State of the Braves - Part Two

Here's part two of our annual New Year's Eve look at the Atlanta Braves.

We continue our State of the Braves report with a look at the pitching. Frank Wren has said that returning to the pitching dominance of the 1990s is his goal, and I think he's completely correct taking that strategy into the next decade.

The Braves had one of their best seasons on the mound for the decade, posting a 3.57 ERA – third best in the majors. It was the lowest team ERA since 2002 and the second lowest of the 2000s. It was also a major reason the Braves improved to 86 wins from their 72-win season in 2008.

The best part of the 2009 pitching staff was the rotation, which posted a major league best 3.52 ERA. The front office made improving the rotation a priority, and the results were obvious. Atlanta's starting pitchers had 100.1 innings pitched more than the previous season, going from 20th in innings pitched by starters to second in the game.

The Braves had 99 quality starts, again best in the game. They were 21st in that statistic a season ago, with only 75. So the biggest improvement in the 2009 season was in the rotation.

Atlanta's rotation was helped by the signings of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, the trade acquisition of Javier Vazquez, the promotion of Tommy Hanson, and the late season return from Tommy John surgery of Tim Hudson.

And while all of that happened, Jair Jurrjens followed up his solid first full season in the big leagues with another outstanding year. Jurrjens had 25 quality starts in 34 starts and finished with a 14-10 record. He allowed 186 hits in 215 innings, with a 2.60 ERA.

Jurrjens is under control for four more seasons. He will turn 24 at the end of January, and he looks like he's the real deal. When you have a kid put up these type of numbers in his first two full seasons, you know you have something special.

And if you watched the games last season, you know Jurrjens could have won more than 20 games. His run support from the Atlanta offense was horrible. In Jurrjens' ten no-decisions, his ERA was 2.59.

I don't want all you statheads reading this to pass out, but here is a sabermetric stat for Jurrjens: he had six tough losses, which is defined as getting a loss when you pitch a quality start. That's bad to have pitched well, and yet not get the run support to get the decision.

Jurrjens is one year away from arbitration, and then the Braves will have to deal with Scott Boras, Jurrjens' agent. Let's hope they approach them about a long-term deal, which obviously doesn't happen very often with Boras' clients. But this kid, who loves being a Brave and loves being at the top of this rotation, is going to want to stay as long as the Braves are fair with him.

There's no reason to not count on Jurrjens to have the same type of successful season this year. Okay, after one good season, you want to see them do it again. But there was no sophomore slump for this kid, and he's certain to be at the top of the rotation again in 2010.

Having a young duo like Jurrjens and Hanson is a luxury not many teams have in baseball. But Hanson proved in his rookie season he's equal to the task and is also one of the best young arms in the game. Combined with his starts in Gwinnett to being the season, Hanson was 14-7 last season with 145 hits allowed in 194 innings, with 206 strikeouts.

If you watched Hanson, you had to be impressed. He's tough as nails, and when he gets into a bind, he gets even tougher on the mound. And if you saw the game in Houston toward the end of the season, you know how much this kid wants to win.

Many people have wondered how the Braves will replace Vazquez, who was traded two weeks ago to the Yankees. Well, in my mind, Hanson is the one who will do it. He's a power arm, who will eat innings and strike out 200 or more per season.

We've followed Hanson on this website since he was a draft and follow in junior college, and we all dreamed he would be as special in the big leagues as he was back at that California JUCO. And to know Hanson just turned 23 years old in August, and that he's going to be one of the faces of this franchise in this new decade, is very comforting if you are a Braves fan.

It's hard to know which of these two young pitchers is going to be the ace of the Braves' staff in the next few years. It might be a return to the 90s in that the ace is really whoever is pitching on that given night. It has the potential to be that deep of a rotation – both in 2010 and in years to come.

But the opening night starter might be Hudson, who returned so well from his Tommy John surgery the Braves extended his contract. Hudson was the best pitcher on the staff before he got hurt, and knowing Bobby Cox and his loyalty to veteran players, Hudson will probably be given the honor of being the first starter once again.

