9. Who will round out the rotation?

The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues our series on the Top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter.

The Braves have several big decisions to make about the starting rotation this winter. Do they bring Tom Glavine back? Do they look to make a trade for a third starter? Can Mike Hampton return? Is Jo Jo Reyes ready to take one of the spots?

But one of the lessons learned this season had to be that you are going to have to have backup options for next season. If Glavine rejoins the Braves next season and if Hampton does return the team could have two 40-plus starters and a pitcher that has not pitched in two and a half seasons.

So backup options will be needed.

Buddy Carlyle made 20 starts for Atlanta in 2007, so he'll be first on the list. He was just another minor league free agent when he signed last winter, but after all the mess in the Braves' rotation he quickly became an important part of the team.

Carlyle was okay, going 8-7 with a 5.21 ERA, 117 hits in 107 innings pitched, 32 walks, and 74 strikeouts. The right-hander was outstanding during a five-game stretch between June 26th and July 21st going 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He walked only three batters in those five games and looked to be on his way to a solid season.

But in Carlyle's last 11 games he was 3-5 with an ERA of 5.74. Carlyle did not pitch six innings or more in any of those eleven games, which further complicated the Braves' rotation problems. He also battled a hyper-extended right elbow late in the season.

Carlyle is still a cheap alternative, so expect the Braves to keep him around so he can battle for a job on the staff. With Oscar Villarreal eligible for arbitration, Carlyle could be the Braves best long-relief candidate if the team decides to non-tender Villarreal. That would allow Carlyle to be the best option to step into the rotation if needed.

Villarreal could also be an option, but the arbitration question must be answered. He started four games for Atlanta in 2006 and was pretty decent, but this past season Villarreal worked exclusively out of the bullpen, mainly as the long reliever.

Villarreal was much better in the first half (3.78 ERA in 30 games) and really struggled after August 1st (6.00 ERA in 13 games). And it was a bit peculiar that the Braves used Villarreal only three times in the final month of the season. So that may be a sign they are ready to move on with a cheaper option (Carlyle or some of the other younger relievers) for the spot next season.

Lance Cormier allowed only two runs in five spring training games in March to convince the Braves he was the best choice as the fifth starter. But an arm injury the last week of camp forced him to the disabled list. Tests proved there was no structural damage, and Cormier merely had to rest his arm to get it ready for action.

But the rest lingered, as even after he was cleared medically Cormier did not come back in a very timely fashion. The Braves were a little upset about the delay, which lasted all the way until June. When he did get back, Cormier was ineffective, allowing 13 runs in two losses to the Chicago Cubs.

The Braves sent Cormier back to Richmond, where he pitched pretty well in ten starters (4-2, 3.46). Then he returned to Atlanta in August and for the last two months really struggled (2-4, 5.45).

Cormier is eligible for arbitration this winter, and it's doubtful the Braves are going to spend much money on him. If Cormier does return, he will simply have to go to camp to win a job.He would be about eighth in line for a rotation spot, so the bullpen may be his best chance at a job.

Jeff Bennett seemed to come out of nowhere late in the year and made two starts that were impressive. Bennett had always been a reliever, but late in the year the Braves decided to put him in Richmond's rotation. He was 2-1 with a 2.15 ERA in six starts.

So late in the major league season the Braves decided to give Bennett a chance, and with Carlyle and Cormier hurt a bit they decided to give Bennett a shot as a starter. Bennett started against his former team, the Brewers, on September 20th and got a win going 5.2 innings. He allowed only one run, a solo home run, walked one, and struck out eight. Then in the last weekend of the season Bennett lost to Houston, but he pitched well (three runs on six hits in six innings, one walk, and five strikeouts).

Bennett still needs more work if he is going to continue as a starter. He worked with Guy Hansen in Richmond on developing his slider, and he may need to add a changeup as well. His late season performance probably will get him a strong look in spring training, and if there is a need for a starter he will be an option.

There are two pitchers that were in Richmond most of the year that have a background in the bullpen but may also be considered as options for the rotation. Manny Acosta made a terrific impression in a late-season callup to the big leagues. He posted a 2.28 ERA in 21 games with Atlanta, with 22 strikeouts in 23.2 innings pitched.

Acosta has terrific stuff, including an electric fastball. But the Braves believe he also has a wide assortment of breaking stuff that could make him an effective starting pitcher. So he's going to get some starts in winter ball this offseason and the Braves will then make a decision on his future. Acosta will likely remain in the bullpen, but if he makes an impression this winter he could also be an option if the team needs a starting pitcher.

Blaine Boyer was also thought to be a reliever. Most believed Boyer would be one of the Braves' top relievers by now, but the injuries that kept him out most all of 2006 have delayed his big league career a bit. The Braves put him back in the rotation this season in Richmond to get him some work on his arm, and Boyer did so well the Braves now wonder if he might be a starting pitcher once again.

Boyer was a starter before, back in 2003 in Rome and the next season in Myrtle Beach. He did pretty well both seasons, so the Braves know he's been successful in that role. Guy Hansen, Richmond's pitching coach, was very optimistic about Boyer's potential to be a major league starting pitcher.

The team has told Boyer that when he reports to Disney next February he should be prepared for either role, so if there is a competition expect him to be right in the middle of it. Boyer has good stuff, and now that he's healthy he should push for a job somewhere next year. The Braves just have to decide if it's back in the bullpen or in the starting rotation.

So the Braves are pretty happy with their backup internal options. And after such a shaky 2007 season with the rotation, they know they need as many as they can get.

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 thebravesshow@email.com.

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