There is much anticipation as we start the 2009 season. It all kicks off Wednesday with the first of 191 games for the Atlanta Braves with the Grapefruit League opener in Lakeland, Florida.
But if the Braves are to play more than their 31 preseason and 162 regular season games, and play past October 4th, a number of things have to happen. We all know the main keys to this season, but there are two wildcards that could really impact the potential success for a team and a fan base hungry to get back to the postseason.
General Manager Frank Wren made improving the starting rotation his priority this offseason. While he hoped for Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett, he had to settle on Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami. But there is no doubt the rotation is much improved.
Lowe, Vazquez, and Kawakami will join Jair Jurrjens and Tom Glavine in what could be a very impressive starting five. If Lowe and Vazquez pitch the way they have in the past, and if Kawakami pitches the way did in Japan, and if Jurrjens pitches the way he did last year, and if Glavine has a little gas left in the tank the rotation could be one of the best in the National League.
But the real drama to this year's rotation will be much different than what happened last season. Instead of wondering how the Braves will replace injured pitchers, as they had to do from the first week of last season when Mike Hampton couldn't make it out of the bullpen for his first start, the Braves could instead be looking for ways to make room for pitchers who could truly make a difference.
What in the world is this team going to do when Tim Hudson returns from Tommy John Surgery and when Tommy Hanson makes his big league debut?
The rotation is pretty stacked already, along with probably sending two members of last year's rotation (Charlie Morton and Jo Jo Reyes) to Triple-A and another member (Jorge Campillo) to the bullpen. That's eight deep, and yet Hudson and Hanson (who make it ten deep) could move several out of the way pretty quickly.
Hudson had Tommy John surgery last August 8th, so he's two weeks past his six month anniversary. He's already throwing off a mound down in Florida. But Hudson's recovery is going very well, and the Braves are hopeful he can return around the time of his one-year anniversary.
What will happen if Hudson comes back around August 8th? There will be fifty-one games remaining in the season, just less than one-third of the campaign. How big of a boost would it be to get last year's number one pitcher back in the rotation for a stretch drive?
Make no mistake about it, Tim Hudson had emerged as the Braves' top starter. Yeah, John Smoltz was still around, but his Braves career was falling apart. Hudson took the reigns and ran with it, at least until his injury in August.
The Braves almost traded Hudson after his lackluster 2006 season, but thankfully Baltimore didn't want him for Brian Roberts and Hudson got the chance to bounce back in 2007. He was on his way to sixteen more wins last season when his season ended prematurely.
And if all goes well with his recovery from Tommy John, Hudson could come back with a large chunk of the season still to be played. It would be like acquiring a top-of-the-rotation starter at the trade deadline. And it could give the Braves a huge boost, even if the rotation is not a problem at the time.
While Hudson's timetable is a bit more narrowed to sometime around his one-year anniversary, there's no telling when Tommy Hanson could make his big league debut. Heck, it could come in early April for all we know, especially if he continues to dazzle the Braves down in Florida.
Braves Manager Bobby Cox may have a little mancrush on the tall right-hander. Every time Hanson is on the mound, we hear the veteran skipper rave about Hanson's talent. The kid is good, and those who haven't seen him are just now finding that out.
Chances are Hanson will go back to the minor leagues just one more time. But it won't be for long. The question is, how will he get his opportunity?
No one wants a pitcher to get hurt, especially with what the Braves have gone through the last few years. But we know that in most seasons starting pitchers do get hurt. It's impossible to believe a rotation can go through a full season without having someone go on the disabled list.
Is that how Hanson might get his chance?
Well, what's going to happen if Hanson goes to Triple-A and pitches really well, forcing the Braves to want him in the major league rotation? If everyone in Atlanta is doing okay in the rotation, how will the Braves make room for him?
It would be easy to assume the Braves could just mosey Tom Glavine out to pasture, and it's true they will do that if he's struggling. But what if Glavine is fixed and does bounce back to be ‘the Tom Glavine of old?' That will make it unlikely the veteran future Hall of Famer will go anywhere.
That's the scary thing, really. Hanson may force his way into the Atlanta rotation. Why should we believe he's going to struggle in Triple-A? Instead, if he does what he did in the Arizona Fall League and what he's done so far in Florida this month, Hanson is only going to make the Braves wonder how in the world they are going to get him into the rotation.
What if all this happens at the same time? What if Hudson returns to reclaim his top spot in the rotation, and Hanson knocks on the door and needs to come up to the big leagues? How in the world are the Braves going to make room?
Well, if there is a need for another bat, the Braves can take one of their starting pitchers and make a major trade. But if the lineup is doing well, the Braves might simply have to make an upgrade. If there is a player available at the time that could be an upgrade at a certain position, the Braves may have the perfect price to pay to improve the roster.
We're use to thinking about the worst case scenarios considering what has happened the last few seasons. But the depth that has now been accumulated does make it interesting to wonder about best case scenarios, such as Hudson returning and Hanson coming up.
The potential to add a proven top of the rotation starter and a potential top of the rotation starting pitcher is very unusual. Not many teams in baseball can even wonder if this could be possible. But the Braves can, and that could be one of the best dramas to watch in 2009.
Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show. 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.
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