It was only seven games, but it was enough to be convinced Hudson is healthy and ready to resume his career. Remember how solid Hudson was before he got hurt in August of 2008, and that's the kind of pitcher the Braves need at the top of the rotation: a veteran who will eat innings and give the team quality starts.

Tommy John surgery has such a good success rate that you don't seem to have the concern we did several years ago when a starter was coming back from the procedure. It's almost as if pitchers are better once they get it done. And with Hudson's athleticism, you have even less to worry about for his next several seasons.

Another thing you've got to love about Hudson is that he loves being a Brave. He's close to home, and he does so much in the community. Plus, Tim is huge in that clubhouse. The other players, even the position players, really look up to Hudson. He's a very valuable player for this franchise, and if he stays healthy the Braves have got an outstanding pitcher for the next several seasons.

You have to remember that Hudson gave the Braves an average of 211 innings in his first three complete seasons in Atlanta. Now that he's had the TJ surgery, the Braves need that once again from Hudson at the top of the rotation.

Probably the biggest question about the rotation is whether Lowe will be able to bounce back from a mediocre season. Okay, he won 15 games, but we know how much he struggled in his first season with the Braves.

Lowe's season can be split into four separate parts. In his first 13 starts of the season, Lowe was 7-3, with a 3.44 ERA. Then in his next three starts, Lowe was 0-3, with a 12.41 ERA. He rebounded in his next nine starts, posting a 3.30 ERA and going 5-1. But then in Lowe's final nine starts of the season, he was 3-3 with a 6.66 ERA.

So in those good 22 starts, Lowe was 12-4, with a 3.39 ERA. In his bad 12 starts, he was 3-6, with an ERA of 7.83.

When you look at it like that, Lowe's season is a bit easier to comprehend. He just had two very bad stretches. That's not what we expected a guy making $15 million a season to have, however, and that's why it's crucial he bounces back this season.

Lowe seemed embarrassed about his season, and hopefully that will inspire him to do whatever is necessary to fix what was wrong. I really believe that even though Lowe is overpaid, he is what you want out of a veteran pitcher: an innings eater who can keep you in the ballgame.

The fact that Jurrjens and Hanson are still relatively cheap balances out Lowe's big deal. I try to look at it as three members of the rotation making $16 million, instead of one guy making all that money. That helps me, at least.

But I really believe Lowe will bounce back and be a better pitcher this season. He might not be an ace, and he might not be worth what he's getting paid. But if Lowe can win around 15 and lower that ERA closer to the 4.00 level, the Braves will probably be happy.

Sure, I would have preferred Vazquez to stay over Lowe. But I really believe that Lowe is going to be good for this team, and really be a solid pitcher in the rotation.

And then there is the fifth starter, Kawakami. He was really better than a lot of people thought he'd be in his first year in the States. Kawakami had an ERA of 3.86, and his hits to innings pitched ratio was solid (153 hits in 156.1 IP).

Kawakami seemed to get more comfortable as the season went along, posting a 3.33 ERA after the All-Star Break, including a 3.50 ERA in his final nine starts of the season. He was pretty solid in big games, beating Roy Halladay and pitching outstanding games in Los Angeles and in New York in August.

KK will probably never be a star, but he's a solid pitcher. And as a number five, that's pretty darn good. He can win 10-12 games as the number five and give this team 20 good starts. And not many teams can have this type of arm at the bottom of a rotation.

This group of five pitchers could be intact for at least the next two seasons. Kawakami is signed for two more seasons, while Lowe and Hudson are signed through 2012 (with the Braves having an option on Hudson for 2013). Jurrjens is under control for four more seasons, with Hanson around for at least six more seasons.

Sure, having Vazquez would have made it an even more impressive group. But fact is he is gone, and the Braves still have a tremendous group of five starters that most teams would die to have. It's a rotation that could help a team win close to 100 games.

