8. Will Kyle Davies round out the rotation?

Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the top questions facing the Braves this winter with a look at Kyle Davies, who missed most of the 2006 season after having surgery on his groin muscles in May.

Back in spring training the Braves believed 22-year-old Kyle Davies was ready to become a vital member of its starting rotation. But instead of being his breakout season, 2006 was a roller coaster that Davies hopes he'll never have to ride again.

The right-hander had a great month of March, posting a 1.89 in his five spring training games. Bobby Cox was convinced Davies would help alleviate the loss of Mike Hampton, who was going to miss the entire season after having Tommy John surgery at the end of September.

Davies was decent early on, allowing 16 runs on 25 hits and 9 walks in 30.2 innings with 27 strikeouts. But May was tough, as Davies had a 9.75 ERA in three starts before leaving May 15th with a serious groin injury. Four days later Davies would have major surgery repairing torn groin muscles.

You have to wonder if Davies' groin had been bothering him for a while, since his numbers clearly declined in his three starts in May. He had showed signed of having a very decent season, including a terrific outing in New York on April 18th when he allowed only one run on three hits in winning his first game of the season.

The surgery was major, and Davies had a setback in his recovery in late June. He slowed down the rehab just a bit, but in August headed out for a minor league assignment with the hopes of coming back to help the struggling Atlanta rotation.

His first minor league start was in AA Mississippi, and after a couple of short appearances, he pitched seven innings on August 16th and allowed only two earned runs. The Braves then promoted him to AAA Richmond, where he made two outstanding starts. Davies allowed only one earned run in 15 innings, with three walks and eight strikeouts.

There were fears that Davies was being rushed for a pennant race that really wasn't going to happen, but after his three strong outings in the minor leagues, it was hard to not promote him for the final month of the regular season. But unfortunately, his results in the big leagues were not the same as down on the farm.

Davies gave up seven runs in his first outing against the Phillies on September 2nd and failed to make it through the third inning. Then he gave up six runs in New York in five innings. The only decent outing was on September 18th, when he allowed only one run in five innings in Washington to beat the Nationals. But overall, his September numbers were atrocious: 1-4, 13.06 ERA in 6 games, 41 hits allowed in 20.2 innings, 31 runs, 30 earned runs, 16 walks, and 15 strikeouts.

The late-season struggles create even more doubt on Davies' readiness to be a consistent winner in the big leagues. It's also fair to wonder if Davies should not have just been shut down late in the season instead of rushed back to help a Braves' team that already had slim hopes of making the postseason. But again, with his solid performances in the minor leagues, how could you not give him a shot to show if he could help the team?

It's unfortunate that there are now more questions than ever about Davies. Was the groin injury just to severe to come back from that quickly? Did his ineffectiveness show that he simply needs more time in Triple-A to fully develop? Is Davies just not as good as many of us may have believed?

The one thing we must remember is that the groin surgery was very, very serious. It probably was too much to expect Davies to return this season after having the operation. Despite his success in those last three minor league starts, the big leagues are different. The push off the rubber is so dependent on the groin area, and if he was favoring it at all, or even worried about re-injuring the groin muscles, it would have an effect on his performance.

If he had not returned at all this past season, he would have had additional rehab time to fully recuperate. Then the only worry would be whether or not he would be completely healthy next spring. But now, after his poor performance in September, the Braves have to have some doubt on whether or not to count on Davies for next season.

Particularly with John Schuerholz's decree that the Braves will focus on getting the rotation back next season to where it once, it's hard to believe they would be comfortable right now with Davies penciled in as one of their five starters. Plus, with Mike Hampton returning, the rotation now has six strong candidates: Davies, Hampton, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Chuck James, and Horacio Ramirez.

Obviously, several of those six could be gone this winter, but that will do nothing to secure Davies' place in the rotation. At the least, he'll have to go to spring training to prove that he is healthy and can be effective. Of course, he himself must make it through what could be a very volatile offseason. Teams may think they can catch Davies off the Braves' radar, but the team still considers Davies a very valuable commodity. He's not as untouchable as he might have been last winter, but it would still have to be a very big deal for Davies to be involved.

Some in the organization believe that the best recipe for Davies is for him to start next season in AAA Richmond and simply get more seasoning. Then he can prove he's healthy, fully develop, and be ready to help the Braves when called upon. While no one can predict that the Braves will suffer through record-setting injuries again next year, it would certainly help having Davies to call upon instead of the Travis Smith, Jason Schiell-types Atlanta had to use in 2006.

There are too many in the organization that believe in Kyle Davies to write him off just yet. And while his September performance is cause for concern, we must all remember that he's still just 23 years old (and will be until the first week of September next season). So he's still got a lot of time to once again show the fans what he did in Boston in 2005 and in New York back in April.

The stuff is there. He's got an exceptional changeup, along with a decent fastball that can reach 94 mph. Davies possibly needs to refine his breaking pitch a bit more, which can come in time. And his makeup? Off the charts. He's the type of pitcher you want to build your staff around, and the Braves know that having two young arms like Davies and Chuckie James is exactly how you'd love to build the post-John Smoltz era of the Braves' starting rotation.

So it's hard to give up on this kid. You've got to remember that the injury he had was a serious one, and it's impossible to believe it did not contribute to his problems in September. But his struggles may have also given the Braves a chance to slow down his timetable just a bit, and they've got to still hope that when he's completely developed he'll be able to help this team return to the days of having solid starting pitchers.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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