Braves pitching will only get better

The Braves starting pitching has been superb this season. Is this the start of something special?

When Frank Wren set out last winter to improve the starting rotation, this is exactly what he hoped for. The Atlanta Braves' rotation is arguably the best in baseball, and it's the reason they are still in the playoff chase with a week to go in the regular season.

It's really all in the statistics. Through Friday's game, the Braves are first in baseball in starter's ERA (3.54) and quality starts (93), and second in the game in overall team ERA (3.61).

The numbers for the starting pitchers in September are even more impressive. In 22 games, the starters are 11-4 with a 2.86 ERA, 120 hits allowed in 132.1 innings pitched, 42 earned runs, 43 walks, and 110 strikeouts. They have 14 quality starts, along with 10 great starts (seven innings or more, with two or fewer runs allowed).

Since September 1, Tim Hudson has rejoined the rotation. He's done well, obviously, but his presence has also seemed to stabilize the rotation. The five that are now in the rotation for the Braves (Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, Tommy Hanson, and Derek Lowe) are perhaps the most impressive rotation in the game right now.

That's why I would imagine most teams in the National League playoff hunt do not want to see the Braves make it to the postseason. How dangerous would that rotation be in a five or seven-game series?

Regardless of whether the Braves get back in the playoffs this year or not, the improved rotation does give fans tremendous hopes that the organization has, in fact, returned to its roots. The Braves' great run of success in the 1990s was all due to pitching, and Wren knew if that was to return, he had to get the rotation fixed.

It's not only fixed, but now that Hudson is back, you wonder about what the combination will be next season, and how dangerous this group may be if they are together for six full months of baseball.

With Kenshin Kawakami, the Braves have six starters for only five spots. So what will give?

It was easy to assume that since Vazquez was under contract for one more season, he would be the one moved this winter. But he's had the best year of his solid career, and unless the Braves are blown away with an offer for a significant bat in return, it seems unlikely the Braves would move Vazquez.

Scouts have always believed Vazquez had the potential to be an ace pitcher, and this year he has been that for the Braves. With one more win he could tie his career high with 16. Vazquez's 2.83 ERA is the best mark of his career, with his second best ERA being 3.24 in 2003, his last year in Montreal. And his 229 strikeouts this season are the third most in baseball this season, and 12 shy from tying his career-high of 231.

Vazquez, knowing the numbers issue Wren has before him with the rotation, has said he would like to remain in Atlanta. His contract is up after next season, but the Braves love the guy so much it's not going to be a surprise if they offer Vazquez an extension this winter.

They could also do the same with Hudson, who is back and looks like the old Tim Hudson, who was the staff ace before his Tommy John procedure last August. The Braves could believe that two veterans like Vazquez and Hudson, combined with two young arms like Jurrjens and Hanson, could give this team an unbelievable staff for several years to come.

And then there's Lowe, who has won 15 games, but has clearly not had a dominating season. He's being paid $15 million, which is what you'd want to pay a staff ace. But right now he is arguably the Braves' fifth best starting pitcher.

Would Wren think about seeing if a team would be interested in Lowe this winter? It's so doubtful that a team would take on the remaining $45 million left on Lowe's contract for the next three years. But what if there was another high-salaried player that could be swapped for Lowe, perhaps a hitter with a shorter span remaining on his deal?

There is no doubt the excess in the rotation does give the Braves the option of using that to pursue a right-handed bat this winter. But if the Braves determine Jason Heyward is ready to start the 2010 season as the right fielder, there may not be as big a need to use the starting pitching to help the offense.

Instead, the excess could be used to get a new reliever or closer, as the Braves are probably set to allow pending free agents Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez walk this winter.

But we are seeing once again what good starting pitching can do for a team, and we'll probably see the benefits of that again this winter. The success this rotation has had this summer only makes the fan base more excited about what we could see in the coming seasons.

Anytime you have two young pitchers the caliber of Jurrjens and Hanson, there's a lot to look forward to. Then you combine them with two solid veterans like Vazquez and Hudson, and there's a chance the success we've seen in September is just the start of better things for this organization.

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