Team Preview: Starting Rotation
As spring training approaches, it is time to take an in depth look at how the Braves are shaping up. Each entry will cover a specific portion of the club with a deeper look at how the positions and the battles to fill those final spots will shake out.
The Starting Rotation
Pitching always seems to be the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to the Atlanta Braves. Old habits die hard. For the first time in what was starting to feel like a decade, the Braves will enter a regular season with no shortage of capable arms and perhaps some to spare. That is not to say that they will be looking to unload any of it; quite the contrary. Atlanta finds themselves with a great mix of veteran hurlers and young guns who could propel the Braves into October for the first time since 2005.
Perhaps no single pitcher is more synonymous with Braves baseball over the past 20 years than John Smoltz, the only man still with the club since the initial pennant winning 1991 season. Smoltz, has been in a constant state of evolution throughout his career, from young fire-baller to strikeout artist, to post-season ace, to Cy Young Award winner, to veteran stalwart, to dominant closer and then back again to anchor what looks to become an impressive Braves rotation in 2008.
Yes, this rotation potentially boasts four former 20-game winners, non more on top of their game than the 40-year old Smoltz. Last season, his third back in the starting rotation, was the first time that Smoltz had to deal with a mid-season injury. The manner in which he was able to overcome that shoulder discomfort to continue to deliver quality starts and big performances for the club was mind-boggling to say the least. But then, that has come to be expected of Smoltz.
The stats don’t lie. Smoltz went 14-8 with a 3.11 ERA in 32 starts last season, logging 200+ innings for the third straight year and pacing the club with 197 strikeouts. Smoltz provides the Braves a proven power pitcher who could match up favorably against the New York Mets recently acquired top dog, Johan Santana.
Following Smoltz on the depth chart is 32-year old right-hander Tim Hudson, who bounced back from a nightmarish 2006 campaign. Hudson lead the team with 16 victories against 10 defeats and also logged a club-best 224.1 innings while making 34 starts. The Braves envisioned Hudson as the ace who would eventually receive the torch from Smoltz, having averaged 15 wins a season while with Oakland Athletics from 1999-2004, and last season was more along the lines they had envisioned when acquiring him in a trade prior to 2005.
Hudson recommitted himself to his off-season training regimen, which had been derailed by a recurring oblique strain that forced the righty to miss time in both 2004 and 2005. With a full winter of training under his belt, Hudson exploded out the gate last season and would likely have pulled in 20 wins had not some late inning problems arisen in the Atlanta pen. Improved command lead to a career low 53 walks (for seasons in which Hudson logged at least 200 innings). Hudson’s re-imergence gave the Braves hope that they may only be a piece or two away from regaining the reputation of one of the better pitching clubs in baseball.
The re-signing of veteran lefty Tom Glavine may represent that piece. Glavine is the exception to the rule in a number of cases. The saying goes, "You can’t go home again," but Glavine has proved that in actuality, "Never say never," may be more apropos. Glavine is not your typical soon-to-be 42-year old either.
Last season, Glavine won 13 games and lead the Mets staff with 200.1 innings pitched, casting aside any doubt that Glavine has durability issues. In fact, Glavine has never visited the disabled list in his entire 21-year career. Though he may not be the same pitcher that departed for New York five years ago, Glavine has reinvented his style and made the necessary adjustments that have lead to his continued success.
On August 5th, Glavine became the 23rd hurler in history to notch his 300th win and he brings an immeasurable amount of experience for some of the younger hurlers to soak up. While he may not be able to win 20 games for the sixth time in his career, Glavine gives the Braves a projected 200 innings that they were unable to account for last season.
If there is one big question mark, it would undoubtedly be Mike Hampton. A healthy Hampton would be a huge boost for the staff, but that sight hasn’t been seen on the mound for Atlanta since early in the 2005 season. Recovered from two major elbow surgeries, the Braves have proclaimed Hampton healthy with absolutely no restrictions as he reports to Orlando in mid-February.
The Braves hope Hampton, now 35, will be able to hold a spot in the rotation to add a veteran presence and another lefty. Hampton had really found a groove prior to having to undergo two reconstructive elbow surgeries, but the fact that he has not pitched in a Major League game since August of 2005 raised significant questions as to whether or not he will be able to make a return. A hamstring injury during his first start in the Mexican league this winter served to further curiosity as to whether Hampton will be able to hold up over a full season.
A slightly less ambiguous candidate to secure a spot in the Braves rotations is fellow left-hander Chuck James. Over the past two seasons, James, 26, has shown flashes of brilliance mixed in with more than his share of abbreviated outings. An impressive showing as a rookie in 2006 saw James notch an 11-4 record, a win total that he matched a year ago. However, the Braves hope that improving his repertoire and command will allow James to work deeper into games this season.
Atlanta also boasts a pair of young studs, a righty and a lefty, who could give James a run for his money. Newly acquired Jair Jurrjens, 22, arrives with high praise from many in the Detroit system. After going 3-1 in seven starts for the Tigers last season, Jurrjens was forced to the sidelines with some shoulder inflammation. Atlanta feels confident that Jurrjens is back to 100% and are expecting to see the young righty compete for a spot in the rotation. With both a four-seam (92-94 mph) and a two-seam fastball, a solid change and curveball, Jurrjens may continue to tinker with a slider under the guidance of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.
The Braves got a good look at 21-year old Jo-Jo Reyes last season. While making 10 starts for Atlanta (and racking up an impressive 10-1 record at Triple-A Richmond), Reyes seemed to grow right before their very eyes. Shelled early on in his time with the big club, September was particularly kind to Reyes. His first big league win came against Florida on September 18 and was followed up by a win in his final start against Houston on the 28th. Despite the unimpressive 2-2 record and 6.22 ERA, Reyes could find himself in the rotation if he finds a way to cut down on his baserunners (55 hits and 30 walks in 50.2 IP).
Late season call-up Jeff Bennett and well-traveled veteran Buddy Carlyle, both right-handers, will be invited to camp and will more than likely be kept around in the event of an injury. Still, one would have to think that if Bennett, 27, throws like he did in two September starts (1-1, 3.09 13 K in 11.2 IP) then he could make it very hard for Bobby Cox not to consider adding him as a long relief option at the very least.
Carlyle, 30, went 8-7 in 20 starts (22 appearances) with a 5.21 ERA but those numbers do not underscore the valuable starts that the career minor league journeyman contributed in June and July before tiring down the stretch. The Braves may wish to keep Carlyle ready in Richmond with the glut of young guns looking to nail down a spot in the rotation, but he could find himself with an opportunity to contribute if history repeats.
Next on the Team Preview:
- The Outfield
- The Bullpen
- The Infield
- The Bench
- The Starting Line-up
Till Next time,