Spring Training Battles: The Rotation

Here are some thoughts on the Atlanta rotation with two weeks to go in camp.

With two weeks to go there is still some drama in this story. The rotation is going to be better and deeper. There is little doubt about that. But with two weeks to go, and knowing a lot can happen in fourteen days, it's dangerous to say everything is nailed down as a lock.

John Smoltz is mostly hiding from all of us, but there's no reason to believe he won't be ready to go when the bell rings. Tim Hudson has pitched well in his three games, with an ERA of 2.00. It seems both Smoltz and Hudson feel less pressure on them with reinforcements in the rotation.

Tom Glavine was brought in as the number three starter, and so far he seems perfect for that role. Glavine has a 3.12 ERA in his first three games, with his last performance being his best.

So the top three spots are locked down, and you might want to say the same for the next position in the rotation. Jair Jurrjens is the talk of camp. He's allowed only one run in nine innings and right now looks like a lock for the rotation. Jurrjens has shown great command of his fastball, and his feel for pitching is pretty impressive.

The big question mark, of course, is Mike Hampton. But after a successful performance in a simulated game Wednesday, perhaps he is becoming less of a question mark. Hampton's arm is fine, and if his legs don't let him down he's got a great chance at being ready for Opening Day.

Right now there is cautious optimism regarding Hampton. He'll pitch again on Monday, either in Jupiter against the Cardinals or in a minor league spring training game. Hampton will be slated to go five innings next time around, so this will be a big test.

The frustrating part about Hampton is that he's looked so good on the mound. His arm (knock on wood) looks really good. The movement on his pitches has been phenomenal. And that gives the Braves hope he can truly make a contribution this season.

So if in two weeks the rotation will include Smoltz, Hudson, Glavine, Hampton, and Jurrjens, what happens to the others in the competition?

Well, Chuck James pitched well on Thursday in Lakeland against the tough Tigers lineup. He's scheduled to pitch again on Monday, with only three days rest, for perhaps three innings. But even at that pace it is unlikely James will be ready for Opening Day.

If James shows he's healthy, the Braves are not going to have much of a choice but to send him down to Triple-A Richmond, unless something happens and Hampton is not able to go. Then maybe James would have a chance, but he still has to prove his shoulder is okay, and there may simply not be enough time.

Jo Jo Reyes struggled Thursday in Lakeland, giving up five runs in three innings. Reyes continues to battle control issues, with seven walks in seven innings pitched. The Braves came to camp believing Reyes needed more time in Triple-A, and that remains the belief two weeks before the end of spring training.

Buddy Carlyle was considered a candidate for the rotation, but allowing three home runs Wednesday night did not help his cause. The Braves would still consider Carlyle over Reyes (and maybe even James if he needed more time to prepare for the season) if something happens with Hampton. But Carlyle needs a couple of good performances in the next two weeks.

Jeff Bennett pitched two innings Thursday, but he's got only five total on the spring. Bennett still could be involved in the battle for the long relief role. But the Braves might consider sending him down to be in Richmond's rotation.

Ryan Drese has pitched well in three appearances, posting a 1.69 ERA. Drese will probably go to Richmond, as he is still coming back from Tommy John surgery. But the Braves have been surprised with Drese's effectiveness and he should not be forgotten. Drese has 96 career starts in the big leagues, and that's good experience to have on hand as a backup.

Matt DeSalvo was sent down to minor league camp Wednesday. He's got a shot at being in the Richmond rotation. The Braves like DeSalvo, and they want to work on his mechanics to get his control in order.

Jorge Campillo has done okay in four games, and he'll be a candidate for the Richmond rotation. Francisley Bueno has been solid in his four appearances. He's allowed only two earned runs in six innings. Bueno has a good shot at the Richmond rotation as well. And Damian Moss has surprised the Braves with a good camp, including a couple of solid outings in big league games.

Plus, Charlie Morton was tentatively scheduled to go to Triple-A, but you wonder with the numbers being as they are if he might start out in Mississippi instead. But there's no doubt Morton made a positive impression in his time during big league camp.

So look at the pitchers that might be in the Richmond rotation: Chuck James, Jo Jo Reyes, Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett, Ryan Drese, Matt DeSalvo, Jorge Campillo, Francisley Bueno, Damian Moss, and Charlie Morton. That's ten pitchers. That's depth. And with the trouble the Braves had in the big league rotation last season, it's important the the Richmond rotation is right in this conversation.

But it all revolves around Mike Hampton. Once we all know his status, we'll know how the rest of the Atlanta rotation will shake out and who might be in line in Richmond. Either way, the options and the depth in the starting rotation is much improved over last season for the Atlanta Braves.

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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