Internal options for the rotation
The Braves are going to search for more starting pitching this winter. That's obviously not a secret or a surprise. The rotation broke down in 2008 due to serious injuries to the expected top three starters: John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and Tom Glavine.
The expectation is the Braves will seek two new starting pitchers over the offseason. The debate about who is the best pitchers to target, both in trades and through free agency, will be one of the top discussions of the hot stove league.
But before we talk more about who needs to be brought in, let's talk a bit about how will be back and who could be back. Let's talk about the internal options the Braves will have for the rotation in 2009. We'll list them in order of games started this season.
1) Jair Jurrjens - How much more could have been expected from Jurrjens, who was acquired from the Tigers in the Edgar Renteria trade last October. He's won 13 games and is a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award in the National League. Jurrjens is will turn 23 years old this January, so his best days are clearly ahead of him. The Braves feel they have a solid number two or three starter in Jurrjens for years to come. He's running out of gas this season, but it will only help him next year when the Braves are hopefully in a pennant race again next September.
2) Jorge Campillo - If you had been told back in March that Campillo would make 24 starts for the Braves, you probably would have assumed correctly that the team was in for a long season. Campillo's workload proves you have to have depth in the organization when planning for a season. There's a lot of emphasis on finding the best five starters at the end of March, but you really have to have more than that. Campillo did well as a starter, but he's one of those pitchers that you wonder how long he can be effective. He does not have dominating stuff, and it's not like he was unhittable this season. But Campillo could fill a role somewhere. Might it be as a bottom-of-the-rotation option? Perhaps. He'll probably go to spring training and have to fight for a job, and unless the Braves' kids beat him out Campillo could be the fourth or fifth starter next season.
3) Tim Hudson - He took over as the ace after the injuries to Smoltz and Glavine and really took control of the roll. But elbow trouble ended his season in July, and Hudson was one of many to visit Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham. Hudson had Tommy John Surgery, with an expected return next August or September. But there's no guarantee he'll be back at all in the majors next year. Chris Carpenter struggled coming back from TJ this season, and Mike Gonzalez, a reliever, took a bit more time than expected. And we all know the troubles Mike Hampton had coming back from elbow trouble. But Hudson is a warrior who still can't believe he had to have the surgery. He'll fight hard to return before the end of next season, especially if the Braves are in the pennant race. If he could return, it would be like acquiring an ace pitcher in a deadline-day deal. But the Braves can't afford to count on Hudson. They have to plan on him not being back, cause if they go the other way and expect his return they could get burned.
4) Jo Jo Reyes - The Braves really wanted Reyes to take control of a rotation spot so it would be one that would be solved and settled going into next year. Instead, Reyes has struggled with an ERA just under 6. Reyes is still young, only 24 in two months, but there is no doubt Braves' Manager Bobby Cox grew impatient with Reyes toward the end of the season. He's not guaranteed much of anything except an invitation to go and compete for a rotation spot in March. However, don't be surprised if Reyes is thrown into a deal to acquire a more proven starter this winter. The Braves have to be careful with Reyes. They know he has good stuff and good talent, but he's got to start showing some solid results. You just have to hope it's not too late.
5) Charlie Morton - At times Morton looked terrific, like when he shut down Milwaukee and Arizona in early August, and then there were times when he struggled as all young pitchers do, like when he failed to get out of the second inning against St. Louis on August 22nd. There is no doubt that the stuff is there. It was advertised before Charlie arrived and he delivered on showing everyone he has big league stuff. The Braves just wanted more consistency. But this is so similar to the late-80s with Smoltz and Glavine and Pete Smith and Kent Mercker. The original ‘Young Guns' all struggled at times, and the Braves were pretty much rewarded with their patience. Will it happen again with Morton? He'll probably have to go to spring training and compete for a job. If he does well in Florida, Morton could easily be the Braves' fifth starter. He could have an advantage going into camp just based on his stuff, but he's got to produce and show consistency.
6) Tom Glavine - Who knows. Glavine says he wants to come back, and the Braves have all the leverage since everyone knows the Braves are the only team he'll pitch for to end his career. The Braves could give him a contract with a low base and pack it with incentives, but the problem is the timetable. Glavine might not know anything until January, and the Braves have to go ahead and plan their rotation and acquire some help before then. But again, you have to have options, and if Glavine does do well in his recovery the Braves will probably invite him back. With Bobby Cox still around for next season, it would be shocking if the team did not come to some sort of an agreement with Glavine, who is a Cox favorite. But Glavine has to show something in January that he's pain-free and can still pitch. If he can, he could get a little spending money for his kids, but don't expect any contract to be significant. The Braves just can't gamble on a big contract for a soon-to-be 43-year-old lefty who is headed to Cooperstown.
7) Mike Hampton - Well it's hard to believe we're talking about bringing him back, since most of us were counting down until the day he leaves. But how can this not be an option considering the holes the Braves have to fill in the rotation? Hampton has pitched well for the most part since he returned in July, with six quality starts in his first eleven appearances. Hampton is what he is, and what he was before his injury, and the Braves know that if Hampton can stay healthy and out there on the mound he can be effective. There's a chance some team could come in and swoop him away with a larger offer, but it's not like Hampton is seeking financial security with his next contract. So if he wants to come back, and if the contract offer has incentives, there's a chance Hampton could return. For a low-risk contract, Hampton might be worth bringing back as a fourth starter, but to expect anything more than that is just not logical. The Braves will talk to Hampton, so don't be shocked if he returns.
