Hudson's injury is devastating
Of all things to happen, after everything has happened to the Atlanta Braves, the last thing needed was for them to lose their ace pitcher. But in a way, the injury to Tim Hudson is almost fitting for this ridiculously cruel season to a team that back in March had visions of October.
It was the last thing the Braves needed. Losing John Smoltz and Tom Glavine and having to wait on Mike Hampton was bad enough, but the loss of Hudson affects this team in so many different ways, particularly when thinking ahead toward next season.
And that's about all we can do at this point, think about next season. The Braves 5-10 record since the All Star Break has made it all elementary at this point. We all know now that this season is over, and the Braves' admission came in the Mark Teixeira trade on Tuesday.
But now dealing with the loss of Hudson will have the preliminary thoughts General Manager Frank Wren had about next season change completely. Now instead of considering getting one new starting pitcher for next season, Wren has to realize he's going to need at least two for the rotation.
And he's not just needing a starter; he's needing an ace. It's one thing to just need a starting pitcher, to just need a third starter, or someone to round out your rotation with a fifth starter. But to need an ace is a completely different animal.
Can you imagine that the Atlanta Braves are actually going to be looking for an ace? For many years there were three in the rotation. Smoltz, Glavine, and Greg Maddux are all going to the Hall of Fame, and their presence for so many years has all of us with a different view of what an ace really is.
Most teams would have loved to have had one of those three, but the Braves had them all. The Braves third starter, whomever you want to put in there, would have been an ace on 90% of the other teams in baseball. But for Atlanta, it was ‘just another' starting pitcher.
The days of the Braves having more than one ace are probably over. That's something this spoiled Braves fan base is going to have to realize. What happened here for all those years was unusual, unprecedented, and even historic. Most teams are lucky to have a legitimate ace – just one, much less two solid top-of-the-rotation starters. The Braves had three, with had being the important word.
But now, with Hudson gone for at least twelve months, they don't have an ace. We were all curious how Hudson himself would do with Smoltz and Glavine possibly gone. Could he handle the pressure of being the one ace in the Braves' rotation? We may never know now. Hudson, who has a mutual option for the 2010 season, may never pitch again in an Atlanta uniform.
Hudson will have the surgery next week in Alabama with Dr. James Andrews making the incisions. So that means his one-year anniversary date, which seems to be important for recovering Tommy John patients, will be around the second week of August in 2009.
But twelve months for a starting pitcher is not always enough time to return from that procedure. Chris Carpenter, who made his comeback this past week against the Braves, took just over twelve months. He was lucky. John Smoltz came back six weeks after his one-year anniversary date when he had TJ in 2000. The timetable is usually 12-16 months. Yes, Hudson might be back in August of 2009, but if he has any setbacks he might not pitch at all next season.
And that means Hudson could be done as a Brave. If he doesn't pitch at all next season, it's doubtful the Braves would want to pick up that 2010 option. But either way the Braves can't wait on him. In fact, it's going to be hard to wait on anybody.
Remember, Smoltz and Glavine are still giving signs they are not done yet. Smoltz had the shoulder surgery, but he seems intent on pitching somewhere next season. Glavine still has to prove he can pitch again this year, and if he does it might make him more determined to come back one more time next year.
But the Braves can't go into another season saying, ‘Well Smoltz might be back in May, and Glavine might be back in June, and Hudson could be back in August.' That didn't seem to work too well this year. You might as well say the team might be in fourth place again if you're going to have those questions lingering all season.
The sad part, however, is the injury to Hudson, and the subsequent desperate state its left the Braves' rotation, might make it necessary to see if Smoltz and Glavine can return. They may not have a choice but to see if those two have any gas left in the tank.
As we sit here today, on August 2nd, and try to name the pitchers guaranteed of a spot in the 2009 Atlanta rotation, most will only name one player: Jair Jurrjens. That's one pitcher. Jurrjens has been great this season as a rookie, but you don't want to put the pressure on a 23-year-old (which is how old he'll be next season) to be a number one or number two. That's dangerous.
Now an argument could be made for Jorge Campillo, and there's no doubt his outstanding work merits that case. But is Campillo this year's Damian Moss? Or this year's Jorge Sosa?