The backup starters for this team could include lefty Jo Jo Reyes, who is out of options and will battle for a long relief role in March. And Kris Medlen started four games last season for the Braves, so he can move into the rotation if needed.

Jonny Venters is now on the 40-man roster. If he could ever get those walks down, Venters would be an interesting pitcher. He's got good size for a lefty, and he throws hard. You don't find too many power lefties like Venters. I've always liked Venters, and if he improves the control he may be in the majors.

Venters will return to Triple-A, and if he does well and someone is needed, Venters could be called up. Todd Redmond's stuff is nothing spectacular, but he just keeps getting people out. James Parr battled some injuries last season, but James is still on the radar.

When you take a look at the long-term options for the rotation, it's really good there may not be a need for a couple of years. It will give the kids in A-ball a chance to fully develop.

There are four pitchers that top the list of starting pitching prospects, with lefty Mike Minor at the top of the list and probably the closest. Regardless of whether or not he was the right pick at that number seven spot, fact is this guy is evidently a pretty good pitcher. Sure, it would be nice to find an All-Star with that high a pick, but I won't complain at all about a legit pitcher to slide into the middle of the rotation.

Minor will probably start the season in Double-A Mississippi. It sounds like the Braves want to challenge him by sending him to that level. If Minor does well, we could be wondering a year from now how he's going to get into the major league rotation. And with the current group being all right-handed, it might not hurt to have a southpaw in there like Minor.

The Braves love Minor's toughness and aggressiveness on the mound. They feel he's only going to get better in time, and that he'll be a perfect guy to be behind Hanson and Jurrjens in a few years.

So while Minor may replace Kawakami in 2012, there will be a few more years before the younger kids can fit into the picture. And there are three kids in particular that will be fun to watch at the lower levels.

Julio Teheran is 18. Arodys Vizcaino is 19. And Randall Delgado is 20. These are three high-ceiling pitching prospects. Delgado will be in Myrtle Beach this season, while Teheran could join him at some point in the year. Vizcaino will probably be in Rome.

Teheran is the jewel of the system. He's a kid with an explosive fastball and a knee-buckling curve. Don't be surprised if Teheran is in the big leagues before he's 20. They are ready for him to really bust out. And the Felix Hernandez comparisons have not calmed down in the two years he's been in the system.

Teheran will have his first full season. I won't be shocked if he goes straight to Myrtle Beach if he has a good spring training. They may let him return to Rome to start out the season, but it's not out of the question that Teheran goes to the Carolina League to start the season.

Randall Delgado had a 5-10 record and a 4.35 ERA, but don't worry about that. This was an 18-year-old kid who struck out 141 in the Sally League in 124 innings. That was impressive. Some scouts think Delgado has as high a ceiling as Teheran, and we'll see how he does under the watchful eye of Kent Willis, Myrtle Beach's new pitching coach, this season.

And, of course, Vizcaino is the kid acquired in the deal for Vazquez. I don't care what you think of the major leaguer the Braves got for Vazquez, the fact that Atlanta was able to get some team's number one pitching prospect is impressive. I'll take that any day. Just think of having to give up Teheran in a trade. I wouldn't like that one bit.

In Vizcaino the Braves obviously have a hard-throwing teenager, and reports have his breaking ball being above average. So like with many pitchers, his development of his third pitch will be very important. So you hope with four pitchers that well-thought of, at least two can become significant contributors at the big league level. But again, not having to rush them with a crowd already in Atlanta should be a big help.

While those four will be the main ones to watch, as far as for the future of the rotation, there are other starters in the top four levels of the minors who still deserve attention.

Scott Diamond and Ryne Reynoso will join Redmond, Parr, Venters, and maybe Reyes in the Gwinnett rotation. Diamond is a lefty with unspectacular stuff, but you can't ignore his 3.17 career ERA in two minor league seasons. Diamond just goes out there and spots and locates and gets people out. If he develops a better changeup, Diamond will be more interesting.

