Pitching is still the key

So how can the Braves get back on track? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has the answer.

Okay, so it's been a tough offseason. It's not been the windfall we all expected, knowing the Braves had needs to be filled and resources to fill them.

This Atlanta Braves team needs to get better. We all know that. It needs to get better in 2009 and then take the next step to make this team a contender, a consistent contender, once again.

But it's probably going to take more than the changes General Manager Frank Wren has envisioned this winter - the one he's made and the ones he's tried to make. It's going to take a movement similar to the one that happened some 23 years ago.

That was the winter Bobby Cox came back to Atlanta - only that time as the General Manager. He decided, with Scouting Director Paul Snyder, that the Braves would move away from their power-hitting reputation and go more with pitching.

The emphasis resulted in several great draft picks and a few great moves. The pitching stockpile the Braves created was the main reason the franchise had a historic run of success from 1991 through 2005.

We're not saying the Braves have to go out there and necessarily draft another Tom Glavine, or trade for another John Smoltz, and sign another Greg Maddux. That will never, we repeat, never happen again. It's unrealistic to expect another Hall of Fame rotation to just pop up in a flash. That was a once-in-a-lifetime rotation that will never be repeated.

But the Braves can still get back to leaning on pitching for its success. There may not be another Hall of Famer in the farm system, but there doesn't have to be. All the Braves need is to develop quality arms, pitchers that can be a part of the fabric of the team for the next decade.

It would have been nice for Jake Peavy or A.J. Burnett to be at the top of that future rotation. A quality veteran to lead the new group of Braves arms would have come in handy, especially with Tim Hudson's future still up in the air. But that obviously won't happen.

Instead the Braves are going to have to do what they did 23 years ago - lean on its farm system. Sure, there may still be a veteran to join Javier Vazquez for next season, but the swings and misses on Peavy and Burnett this winter truly signify the reliance will have to come from within.

And that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that. But we may just have to all adjust our timetable a bit for those kids to be ready. Yes, the Braves have quality arms in its system, but you can't expect things to just happen overnight.

Tommy Hanson has great potential. He could be an impact player in 2009, but then again it might take Hanson a bit longer to become a big factor. And we have to have the patience to allow him to become that impact player.

Hanson has the ability to become that top-of-the-rotation starter that every rotation needs. And it seems to matter so much more when it comes from within. Yes, teams like the Yankees can throw money around and get C.C. Sabathia and Burnett for the top of its rotation, but they wouldn't have had to do that if Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy would have developed as planned.

Hanson is the Braves best shot at an ace-type pitcher since Steve Avery in the early 1990s. And do not underestimating the importance of having a young pitcher lead your rotation. It gives a front office an opportunity to build the rotation around that player, instead of searching for someone to be at the top.

Best case-scenario - let's say Hanson is that pitcher who can be at the top of the rotation. That would allow the Braves to see who fits in right behind him. They may have to add a veteran or two along the way, as the franchise did when it added Greg Maddux. But it would give the team time to build a rotation that could be the key to its success for a long time.

The candidates are there. Lefty Cole Rohrbough, if he stays healthy, could take a Hanson-like jump in another twelve months. We all know how scouts feel about teenage phenom Julio Teheran. The trio of Hanson, Rohrbough, and Teheran is a good place to start.

And there are more candidates. With the plans to add important starters for 2009 now on hold, it opens up the opportunity for Jo Jo Reyes and Charlie Morton to show us again what they may become. Maybe it will be a blessing in disguise if those two both get thirty starts next season, instead of discarding them too quickly, as the Braves did with Adam Wainwright and Kyle Davies.

Even if one of those two could become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, that would fit perfectly in the plan. And we've certainly discovered over the past two years that you can never underestimate the importance of a solid number three or number four starting pitcher in a rotation.

But the development of the pitchers in the farm system will be crucial for this plan to work. The Braves are anxious to see how other arms fare in 2009. Will Todd Redmond become a potential big league arm, or maybe a Ryne Reynoso or a Scott Diamond? Then you look down into the pitchers heading to Myrtle Beach and Rome and wonder who will take that next step.

The Braves just had a draft last June where pitching was the priority. Eleven of the first thirteen players signed from the draft were pitchers, many of them being college and junior college arms. The ability to develop one or two middle-of-the-rotation arms from that group will also be important. And the early results from pitchers like Richard Sullivan, David Francis, Paul Clemens, and J.J. Hoover were awfully positive.

Of course, the Braves will have a high draft pick next June, the seventh overall, and that might present the opportunity to add that Clayton Kershaw-type arm that could fit right in as well.

The Braves obviously can't attract pitchers like they could fifteen years ago. It was easy to get Greg Maddux interested in joining Glavine and Smoltz in the 1993 rotation, than say convincing A.J. Burnett to join Jair Jurrjens. Burnett didn't want to come here, and neither did Jake Peavy.

So the plan is just going to have to be altered a bit, with the same strategy used two decades ago. It doesn't mean that it won't work, but it does mean the expectations for next season may have to change a bit while the answers get a little more time developing on the farm.

Pitching is still the key for this organization. And it probably always will be.

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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