Campillo has come out of nowhere, well Mexico really, to be one of the pleasant stories in a year desperate for anything positive. He's a soon-to-be 30-year-old right-hander that is finally having success in the major leagues. Does that mean he's just a late bloomer who will continue to be a dependable starter, or is he just a one-year wonder who will eventually fizzle out?
If you want to count Campillo for 2009, you'd probably have to do so as a bottom-of-the-rotation starter. It might be safe to predict Campillo could be effective as a number four or number five starter. But that's it. You can't project him as a middle or top-of-the-rotation guy, at least not yet.
Charlie Morton looked great on Saturday, and he's definitely had enough impressive outings to make you believe he's ready to stay up in the big leagues. But a young kid like that needs to be a fifth starter. Jo Jo Reyes? Well, he's showed glimpses of effectiveness, but the consistency needs to be there. Chuck James? As we saw Friday night, James' chances may be running out. And if top prospect Tommy Hanson shows he's ready next spring, he'll only be counted on as the fifth starter as he starts his career.
It was so easy before Hudson got hurt to look at next season and believe the only thing that might be needed was one starter – someone to be the number two after Hudson and before Jurrjens and the other young and inexperienced starting pitchers. How strong would that have been? You would have had your ace in place with Hudson, a solid number three in Jurrjens, and then strong candidates (Campillo, Morton, Reyes, and possibly Hanson) to fill out the remaining two positions in the rotation.
But now, that's impossible to imagine. Now Frank Wren has to go get not one, but two starting pitchers. And he has to get more than just a starting pitcher. He's got to go find an ace. And then he has to go find a number two or number three to join Jurrjens in the top part of the rotation.
With $48 million coming off the books (well maybe even more since Teixeira's money came off early with his trade) it would have been so easy to dedicate part of that money to one starting pitcher. Yes, Smoltz and Glavine are options, but how much can we, at least as we sit here in August, count on those two? The Braves might offer them a low base ($2 million?) and then pack it with incentives, but how can you even think about those two as top-of-the-rotation possibilities right now?
The Braves need top-of-the-rotation pitchers. Yes, if healthy, Smoltz and Glavine would fit. But Smoltz will be 42 next May and Glavine will turn 43 next March. If it were five, or even ten years ago, you could possibly count on them more to come back strong. But they're in their 40s, which means there are no guarantees at all.
There has never been a year where the Braves have had this much money available, but they may need even more. Wren and team President John Schuerholz might have to go to Liberty Media and ask for the payroll to increase to $100 million or even more, especially if they plan to give contracts to Smoltz and/or Glavine that could escalate if they return.
If the current payroll, around $90 million, stays at the same level, it will essentially be a $77 million dollar payroll with Hudson's $13 million on the disabled list. That will also in turn give Wren less wiggle room this winter. Yes, part of Hudson's contract may be covered by insurance, but there's never a guarantee of that happening. So unless the Braves want to be handcuffed by a huge chunk being on the DL, as they were for 35 months with Hampton, they need to get a higher payroll for 2009.
That higher payroll must be in place to afford two top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers. And it's not like that's the only need the Braves will have this winter. They also have to address an outfield that has been horrific this season. Left field has been a revolving door for this team for a decade and needs some stability. They need to determine if Jordan Schafer is ready for center field, or if Gregor Blanco will be the one to replace Mark Kotsay. And Lord knows what to do in right field, where Jeff Francoeur has now given the franchise reason to wonder if he'll ever be their franchise player.
Chances are Wren will look to sign a free agent to fill one of the spots in the rotation, and thankfully, unlike last winter, the market for starting pitchers is pretty deep. Obviously the prize of the market will be C.C. Sabathia, who showed on Saturday why he might command $20 million dollars per season for five or six years. Sabathia is a true ace, and with all that money the Braves have available it might be foolish not to spend it on someone who will take on that role and be one of the best pitchers in the game.
