had suitable replacements step up and keep the team in most ballgames.

Hampton and Hudson hope to be back sometime after the All-Star Break in mid-July. John Thomson threw off the mound the other day and did well. He hopes to be back in late July or early August. When those three were in the rotation with John Smoltz and Horacio Ramirez earlier in the season, the team was very, very good.

But when those three do return, what's going to happen. It's easy to say that Kyle Davies, Roman Colon, and Jorge Sosa, the three pitchers that have more than adequately replaced the regular starters, will simply move back to the bullpen. That's probably so, but then what's going to happen to the bullpen and how is that going to affect the potential additions from the farm system later in the summer.

The one pitcher I think all of us can agree can be sacrificed is Adam Bernero. While he pitched well in April, Bernero has simply gone downhill and is now a liability in the bullpen. He's been outpitched recently even by rookies Blaine Boyer and Jorge Vasquez, so Bernero would simply be the choice to go over those two.

That's the easy decision, but the rest are not as automatic. And before you suggest the Braves just release Dan Kolb, look at what he's done in his last seven appearances: 3.38 ERA, 3 runs on 8 hits in 8 innings, 3 walks, and 3 strikeouts. Now while these numbers aren't going to be confused with Dennis Eckersley, it's definitely an improvement from before. Perhaps Kolb is getting himself on track and will at least be an effective reliever in the second half of the season.

Chris Reitsma has done all right as the new Braves' closer. He's still shaky at times, but he's a contributor in the bullpen. Kevin Gryboski is doing what Kevin Gryboski does, just comes in and gets ground ball outs and leaves. John Foster has done tremendously well as the lefty reliever; just think if he had not been around to replace Tom Martin in April. Foster has been very effective and there's no reason to think it won't continue.

Jim Brower has done very well since coming over to the Braves. He's a workhorse and has shown he can rack up some bullpen innings in the past for the Giants.

And again, Boyer and Vasquez have done very well, particularly Blaine. For a kid that some wondered whether or not he was ready for the major leagues, Boyer certainly is proving that he belongs.

And then you have two wildcards for the summer. The Braves signed Jay Powell last winter with the intent on him rehabbing from his shoulder surgery and possibly being ready to help the big league club in August and September. Powell is a veteran major league reliever, having pitched in just over 500 games. While he missed almost a month with a non-pitching injury, Powell is back now pitching for his hometown Mississippi Braves and is doing great. In his seven games, he's yet to allow an earned run in eight innings. He's allowed only three hits, walked one, and struck out five.

If Powell has a solid month of July for Mississippi, he could definitely be ready to come to Atlanta to join the Braves' bullpen. Powell could really help this team down the stretch.

Then you have Joey Devine, this year's first round pick by the Braves who was just promoted Friday night to AA Mississippi. Devine did not give up a hit or a run in his five innings of work for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Now he's off to AA for a good test of his talent. If Devine does well in Pearl for the next four to six weeks, there's no doubt he'd be given consideration to join the Atlanta bullpen.

So let's say (and hope) that Hudson, Hampton, and Thomson are all back by August 1st. Then what do the Braves do? Ok, Bernero's toast; we can all agree on that. The pitching staff has been at thirteen the last few weeks, but it's unlikely Bobby Cox would want to not have that extra bat on his bench down the stretch. So if they go back to twelve pitchers, some are going to have to go.

If the team releases Bernero and then sends Davies, Colon, and Sosa back to the bullpen, the pitching staff would have fifteen members – meaning three would have to go. The Braves are unlikely to release Kolb, hoping instead he will improve on his last seven appearances and get back to being what they envisioned when they acquired him last December. You'd assume Reitsma, Foster, and Gryboski would also be safe, meaning there would be six pitchers fighting for three roster spots.

The easiest, not necessarily the best or most preferred, option would be to send Davies, Boyer, and Vasquez back to the minor leagues, even though none of them really deserve to go back down. Sure, if all three of the currently injured starters return, you could make the argument that Davies would be better off starting every fifth day in Richmond than simply being in the Atlanta bullpen. And that may be the best option for everyone. Davies could continue to develop in Richmond, while Atlanta could get its rotation back intact and not have to "waste" one of their future starters in the bullpen.

Again, Boyer and Vasquez have both done very well and have proven (at least to me) that they belong in the major leagues. But with both having less experience than either Jim Brower or Jorge Sosa, and even less than Roman Colon for that matter, it might be the easiest (not necessarily the fairest) thing to do to send them back to the minors.

Sosa is someone who many teams may want to investigate as a potential starter. He has showed tremendous stuff in his four starts, but with a loaded rotation and others already in line, his long-term future as a starter in Atlanta may be dim. You wonder if the Braves get involved in any trade discussions for a closer this month if teams will ask for Sosa. I think I would if I were a GM, especially if my team needed a starting pitcher that can throw hard.

Colon struggled earlier this season in the bullpen, but then when he returned to start he's done very, very well. However, again with the space limited in the Atlanta rotation, perhaps another team would investigate acquiring Colon for their rotation. The Braves have believed for two years that Colon could develop into an effective reliever. But if he returns to the bullpen and does not do well, it might be better to shop him to a team in need of a starting pitcher.

Brower may be the one on the spot a bit over the next several weeks. If he does well between now and the end of the month, Bobby Cox will probably fall in love with him and want him to stay. However, if he's shaky at all, he could be expendable. There are just too many candidates to step in for him if he pitches at all like he did with the Giants earlier this season.

This is what depth can do for your organization. The ability for the young kids to come up and pitch effectively, along with the acquisitions made by John Schuerholz of Sosa and Brower and even Vasquez last December, has made the options plentiful. And then to know you've got a veteran reliever in Powell possibly waiting in the wings and a young college draft pick in Devine that is sometimes compared to Brad Lidge makes it even more complicated.

But this is why the Braves have won year after year. Their plan is to have these situations come up as often as possible. While it might seem like a bunch of problems, it's really the best set of problems to have.

Who knows what will happen, but this does give you reason to wonder if the Braves really do need to go out and acquire another reliever. Perhaps all the pitchers the Braves need are already in a Braves' uniform. The first priority is getting the injured pitchers back on the active roster, and then the rest will work itself out. It's just a matter of figuring out which ones will be on the roster as this team tries for another division championship.

Bill Shanks has a new book out on baseball scouting and player development called "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team." Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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