Reynoso also needs to develop a better third pitch. He's got a good arm and has really developed nicely. Remember, Reynoso was mainly an outfielder at Boston College. But the Braves thought he could become a pitcher. He's done well, and after another full season will be more of a possibility as a middle reliever down the road.

The Braves placed two pitchers on the 40-man roster who will be in Double-A Mississippi's rotation. The first is curveball specialist Kyle Cofield, who had 24 starts there in the Southern League last season. Cofield has got to be more aggressive and attack the strike zone more. That's what's caused Cofield's control issues, and is the one thing standing in the way of him being in the big leagues.

Cofield has got to lower his walk totals. He had 89 walks and 87 strikeouts in 140.2 innings last year. But it says a lot about his stuff for the Braves to place him on the 40-man roster. I'm a little hesitant of guys who don't throw strikes, but when you've got someone like Cofield, who has an above average breaking ball, you've got to be patient and give him a chance.

The second is Jose Ortegano, who is reportedly a favorite of Wren. Ortegano is the exact opposite of Cofield in that he's got excellent control. The lefty has walked only 103 in his 404.2 career minor league innings. Last year Ortegano had only 34 walks in 117.1 innings between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi.

Ortegano doesn't throw very hard, but he's got a very good changeup. And like many of the other guys we've mentioned, he just gets people out. Ortegano has a career ERA of 3.00 in 103 games (66 starts), with 375 strikeouts. He's bounced back and forth from the rotation and bullpen in his career, but expect him to get 25 starts in Double-A to see how really good a prospect Ortegano may be for this organization.

There are four other pitchers who will have a chance to go to Mississippi. Erik Cordier will be in big league camp this spring after a decent season in Myrtle Beach. Cordier finally came back after Tommy John surgery and had 25 starts. It was a good first step back in his recovery, and it gave the Braves a chance to see what they had with the soon-to-be 24-year-old right-hander.

Lefty Richard Sullivan will head back to Double-A after seeing action at three levels last year in his first full season. Sullivan was 6-14 overall with a 4.60 ERA. He allowed 173 hits in 154.2 innings, with 54 walks, and 115 strikeouts. Sullivan is a ground-ball specialist, with a heavy sinker. But he needs to improve his breaking ball this season.

Right-hander Jacob Thompson had 25 starts between Rome and Myrtle Beach last season, and as a 24-year old needs to move on up to Mississippi. Thompson was 7-9 overall with a 4.25 ERA, 162 hits allowed in 154.2 innings (just like Sullivan). The former Virginia Cavalier had 56 walks and 119 strikeouts. Thompson has a quality breaking ball, but his velocity is only in the high-80s, which is unusual for someone 6'6".

It's good to have two older, college pitchers like Sullivan and Thompson to get those innings, and now we'll see how they do in a full season in Double-A in 2010.

Another pitcher who could head to Mississippi is lefty Cole Rohrbough, who had perhaps the most disappointing season in the system last season. The expectations were high as Rohrbough was coming back from an injury-plagued 2008 season, but he went 6-8 with a 5.77 ERA in 23 games with the Pelicans.

I'm not giving up on Rohrbough just yet. He was a favorite of mine before last season, and I've learned you've got to be patient with young pitchers. Sure, it's better if pitching prospects don't have years like that, but if Rohrbough can learn from it and bounce back, the Braves will still have a quality lefty with a great breaking ball. But this is a pivotal year for Cole. There are too many good arms around him, so he can't afford to struggle again or he'll be passed by several others and get lost in the shuffle.

Rohrbough might go on up to Mississippi. The Braves may want him to get some success in Myrtle Beach before he is promoted, but the numbers in Myrtle may force the Braves to go ahead and push Rohrbough up to Double-A.

Gwinnett should have Redmond, Parr, Venters, Diamond, maybe Reynoso, and maybe Jo Jo Reyes if he does not make the Atlanta roster. Mississippi should have Cofield, Ortegano, Cordier, Sullivan, Thompson, and possibly Rohrbough. The Braves decision on where to place Mike Minor could also dictate where some of the fringe guys wind up.