8) Chuck James - It probably should have happened sooner, but James had surgery earlier this month as Dr. Andrews, who has undoubtedly purchased a summer home in the South of France with his Braves' cases this season, repaired the rotator cuff and cleaned up a frayed labrum. James will miss at least the first half of the 2009 season and perhaps be out longer. When he returns, it would perhaps be useful for the Braves to figure out what exactly they want James to do, even considering his potential as a reliever. But James should not really be counted on as a starter next year, unless the starters again collapse and James is simply around at the right time late next season.
9) John Smoltz - Count him out and you'll look foolish. He's going to come back, and Smoltz's preference is to come back with the Braves. But even he is non-committal about a return to the rotation. He's first got to see how he feels in January when he pitches off the mound and then take the next step. But the Braves have to make a decision on whether they want to wait that long and if they want to bring Smoltz back at all. Perhaps they just want to move on and go with new blood. Again, as with Glavine, with Bobby Cox still manager, it's unlikely Smoltz will pitch elsewhere in 2009. But don't count on him as a starter. He'll probably be back, and he'll probably be back as a reliever. That will make it much easier for the Braves to slide him into the bullpen compared to saving a spot for him in the rotation.
10) James Parr - His first three big league starts have been impressive, as Parr has allowed only four runs in 16.1 innings. He's definitely got himself on the radar and caught the attention of his manager. Bobby Cox has repeatedly talked about Parr's mound presence and his ability to trust his own stuff, which is not overpowering. So expect Parr to come to spring training with a chance to be the fifth starter. He could battle with Charlie Morton, Jorge Campillo, and the younger kids for that last spot in the rotation. Parr really wasn't a major option for this team when the season started, but his impressive work in Double-A and Triple-A (13-7 overall with a 3.52 ERA in 28 games) earned him a promotion and his subsequent good work in Atlanta now has James Parr in the discussion.
11) Tommy Hanson - Some believe Tommy Hanson is ready for his shot in the big leagues. He was 11-5 this season between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi with a 2.41 ERA, 85 hits allowed in 138 innings, and 163 strikeouts. Hanson now has 322.2 career minor league innings, which is a little low compared to the 450-500 usually preferred for a kid pitcher. But remember Hanson was in JUCO baseball, which some believe is equivalent to the lower levels of the minor leagues. He'll go to Arizona in the fall and then go to big league camp in March. Expect Hanson to get his chance to show he's ready, but he'll have to compete with Parr, Morton, Reyes, and Campillo for the fifth starters spot. Don't count him out, and don't be surprised if he finishes next season as an important part of the Atlanta rotation.
12) Kris Medlen - When the season began, it might have been expected to include Medlen in a discussion about the potential 2009 bullpen, but a mid-season switch to the rotation has the right-hander now reaching for new heights. Medlen was dominating as a starter, posting a 6-5 record in 17 starts with a 3.11 ERA, 84 hits in 89.2 innings, only 21 walks, and 90 strikeouts. Medlen has three above-average pitches and he's tough on the mound, so with his success there's no use in limiting him to the bullpen. He may be a longshot to win a job out of spring training, but if Medlen continues to do well, he'll be in Atlanta at some point next season. It's just a question of whether he'll be in the rotation or the bullpen. Either way, Medlen is now a very serious internal option for this club.
13) Todd Redmond - Acquired in spring training for reliever Tyler Yates, Redmond was outstanding in Double-A Mississippi, winning the Southern League Pitcher of the Year award. Redmond was 13-5 with a league-leading 128 strikeouts. He's kind of a right-handed Chuck James, with very average stuff. But Redmond knows how to win and gives his team a chance to win, which remains the most important things a pitcher must do. He'll get a big league invite to spring training and get his chance to show the major league staff what he can do. Redmond is interesting, and the Braves are anxious to test him again more next year at a higher level.
14) Anthony Lerew - He came back from Tommy John Surgery and pitched in nine games in Triple-A in the final six weeks of the minor league season. Lerew will probably go to spring training and get another chance, but he's got to prove he's healthy and can be effective. He's shown the stuff before, but Lerew has to control himself more to show that he wants to be a big leaguer. The Braves will probably give him one more big chance, but if he doesn't show something he'll be in jeopardy of being gone.
PREDICTION: The Braves will go seek a number one and number two starter. They'll sign Derek Lowe as their number two starting pitcher. He's averaged 15 wins and 210 innings as a starter over the past seven seasons. They'll probably trade for an ace to compliment Lowe and Jurrjens, who will settle in as the number three. Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, and Roy Oswalt are a few names to keep in mind. Don't expect the Braves to get into the bidding for C.C. Sabathia, who will just be too expensive. Mike Hampton and/or Tom Glavine will be brought back as the number four, with Jorge Campillo also a possibility. Campillo will also compete with the younger kids (Morton, Parr, Reyes, Hanson, Medlen, Redmond, Lerew) for the fifth starter's job.
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Bill Shanks hosts The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He 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. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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