Back in spring training the Braves believed Chuck James would be a perfect fourth starter. He would be behind three veteran pitchers and hopefully be able to improve on a decent rookie campaign in 2006.
But the plans changed quickly in spring training when Mike Hampton was injured. The Braves believed free agent signee Mark Redman would be able to step into the role as the third starter replacing Hampton, but then midway through April it was obvious that was not going to happen.
So the 25-year-old James was thrust into a role that he was probably not ready for from the beginning. The Braves had to have someone after John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, and like it or not, James was the man pushed into the job.
James' numbers on the surface were decent: 11-10, 4.24 ERA in 30 games started. He allowed 164 hits in 161.1 innings, only 58 walks, 116 strikeouts, but an alarming 32 home runs.
He had good starts and bad ones; a few good months, but mostly suspect ones. James would have a start where he'd look like he was turning the corner, and then turn around and have one that made you wonder if he needed to go to Richmond.
The biggest problem was his innings pitched. James never pitched more than seven innings, and he went seven innings only four times. He pitched five innings eight times and six innings six times.
The southpaw had only eleven quality starts (six innings or more, three runs or fewer allowed) all season. Only Cardinals' starter Kip Wells had fewer quality starts (9) than James in the role as the third starter in a National League rotation.
Braves' Manager Bobby Cox seemed scared to allow James to go through a lineup more than two times, and if James pitch count approached 100 Cox would take him out. But in the eight games James had 100 pitches or more, he was 3-2 with a 2.29 ERA.
Cox's reluctance to use James late into the games was connected to the lack of a third pitch. The Braves just did not have confidence in James to finish what he started. He's got the fastball and a changeup, but the slider was a pitch that somehow wound up in the witness protection program.
James can be effective, but at times his mechanics seemed out of whack. He would sometime look like he was slinging the ball, using all arm and not much legs in his delivery.
When he had no life on his fastball, he was in trouble as a one-pitch pitcher. He must throw the slider more, and by all accounts it is not a bad pitch. He just doesn't have confidence in it enough to throw it as the third pitch.
The 32 home runs allowed was also a red flag. When he gets the ball up, it can be home run derby. Hopefully throwing the third pitch more will give him another option, so that when he is getting his fastball up he can turn to another pitch to get hitters out.
But will James throw the slider? It's somewhat of a mystery as to why he doesn't throw it more. Are the Braves telling him to throw it, only for him to ignore that ‘request?' Why does James not have more confidence in the pitch? And why don't the Braves just order him to throw it, no matter how mediocre a pitch he may believe it to be?
Either way, he's got to be able to throw the slider (or another third pitch) to be a successful major leaguer. Only then will he get the confidence of his manager and be able to go longer in the games. There were some games where you could tell he was losing it or running out of gas midway through the game. But then James did have a few games where you wondered if he had been left in a bit longer he would have at least been able to make through the sixth inning and into the seventh.
With the Braves intent on improving the rotation this winter, there is no guarantee James will be back next season. It's almost a given that Tom Glavine (who BTW had 23 quality starts) will return, and the Braves would prefer to have him be the fourth starter. Then you could also see a trade of an infielder (probably Edgar Renteria) for a potential third starter.
Now it's possible James could be included in such a trade if the Braves feel a better starting pitcher would be coming back in return. But if not, James could have to go to camp to fight off contenders for the fifth starter's job. And if Mike Hampton returns, considering he's making $8.25 next season, James could be squeezed out.
So that's why it'll be interesting to see if there are rumors about James being involved in any December deals. He was coveted last winter and could be targeted again this offseason. But the Braves must be careful. This is a 26-year-old left-hander with four more years under the team's control. So they've got to make sure the depth is there if they are to part with this type of pitcher.
But if they're worried about James' durability, or the chances for him to throw that third pitch, the Braves may instead want to include him in a deal to improve the starting rotation.
Late in the season the Braves were careful with James after he complained of a tired arm. He was even disabled for a couple of weeks to rest. Was it the strain of a full season, or should the Braves be concerned about a health issue, which might explain why he isn't throwing a breaking ball more?
James should have been a fourth starter in 2007, but instead circumstances pushed him into a larger role. A third starter needs to be an innings-eater, and James was unable to fill that position. So he must make some adjustments in his game if he wants to be able to reach that next level as a major league starter.
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.
7. Can Chuck James take that next step?
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