7. Where do Lerew and James fit in for 2006?

Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the major questions facing the Braves for next season. Anthony Lerew and Chuck James are knocking on the door of the big leagues, but is there room for them in Atlanta?

How many teams would love to have our "dilemmas?" I mean we already have six returning starters for next season, even with Mike Hampton already out. Yet here we have two more pitchers knocking on the door in right-hander Anthony Lerew and left-hander Chuck James.

The question of whether or not Lerew and James are ready is a question inside this question. They will have to answer that in spring training. But it's obvious by their performance in 2005 that they could easily contribute at some point in the 2006 season. It's just a matter of when that will happen, and how they'll do it.

Lerew was a part of the heralded 2003 Rome Braves' rotation that included Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer, and Jose Capellan. While Davies and Boyer got to Atlanta a little sooner, Davies did his part to be on track for a late-season 2005 debut. He started off in Mississippi and in early June was sent to Richmond. Overall, Lerew was 10-6 with a 3.71 ERA, 133 hits in 148 innings pitched, 55 walks, and 117 strikeouts in 27 starts.

The soon-to-be 23-year-old Lerew got a seven game stint in Atlanta and impressed Manager Bobby Cox. He now has eclipsed the ‘magic number' for minor league starters (500 innings), with 568. His minor league ERA, in 105 games (102 starts) is now 3.03.

Lerew does something very well; he throws strikes. He doesn't walk a lot of batters (2.89 per nine innings) and his hits to innings pitched ratio is excellent (493 hits in 568 ip).

Drafted out of Pennsylvania in the 11th round of the 2001 draft, Lerew has developed a fastball that reaches 97 mph. He usually stays in the 91-94 range, though, and really did an excellent job last season of learning to pitch with a faster fastball. That might not seem like a chore, but when you're in the bullpen one day (as Lerew was in the summer of 2004) and all of a sudden your fastball is four miles an hour faster, you have to adjust to that. Lerew learned that even though he can throw harder, he still has to pitch.

In almost any other organization, Anthony Lerew would be primed to step immediately in and take over a rotation spot in 2006. Most teams would think he's ready, even though it wouldn't hurt him to see a little more time in AAA. But with the Braves, he's 7th or 8th in line right now. That could be daunting to many, but Lerew's been around this organization long enough to understand the competition.

Meanwhile Chuck James just continued his spring through the minor leagues this season. His numbers were staggering in his three stops: 13-7, 2.12 ERA, 103 hits allowed in 161.1 innings pitched, 38 earned runs, 36 walks, and 193 strikeouts. Then in Atlanta, James showed in two games (1.59 ERA, four hits allowed in five innings, one earned run, three walks, and five strikeouts) that there's just no stopping him.

How can you explain James? He's got a fastball that tops out at 92 miles an hour. He changes speed on the fastball better than just about anyone. He's got a changeup that really got lethal this past season. He'll mix in an occasional slider that somehow got just as good as his changeup last season. So you look at those numbers and you think that he throws gas, but all he does is locate his pitches well, change speeds, and pitch.

When you see a player pitch with such ease through every stop in the big leagues, you have to think he might be ready. James doesn't have the innings Lerew has (343.2) but he was drafted out of a junior college, giving him an extra year's experience.

So again, we have two pitchers who are close to, or perhaps even are ready for the big leagues. Yet they have six people in front of them. Granted, there are some questions with many of those six people, but it doesn't change the fact that the other six have more experience in the big leagues than James and Lerew.

It is entirely possible that the Braves' minor league coaches and scouts could suggest that either Lerew or James belongs in the 2006 major league starting rotation. If that happens, then GM John Schuerholz has a lot of decisions to make this winter. And considering how good these young two pitchers are, that could easily happen.

But what are the other options? Could one or both pitch out of the bullpen? Certainly. If the rotation returns intact, and if one of both pitch well in spring training, then it's very possible that Lerew or James could pitch out of the bullpen. Who knows? They may find their niche out there. And with the bullpen always in turmoil, what would it hurt to have one or two successful young arms out there?

Then again, the other option is obvious. If Schuerholz is engaged in trade talks this winter, won't it be a shock if another team doesn't ask for Lerew or James? It might be hard to hang on to these kids, especially if a big trade is on the table.

But I'm sure that the preference would be to keep both of them. These two kids are extremely talented. Who knows how good they can be? Of all the young pitchers that have come up the last few years, these two have had the best statistics. So would it be a waste to use them in the bullpen or to trade them? You wonder. They may be that good in a rotation spot.

If it were me, I'd want to hang on to them. I still have questions about Smoltz's health, and I still wonder about how good Sosa will continue being a solid starter. And as we found out in 2005, depth is the one thing that separates the Braves from the other organizations in baseball. Let's see what these guys can do, whether it's in the rotation or in the bullpen. You want the best twelve arms in your organization on that Opening Day roster, and it's hard to imagine these two quality arms not being in that group.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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