Pitching is always the priority, but never easy In the mid-1980s when Bobby Cox returned to the Atlanta Braves as the team's General Manager, he quickly decided the organization needed a philosophical shift in its priorities.
For years the Braves tried to take advantage of the home run paradise of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium by getting big hitters. Dale Murphy and Bob Horner were the faces of the franchise, as most believed the Braves could never be a pitching-first team in that old ballpark.
But Cox didn't buy that, and neither did Paul Snyder, Atlanta's legendary scout who worked side-by-side with Cox at the time. They both figured that if you draft the right pitchers, and then develop them the right way, the Braves could become a team known for its pitchers instead of its big bats.
The Braves drafted more pitchers, traded for more pitchers, and signed more pitchers. The outcome resulted in a historic run with three arms at the forefront who will one day go into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
We'll never see a trio like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux again. It's just hard to imagine one team could have three pitchers like that together for a ten-year span. They helped turn the Braves into perennial contenders.
Smoltz is the only one that remains, as Glavine is a Met and Maddux is a Padre. The Braves are trying to once again start a new era of Braves' pitchers, but as we're finding out, it's not very easy.
The position players have been the story the last few years. Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann are clearly stars, while Kelly Johnson has turned into a very solid player. And now, this season, we see Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Yunel Escobar, two players who also have ‘star' written all over them.
We all had to know, however, that replacing the era of pitching brilliance was not going to be a simple task. Part of the problem is that we're all looking for that next crafty lefty that's going to be another number 47, or maybe another hard-throwing right-hander that might be another number 29, or even another righty with pinpoint control that can be like number 31 was for so many years.
And it's time we all face reality: that's just not going to happen.
The patience level the Braves' fan base has with young pitchers is non-existent. Take Saturday, after Jo Jo Reyes made him big league debut. Some fans were calling him ‘a bust' after three plus innings of work.
Wow. Just wow.
And of course, right-hander Kyle Davies is currently on the fans' hit list. There is no doubt that Davies has struggled. He's got a career ERA of 6.19 in 50 big league games. If the Braves were a lower-division team, it might be easier to allow Davies to find his way, as it has been obvious there is talent and stuff there. But on a team trying to win the division, it's hard to watch a kid develop and take his knocks in the major leagues, even as a 23-year-old.
Back in the late 80s, we had to have patience as Glavine struggled through his first few seasons. When he came up in 1987 he was 21 years old, and Glavine had a 5.54 ERA. Then the next season, his first full year in the big leagues, Glavine was 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA. As Glavine entered the 1991 season, the year he won the Cy Young Award, he had a career ERA of 4.29 in his first 105 starts.
Now I am by no means comparing Davies to Glavine. I also do realize Glavine had a much worse supporting cast with those teams in the late-80s. But I do think it's important to remind everyone how we all had to wait for it to finally ‘click' for Glavine, just as we now hope it will ‘click' for Davies, who is struggling to find consistency.
It's just so hard to wait for that to happen, or for lefty Chuck James to become a more complete pitcher, as the Braves strive to get into the playoffs. It was okay in the late-80s to watch Glavine struggle. We knew the Braves were going no where in the division races, but now the Braves are contenders and it's just so tough to wait on the young pitchers to reach their potential.
Davies and James will never be another Smoltz and Glavine, and we probably don't have anyone in the farm system that we can guarantee will be at that level either. But how can you place that pressure on young kids? Did the Cardinals ever really replace Bob Gibson? Did the Phillies ever really replace Steve Carlton?
It took the Braves twenty-five years to get a lefty even close to Warren Spahn, arguably the greatest lefty pitcher in the history of the game. So we can't expect we're going to be able to immediately and automatically find another pitcher that's going to be anywhere close to the future Hall of Famers that made the Braves a constant contender.
But that's not what the Braves need to look for, since it is so unrealistic. Instead, the Braves simply need to find solid and dependable starting pitchers. I believe we are seeing this season exactly how important it is to have good, solid middle-of-the-rotation starting pitchers. We've seen the drop-off from Tim Hudson to Chuck James, and by Buddy Carlyle simply pitching seven or more innings in three of his eight starts we also see the importance of simply having an innings-eater for the middle of the rotation.
You can't say the Braves aren't trying to develop more pitching. Look at the 2003 draft, which produced Saturday's starter Jo Jo Reyes. Of the first fifteen players signed out of that draft, twelve were pitchers. Seven remain in the organization, with Reyes and fellow lefty Matt Harrison the current top two pitching prospects.
The 2006 draft also had a heavy emphasis on pitching. Of the first seventeen players signed, thirteen were pitchers. This group contains some of the Braves' best long-term pitching prospects, including Jeff Locke, Chad Rodgers, Dustin Evans, Tim Gustafson, Steve Evarts, and Cory Rasmus.
But those are some kids we're going to have to wait on. Again, it takes time and does not happen overnight.
The Braves have got to get back to that pitching-first philosophy. But we just can't expect the results to be the same. This club simply needs some dependable starters, pitchers who will give the team quality innings (i.e. seven or eight). And it may take using the glut at several positions on the field (catcher, first base, shortstop) to go get a quality starter or two until more from the farm system can be ready to go.
Some people say the Braves have not done a good job of developing pitchers in the last decade, and that with the exception of Kevin Millwood there has not been a star pitcher to come out of the system. But I think it's important to remember how many young arms John Schuerholz has used in trades over the years.
Remember four years ago when Adam Wainwright and Bubba Nelson and Dan Meyer were three of the top arms in the Braves' system? Well all three were used in deals to get veteran players in a span of twelve months. Before that Schuerholz used Bruce Chen, Jimmy Osting, and Odalis Perez in deals.
Okay, only Wainwright and Perez are currently in a big league rotation, and while Wainwright helped the Cardinals win the World Series last year you can say that neither he nor Perez have become stars. But that doesn't mean those players would not have been better and possibly reached their full potential if they had remained in the Braves' organization.
But the Braves are just in an in-between period right now. Glavine and Maddux are gone, and they are waiting on the new wave to have it ‘click.' It might not happen with this current group, and trades may have to be made to bring in some that might make it. But either way this team has to get back to the pitching that made it so dominant for so many years.
Of course, we know the problem right now. It's the same problem the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have run into in the last few years. When you have a group of strong position players, as the Braves now do, you have to be careful about who you trade. And every discussion Schuerholz is going to have right now about getting another pitcher is going to start and end with Saltalamacchia or Escobar. Don't expect that to be easy for Schuerholz to give into, since those two are very, very good young players.
Is a trade the best way to get that next star pitcher, or can we be patient enough to wait on the farm system to produce? Reyes and Harrison may be ready next year, and Tommy Hanson looks to be the next potential star, but he's in Myrtle Beach. So it's not like there's a Tim Lincecum or a Homer Bailey ready to step in right now.
But again, forget the mindset that there has to be an ace on the horizon. The key is to simply get quality arms that can give this team some quality innings.
Let's not be choosy. Let's not expect future Hall-of-Famers, but instead just a few solid starters to get this team back on the pitching track. They key is to be patient so that the correct arms are out there giving this team its best chance to win – and win regularly. That's the way the Braves did it when they became perennial contenders, and that's the best way they'll be able to do it once again.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
Pitching is always the priority
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