Will Wren allocate that much to one player? He's hinted before he doesn't like doing that. In spring training, when a caller on ‘The Bill Shanks Show' asked him why he didn't go after Johan Santana last winter, Wren said he just didn't believe in giving that high of a percentage of the team payroll to one player. But he was saying that when he obviously didn't have a huge need for a starting pitcher. Now, unfortunately, he does.
If the report is true, Wren offered Mark Teixeira a five-year, $95 million dollar deal back in spring training. Of course, Teixeira is looking for twice that amount. But would Wren, with the need being so great now due to the Hudson injury, throw that same offer toward Sabathia?
And it's clear that Sabathia will be in that neighborhood. Just look at Santana's contract for the parameters of C.C.'s possible deal. Santana signed with the Mets for six years and $137.5 million dollars – an average of 22.92 million dollars. After Santana you have Carlos Zambrano (five years at an average of $18.3 million) and then Barry Zito (seven years at an average of $18 million). So Sabathia is probably going to be somewhere in between Santana and Zambrano.
Now that's an enormous amount of money to pay to anyone, much less Sabathia, who tips the scales at 290 pounds. Logic would tell you that a body like that, even though he's six-foot-seven, might break down as he gets older. But after watching Sabathia pitch so well in high-90s temps in Atlanta on Saturday, it makes you wonder if questioning anything about him is just downright foolish. The guy is just an outstanding starting pitcher, and he's a true ace.
Place Sabathia in the Atlanta rotation and it would seem to get easier from there, especially since he's a lefty. Perhaps signing Sabathia would mean the need for the other starter would be less important, meaning you might only have to go get a number three and put Jurrjens in as the number two. And having that immediate ace would leave no doubt who would be at the top of the rotation, a rotation that hasn't had a lot of doubt in the past eighteen years.
Sabathia is a clear ace that will be available as a free agent. The other is his current teammate in Milwaukee, Ben Sheets. Now we all know the deal with Sheets. He has been very injury-prone, pitching more than 156 innings only three times in his eight years in the big leagues and not one year since 2004. If healthy, there is no doubt Sheets is a Cy Young candidate. But after a year of dealing with broken down pitchers, would the Braves want to take a gamble on Ben Sheets?
The Mike Hampton situation would scare anyone off, and even though the Braves didn't sign Hampton to that albatross of a contract, they've had to suffer for 35 months of having what they were paying him sit on the disabled list. So the thought of giving an injury-plagued Ben Sheets over $15 million dollars per season may not be the priority.
Most of the other free agent pitchers would fit in as number two pitchers in a rotation. There are some good arms available, but besides Sabathia and Sheets it might be hard to call any of the others slam-dunk aces. Here's a list of some of the ones that might be the most attractive:
A.J. Burnett – (must opt out) – wild but talented – maybe more of a two or three
Jon Garland – Braves tried to get him for Edgar Renteria in 2007
Derek Lowe – Very intriguing as a number two or three
Oliver Perez – Boras client; next…
Kyle Lohse – Boras client; next…
Andy Pettitte – Braves have a lot of respect for Pettitte, but he'll be expensive
Ryan Dempster – someone will overpay for Dempster's solid season
Paul Byrd – Braves had him before; he'd be a cheaper option as a four; still lives in Atlanta
Randy Johnson – will probably stay in Arizona to win his 300th game next season
Pedro Martinez – How much does he have left in the tank?
Braden Looper – more of a number three
Mike Mussina – Having a rebirth at 38; will probably stay in NY
Jamie Moyer – Still pitching while drawing Social Security
Brad Penny – has an option, but his injury leaves him as a question mark
As you see, none on that list compare to Sabathia and Sheets as far as being a true number one pitcher, which could make those two even more valuable this winter.
The Braves could look to trade for an ace, and then sign one of the pitchers on the above list as the number two starter. That is very possible, especially if they just don't want to commit to paying Sabathia or Sheets. The trade market could present several interesting possibilities for potential aces.
Roy Oswalt – Houston - signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012 averaging $15 million – The Astros, like the Braves, have a lot of needs. Oswalt is close to owner Drayton McLane, but would they use Oswalt to improve their roster.
