4. How will the rotation shake out in 2010?

The rotation was the strength in 2009. How will it shake out next season? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues his series on the Braves top questions for this offseason.

There is one thing we definitely know about the 2010 Atlanta Braves rotation:

Tommy Hanson will be in it.

Other than that, who knows. There is the possibility there will be six pitchers for five spots, but that all depends on Atlanta bringing Tim Hudson back.

The Braves can pick up his option, but the more likely scenario is to see the team and Hudson agree on an extension. Hudson has publicly said he would give the Braves a hometown discount, so it would be shocking if a new deal is not done.

Hudson had seven starts after he returned from Tommy John surgery. He showed he's healthy and can once again be productive as a starting pitcher.

If the Braves decide to let Hudson walk away, the rotation will be set. They'll have Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami. But if Hudson is brought back, one of the other five will more than like have to go.

Having Hudson back would give the Braves the flexibility to take one of the other starting pitchers and use that excess to improve an area of need elsewhere on the diamond.

But the question is – which one would be traded if the Braves had that option?

It would have to be a major trade to pry Jurrjens away from the Braves. He's had two outstanding seasons, and Jurrjens will be only 24 years old next season. So it's unlikely he would be a pitcher moved in a deal.

Kenshin Kawakami had a solid first season in the major leagues. He wasn't spectacular, but Kawakami proved he does have the ability to be a quality middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

The market for Kawakami might be limited, since he is due two years and $13.334 remaining on his deal. Now, that is a very affordable contract. And for a number four starter, the money is not bad. But would the Braves want to jeopardize the goodwill they created by signing Kawakami by trading him within a year of signing him to a deal?

The Braves said they wanted to have Kawakami open up the market for Japanese players to come to the organization. So if they sign Kawakami and then trade him within a year, chances are it would be tough to sign another Japanese star in the future. Other teams would use that against the Braves in negotiations.

So it seems unlikely Kawakami would be moved this winter. Plus, the Braves believe the guy can be a winner in the big leagues. They have faith Kawakami can win 12-15 games per season in the next two years.

That leaves two remaining options to be traded: Javier Vazquez or Derek Lowe. Vazquez would undoubtedly be easier to trade. He's under contract for only one more season, at a very affordable $11.5 million dollar contract for a pitcher who was arguably the Braves ace last season.

But the Braves love Vazquez, and Bobby Cox really loves the guy. He was a huge influence on Jurrjens, and obviously Vazquez had his best season as a professional pitcher. So it seems the Braves would have to be blown away with an offer to trade Vazquez.

In fact, if they don't trade Vazquez this winter, don't be shocked if the Braves sign him to an extension. They really believe he can be a solid number two starting pitcher for many years, and that his return to the National League made a huge difference.

So that leaves Lowe, who just signed a four-year, $60 million dollar contract last offseason. Lowe didn't have a great season, posting a high ERA, but he did win 15 games. The Braves believe Lowe can bounce back and be productive in 2010.

But when looking at the candidates to be traded, if it is necessary, Lowe could be the most logical choice. The only drawback, obviously, is his huge contract. Would any team take on the $45 million dollars left on Lowe's deal?

The Braves may look for a match with a team that could send back a rather significant salary in return for Lowe, perhaps a player that could fill the role of a right-handed power hitter. To expect prospects for Lowe may be unrealistic, as not many teams will be willing to take on a salary like Lowe's unless they are taking some off their payroll.

If the Braves do bring Hudson back, someone is going to have to go. They may simply be in the listening mode for a while, seeing what offers they get for any of their starting pitchers. Maybe they listen at the GM meetings in a few weeks, and then come back before the Winter Meetings and decide who is the best candidate to trade.

But the first step will be to bring Hudson back, which is probably going to happen. The Braves just kill their flexibility if they let Hudson walk away, and with the need for a top right-handed power hitter, having an extra pitcher to place in a trade may be the perfect opportunity.

Regardless of what happens, the Braves should again have one of the premiere rotations in 2010. It's just a matter of fitting six pitchers into five roles. And that could be GM Frank Wren's biggest task this winter.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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