If Minor does start the season in Mississippi, Rohrbough could go back to Myrtle Beach. And then the decision on where to place Teheran to start the season could impact the Pelicans as well. If Teheran goes back to Rome, that Rome rotation is going to be a mess. It'll just be awfully crowded, which makes you wonder if a good spring by Teheran will find him in Myrtle Beach to start the season.

Randall Delgado will be up to Myrtle, and so will Dimaster Delgado, who is not related to Randall. Dimaster was pushed up from the GCL to Rome, bypassing Danville last season, and did well. He had a 3.61 ERA in 17 starts in Rome, with 104 strikeouts in 99.2 innings, and only 26 walks. He's got an average fastball (89-91 mph) for a lefty, but he commands the changeup very well.

The Braves will send Zeke Spruill, a 6-4 right-hander, up to the Carolina League for this season. Spruill had a 3.03 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) in Rome, with 24 walks and 95 strikeouts in 116 innings. He's got a hard sinker, and some wonder if he could one day be a Derek Lowe-type of pitcher.

Spruill will be joined by J.J. Hoover, who had 148 strikeouts in 134.1 innings for Rome last season. Hoover has a really heavy fastball that sits at 91-92 mph. He's a strike-thrower, and the Braves really love how he performed last season. Hoover is the type that could be pushed up to Mississippi if he does well in Myrtle Beach in the first half this season.

So Spruill, Hoover, both of the Delgado boys, and either Minor or Teheran will be the five starters in Myrtle Beach. But to figure out the Rome rotation, good luck with that.

Teheran could go back to Rome to start the season, but if he does don't expect him there too long. They will need the room for more guys to get innings, as it will be very crowded in the Rome rotation.

Vizcaino will be there. He'll probably be the ace. The Braves wouldn't mind him getting a full season in Rome, with maybe a stint late in the year in Myrtle. And after that you will have perhaps seven pitchers in spring training battling for a spot in the Rome rotation.

The Braves would really like to see Brett DeVall, the top pitch in 2008, get one of those spots in Rome. DeVall had ten starts in Rome last year and he did well, but then elbow trouble ended his season in June. Dr. James Andrews performed an arthroscopic procedure on DeVall and found no structural damage, so the Braves are hopeful DeVall will have a full, healthy season.

Then you get six pitchers who were part of the Danville rotation in 2009: Brett Oberholtzer, Tyler Stovall, Chris Masters, Matt Crim, Cory Rasmus, and David Hale. All six need to move on up to Rome and get significant innings.

Oberholtzer was great last season, posting a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts, with only 6 walks in 67 innings. His stuff is not overwhelming, but he's an aggressive strike-thrower who has real sound mechanics.

Oberholtzer is a lefty, as is Stovall, who must improve his control. Stovall had 56 walks and 57 strikeouts in his 52 innings of work. But Stovall's hits-to-innings ratio (36 hits allowed in 52 innings) was great. The Braves know Stovall is really young (just turned 20), so they know he has plenty of time to develop.

Masters and Crim were unbelievable last season, but are they just good college pitchers who thrived in a college league last year, or are they really legit prospects? Well, we'll find out this season. Masters walked only 9 and struck out 85 in 69.2 innings, while posting a 1.42 ERA. He's got a funky and deceptive left-handed delivery, so we'll see how Masters does in the Sally League this season.

Crim is a very aggressive pitcher who attacks the strike zone. He was 10-2 last year in Danville, and the rest of his stats were solid, but not as spectacular as Masters or Oberholtzer. The Braves are anxious to see what Crim will do in the full-season league.

Cory Rasmus is healthy now, after battling shoulder trouble for a few years. Rasmus pitched a no-hitter in August for Danville, again showing the Braves why he was such a high draft pick in 2006. Last year was the first significant action for Rasmus, and his 57 strikeouts in 51.2 innings was exactly what the Braves wanted to see. So now how will Rasmus do in a full season? Will the Braves put him in a piggyback situation, to be careful with Rasmus? Or will they let him go and hope he can give them 25 starts?