Aaron Harang – Cincinnati - signed through 2010 with a club option for 2011 averaging $12 million – The Reds have a lot of pitching depth and could use Harang in a deal to help a depleted outfield with the trade of Ken Griffey, Jr.
Jake Peavy – San Diego - signed through 2012 with a club option for 2013 averaging $14 million – The rumors of this Mobile, Alabama resident and lifelong Braves' fan have not ceased. He just signed that deal, but the Padres are horrible making anything possible.
Roy Halladay – Toronto - two years left on a deal that averages $15 million - For some reason rumors persist the Blue Jays will trade Halladay, who is a true ace. He's said he wants to play for a winner and sounds tired of being with a mediocre team.
Zach Greinke – Kansas City - two years left under control – arby eligible – will go up from $1.4 mil – There was talk about a Greinke-for-Jeff Francoeur trade before the deadline. Has Greinke gotten past his issues? He's got potential to be an ace.
Eric Bedard – Seattle - one year before becoming a free agent – his sub par season makes you wonder if the Mariners will trade him to get something back. Was he just a fluke in Baltimore? Not a long track record as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
So the Braves could trade for one of these six pitchers and then sign one of the second-tier free agents to fill the void. And there is probably someone we're missing that might also be an option to be acquired this winter.
It is very possible that the two starters who will need to be acquired could take up 60% or more of that available $48 million dollars, and remember that part of that money has to be spent on a big bat for the Braves lineup. So the Braves are going to have to be creative here, even if Liberty increases the payroll up near the $100 million mark.
See the impact of Hudson's injury. If he had not gotten hurt, you wouldn't have to worry about having enough money of the $48 million to improve the team. The Braves could have possibly signed a starting pitcher for a fourth of that money and then saved the rest to improve a very inconsistent offense. Now, with Hudson gone, the strategy must change.
But going after two starters, and particularly going after two top-of-the-rotation starters, is easier said than done. This is not a situation where the Braves need to sign Paul Byrd and trade for Russ Ortiz, as they did after the 2002 season. They need better pitchers this time around, guys that will be counted on for 32-40 wins and 370-420 innings. They are that desperate, and it is that important.
They are so desperate that if Mike Hampton pitches well the rest of the season, the Braves may even have to consider bringing him back next year. Yes, we'd all love for Hampton to pitch for the minimum considering how long his millions have sat on the disabled list, but that won't happen. And no team is going to throw a lot of money his way considering his history, which would make a low-risk gamble something you would have to think about if he shows he can still be effective the rest of the way.
The loss of Hudson shows those who thought about including him in the fire sale the importance of an ace. Now that the Braves don't really have one anymore, you see now how special they can be in a rotation. Again, part of that is because the fans took that for granted for all those seasons with the three aces in the same rotation. But that's just not the situation anymore.
If the Braves are going to get back on track, they've got to do it by taking the same approach that made them a perennial contender for fifteen seasons. They've got to once again be a pitching-oriented team. And the crazy thing is, even after the losses of Smoltz and Glavine in May, the future for the rotation seemed kind of bright after Jo Jo Reyes got on a roll and Charlie Morton showed promise when he came up. Again, you thought as long as a veteran was placed in between those kids and the ace this winter the rotation would be a strong point in 2009.
But that all depended on Tim Hudson being at the top of the rotation, and now that he's going to be gone, the possibilities are endless. It will make for an interesting winter, one that for the first time in more than two decades will find the Braves scrambling for an ace pitcher and someone to fall right behind him in the rotation.
Let's hope Liberty Media realizes how crucial an offseason this will be and will give Frank Wren the resources to be competitive in the marketplace. If they don't, this team will be lucky to battle for third place next season in the National League East. The $48 million coming off the books is nice, and unprecedented, but the loss of Hudson shows the needs may force even more money to be available to make sure this club can be a winner again.
So many things have happened to the Braves this season, and to think that Mike Hampton is the only veteran left after all the injuries is downright comical. But the loss of Tim Hudson was a cruel blow, one that will make it even more difficult for Frank Wren to get this organization back on track.
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 hosts 'The Bill Shanks Show' on WIFN SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon and 'The Atlanta Baseball Show' on 680 the Fan in Atlanta. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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