The Braves have done a good job of strengthening the rotation with the additions of Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, and finally Derek Lowe. But with the rotation now crowded there could be one negative out of all the moves.
Either Charlie Morton or Jo Jo Reyes might not get a chance this season.
Some of you are saying, ‘who cares. They weren't that good anyway.' But we really need to be careful about giving up on these two young pitchers too soon.
The Braves have done that a bit too much over the past several years. Adam Wainwright, Zach Miner, and Kyle Davies have all been traded away and found success elsewhere. So the Braves, even with the improved depth, don't need to do that again.
Morton and Reyes were both thrust into an impossible situation last summer. It wasn't that they were brought up too soon, although it's arguable that they could have used a bit more time in the minors developing more. Instead, it was the responsibility they had to take on in the rotation.
With the injuries to the top four pitchers in the rotation (John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, and Mike Hampton), Morton and Reyes had to assume roles in the middle of the rotation. They were in the number three and four spots for most of the late summer, instead of being at the bottom of the rotation where the pressure is a little less intense for a young pitcher.
Morton continued his success from the 2007 Arizona Fall League with an outstanding start in Triple-A. He had a 2.05 ERA in 13 games with 51 hits allowed, 27 walks, and 72 strikeouts in 79 innings pitched. But when he got to the majors things were a bit more difficult.
Morton's debut in mid-June was a success, with a strong start against the powerful Angels lineup in Anaheim. But in Morton's next seven starts he had an ERA of 7.77. When August started Morton showed why the Braves had so much confidence in his ability. He allowed two runs in seven innings against the Brewers, and then he turned right around in his next start and had seven shutout innings against Arizona.
It was no surprise that Morton would show inconsistency. After those two good starts to start the month of August, Morton had a bad start (four runs allowed in 2.1 innings against the Cubs), and then a good one (three runs allowed in six innings against the Giants). Then he had a bad start (four runs allowed in 1.1 innings), followed by a good one (two runs allowed in six innings).
But the talent was clearly there. Morton's inconsistency was not a surprise. His pitches were crisp and solid. There is little doubt Morton has solid stuff, with a solid above average fastball and a knee-buckling curve.
Reyes also showed inconsistency. When he got called up in May after the injury to Tom Glavine, Reyes had a solid start against the Reds. Two starts later he was impressive against the Phillies, even though his line (five runs allowed in 6.2 innings) wasn't very good. And then late in May Reyes was outstanding in Milwaukee, giving up one earned run in seven innings against the tough Brewers lineup.
The month of June was fairly solid for Reyes. Half of his six starts were quality starts, and Reyes lasted six innings of more in all but one start in June. A tough four starts in July got him sent back down to Richmond, but when Reyes returned he continued to show inconsistency, with a few good starts and a few bad ones as well.
Reyes has good stuff. When he challenges hitters and is aggressive, he can be very tough to hit. But he just has to keep that aggressive approach in every inning of every game. If he does that, the Braves believe Reyes can, in fact, be successful.
Obviously, both Morton and Reyes have to show the one thing that can separate young pitchers: consistency. If they can do that, there's a good chance they can be big league starters for many years to come.
But will they get the chance with the Braves? With Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami joining Jair Jurrjens in the rotation, it will leave only one opening in the 2009 rotation. Morton and Reyes are set to battle Jorge Campillo, James Parr, Tommy Hanson, and perhaps even Tom Glavine for that job.
They both have to know that this is their chance. They have the ability to go to Florida and show the Braves they belong in that rotation. But only one will make it; the ‘loser' of the competition will probably be the opening night starter in Gwinnett.
Of course, the winner of the competition still has to worry about a few other things. Tim Hudson could come back in August and push them out of the way. Tommy Hanson, the Braves top prospect, could push them from behind (if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job himself in March). So if Morton or Reyes win the job, they're going to have to pitch very well and show that consistency to keep the job.
The talent is there for both of these guys. It's somewhat unfortunate that both can't be given the chance to start 30 games and have a full season for the Atlanta Braves. It's still hard to judge a pitcher in his first year, knowing there is usually going to be inconsistency.
It's so easy for fans to assume a five-man rotation will stay intact for an entire season. We've definitely learned the last few seasons that it usually takes six to ten pitchers to start for a team for an entire year. Who knows, maybe this is the year the Braves actually stay healthy for a change. And if that happens, one of these two young pitchers might not see much big league time.
There is still the chance one or even both of these two pitchers could be traded. The Braves still have a huge need in the outfield. But the priority is to keep Morton and Reyes and to give them a chance to battle it out in March for that last spot in the rotation.
The ability to accurately scout your own players is the most difficult job in scouting. The Braves have to know what they've got with Morton and Reyes, and if one of them is better than the other they have to make sure they keep that player. The competition in March may decide that, and hopefully one of those two pitchers will win the job and reward the Braves (and its fans) for their patience in a young hurler.
Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, 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. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don't count out Charlie and Jo Jo
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