And Hale is a guy who must get some innings. He was a top pick last June out of Princeton, and the Braves believe he's got great potential. So it'll be interesting to see what role he will have in Rome this season. Hale is 22 years old, so he could bounce up to Myrtle Beach with a quick and successful start.

There will be a couple of guys that will go to Danville in June that will be worth watching. Lefty Carlos Perez, who was a top-dollar international sign out of the Dominican in 2008, has coaches excited. He's got a fastball in the 90-93 mph range, along with a very good curveball. Perez just turned 18 in November.

Robinson Lopez had a 1.29 ERA in 11 games in the GCL last summer, so he'll be on the radar. Lopez turns 19 in March, and he's a big (6-2, 190) right-hander.

Well, that's eight-and-a-half pages talking only about the starting pitchers. Reckon we ought to get to the bullpen now?

The Braves knew Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez would probably find better deals elsewhere, so they had to strike quick to get a new relief duo for 2010. Wren didn't waste time, signing Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito the same week.

I know there are questions about both, particularly with their age and their injury history, but I love these two additions. I've been a huge Wagner fan for some time, and I'm thrilled he finally gets his chance to pitch for the team he's wanted to play for. How long have we heard those rumors about Wagner wanting to come to Atlanta?

I love it when players want to come to Atlanta, and Wagner has wanted to be here for a long time. That matters to me, especially when a guy like Soriano didn't give a damn who he was pitching for last season. What a difference that will be for this team – going from Soriano to Wagner.

Wagner will be great in the clubhouse. He's been through the wars, so he'll be great to be the leader in that bullpen. He's a six-time All-Star, and has been in the playoffs five times. And Wagner is a real closer, with 385-career saves.

Sure, Wagner is coming off Tommy John surgery. But as we said earlier, it's usually a good thing that they've had TJ surgery. Wagner showed he could still throw gas when he made his season debut against the Braves in August, and his numbers (1.72 ERA in 17 games with 26 strikeouts in 15.2 innings) were once again dominant.

So as long as Bobby Cox doesn't overuse him (okay, get up off the floor from laughing), Wagner should be fine. Let's hope Wagner pitches in no more than 65 games and gets 30-plus saves. That would make this a great story!

The fact that Wagner and Saito played together in Boston late last season and got along so well makes the chemistry in the bullpen even more interesting. Then add Peter Moylan to that, and you've got a very strong front three in the pen. Chemistry matters out there in the bullpen, and that's a good combination.

Saito, like Wagner, is a risk. But the Braves checked him out and found that he's healthy. Now Cox will have to be careful with Saito, as the Red Sox obviously were last year. But look at Saito's career numbers: 2.05 ERA, with 171 hits allowed in 245.1 innings, and 297 strikeouts.

You're not going to find many relievers that have done that well, and even last year in Boston, with the fear of him not being 100%, Saito was outstanding. So if, and yes it's a big if, Cox can be careful with Saito, and pitch him in about 56 games as Boston did last year, Saito should be fine.

We know Moylan can log innings. He'll once again be around 81 appearances, pitching every couple of games. Moylan bounced back nicely from TJ surgery, pitching in 87 games last season and posting a 2.84 ERA. He's just a workhorse, and Cox loves the guy. He'll get some eighth inning appearances this season, but Moylan will mainly be in that seventh inning role.

The one wildcard with the bullpen is Scott Proctor. The Braves have had a man crush on Proctor for several years now. Remember when they almost traded Wilson Betemit for Proctor in 2006? The Yankees would eventually get Betemit for Proctor, but that was after the Braves had sent Betemit to the Dodgers.

Proctor had surgery on May 12 last year, so he could be back around that same time this season. Before his surgery, Proctor was a hard-thrower who was a workhorse. If the Braves can get 50 games out of him this season, it'll be a huge plus.

With a southpaw in Wagner as the closer, Eric O'Flaherty will be the main situational lefty this season. He was for part of the year last year, working with Gonzalez in that role. But Wagner will only be a ninth-inning guy this year, so O'Flaherty will be called on to get those tough lefties, especially the ones in the National League East, out.

O'Flaherty did well last year, and the Braves can only hope he'll continue to thrive in that role. He limited lefty hitters to a .215 batting average in 2009, but the responsibility will be even greater this season.

So those could be the top five in the bullpen, and then you have the middle relievers. Jesse Chavez was acquired from Tampa Bay for Soriano, and the Braves are excited to see what they have in the hard-throwing right-hander. Fans are not thinking about Chavez much, but he could be very good for this team. If he could do for the Braves this season what he did for Pittsburgh last season (like pitch in 73 games), it will be a big, big help.

Kris Medlen can be a reliever, or if help is needed in the rotation, a starter as well. Last season Medlen was much more effective as a reliever, posting a 3.47 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 49.1 innings, compared to his 6.38 ERA in his four starts for Atlanta. He's fearless, and it seems when he comes out there as a reliever, Medlen just lets it all go. The Braves love that versatility, and Medlen is going to have a big role on this team this season.

The bullpen should be Wagner, Saito, Moylan, O'Flaherty, Chavez, Medlen, and there will be a battle in spring training for someone to hold down the spot until Proctor is ready to contribute.

Manny Acosta has pitched in 103 games for the Braves the last three seasons, with a 3.55 ERA. He'll battle for that last spot, but don't rule out Jo Jo Reyes. He's out of options, and with an all right-handed starting rotation, it might be good to have a long man out of the pen who is a southpaw.

The Braves saw something in Juan Abreu, to pluck him off the Royals' roster. Abreu will probably go to Gwinnett, where Luis Valdez will probably return as the closer. Valdez had 27 saves in Gwinnett last year. Both will get a look-see in spring training.

Mike Dunn will get a fair chance to make the team. He was the other piece in the Vazquez trade. The Yankees tried to keep him out of the Curtis Gunderson deal with Detroit, but relented when the Braves demanded for him later in the winter.

Dunn pitched in four games for New York in September, and most believed he was ready to assume a role in their major league bullpen this season. The Braves saw Dunn in the Arizona Fall League, where he struck out 20 batters in 10.1 innings, but walked 10 as well. And that is the biggest question about Dunn – his control.

In his pro career, Dunn has 390 strikeouts in 375.1 innings, so he's a power left-handed reliever. But he's walked 166, including 46 last season in the minors in 73.1 innings. So if Dunn can harness that control, he could be a vital member of the pen. The Braves did not believe he was just a throw-in for that deal. They believe Dunn has a great future as a solid lefty reliever.

We will see how Chris Resop looks now that he's back from Japan. He signed a minor league contract to return to Atlanta, where he pitched in 16 games two years ago.

The Braves feel they have a number of good arms going to battle for innings in the Triple-A bullpen. Francisley Bueno is still around, and remember as soon as he returns to the big leagues he has to serve a suspension from 2008. Jon Huber and Mariano Gomez were both solid for Gwinnett last season and will be back in spring training.

Stephen Marek needs to go on up to Triple-A after getting 38 games under his belt in 2009. Marek pitched only six games in Gwinnett last season, but he spent most of his year in Mississippi. And Marek has really not showed much since coming over in the Mark Teixeira trade. Overall, in 54 games in the Braves organization, Marek has a 5.34 ERA.

The Braves placed Jeff Lyman, a high draft pick in 2005, on the 40-man roster this winter. He could go back to Double-A and be a closer, or the Braves might push him up to Gwinnett. Lyman had 33 games in Mississippi, so he could be ready for Triple-A. Lyman has to watch his walks. He had 53 walks in 97.2 innings between the two stops last season. He's got good, pure stuff, and that's why he'll be in big league camp.

Lefty Kevin Gunderson is ready for a crack at Triple-A after posting a 2.55 ERA in 42 games for Mississippi. The same can be said for right-hander Brett Butts, who had a 2.58 ERA in 53 games in Double-A. The numbers game might force both back to Double-A, but they don't have much left to prove there, and both are older, college pitchers who need to move on up to show what they can do.

The depth at Triple-A of the pitchers who may need to be called upon if there is a need in Atlanta is solid. It will make for some interesting decisions in March for the Gwinnett bullpen.

One name that could also factor into the mix there is Lee Hyde, who is now on the 40-man roster after an impressive Arizona Fall League. Hyde was drafted in 2006, but in three-plus seasons had only 97 minor league innings at the end of last year. He had some complications in his comeback from Tommy John surgery, which happened in 2007. But a late season-impressive-showing inspired the Braves to send the former Yellow Jacket to the AFL.

Hyde has a fastball in the 90-93 mph range, along with a solid curve ball that is really a knuckle-curve ball, which is unusual for a left-hander. That's a plus pitch, as is Hyde's changeup. So Hyde has three solid pitches, which is what you need to be in the big leagues. Hyde will go to either Mississippi or Gwinnett and be a situational lefty, and don't be shocked if he's in the big leagues at some point in 2010.

And then there's right-handed sidearmer Craig Kimbrel, who struck out 18 in 10.1 innings in the Arizona Fall League. But again, here's another pitcher who has problems with walks. Kimbrel walked 16 in the AFL.

Here are Kimbrel's numbers in his four stops along the organizational ladder in 2009: 2-3, 2.85 ERA in 49 games, 18 saves in 18 opportunities, 30 hits allowed in 60 innings, 45 walks, and 103 strikeouts.

The hits to innings-pitched ratio is scary, as are the strikeouts. But you have to be alarmed with the walks. Kimbrel has got to get those walks under control. His breaking ball is sharp, but he's just got to manage it and have more consistency with his release point of his delivery.

But there is no doubt Kimbrel's stuff is there to give him a shot at being a closer one day. I mean, those numbers, if you ignore the walks for a second, are sick. You just don't see that very often. So if he can really take a step forward in improving his control, Kimbrel is going to be knocking on the door very soon – maybe even this season.

The Braves are just so loaded with pitchers for Triple-A, they may not have a choice but to start Hyde and Kimbrel in Mississippi to start the season. But both could play a role in Atlanta before October rolls around.

Tim Gustafson, Cory Gearrin, and Deunte Heath could be three relievers in Mississippi. They all have potential. Gustafson threw in Mexico this winter, and he's getting his velocity back into the low-90s. Gearrin is a lot like Brad Clontz, with a submarine delivery. And Heath is a hard-thrower who many teams looked at as a potential Rule V pick back in December.

Jaye Chapman had good numbers in Rome last season, with 13 saves and a 0.40 ERA in 19 games. He didn't do as well in Myrtle Beach, but was still effective. That's probably where Chapman will be again this season and he might get another chance to close.

The Braves might see if Thomas Berryhill, a fifth rounder last June out of Newberry College, can be the closer in Rome. He was pretty solid last summer in Danville with a 2.55 ERA and six saves.

We'll see who else emerges in the lower levels of the farm system out of the bullpen, but the arms in Gwinnett and Mississippi are pretty impressive. The depth is solid, and the Braves must be happy with what has been accumulated for the top two teams in the system.

So the pitching is outstanding. The major league rotation might be the best in the game, and the bullpen, while it has a few questions, could be just as strong. And the long-term options are there for the rotation and the bullpen.

With this depth, it will allow Wren to deal with great leverage in building his future rosters. Remember, the Braves were able to keep their playoff streak alive because they kept the depth in the farm system strong, even when they didn't need help at the big league level. But the ability to use the depth in trades kept the team really strong for a long time.

And that's the goal again. That's what Wren is trying to build in this new decade, and the success of the pitching, both at the major and minor league levels, will go a long way in getting this franchise back to the postseason.


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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