What does it take to be… number 5?
Assuming Mike Hampton is healthy, which at this juncture is a fairly big assumption, the Atlanta Braves are going to have no shortage of candidates to fill in their fifth spot in the rotation. While some may be earmarked to for Triple-A Richmond in case of injury, others are locked in roster spot battle that should be fun to watch as it plays out.
Bobby Cox and Frank Wren are certainly not going to have an easy decision. I’ve boiled it down to the four candidates I believe have the best shot at grabbing that fifth spot. There are others, but these are the hurlers that are going to be in the forefront of the battle. So let’s take a closer look at each, because there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see each one get a shot before 2008 comes to a close.
Jair Jurrjens, RHP | Age: 22
The trade of Andy Marte for Edgar Renteria may have become the deal that just keeps on giving. Renteria is now a Detroit Tiger, dealt for righty Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. Both are ranked high on the Atlanta prospect depth chart, but it’s Jurrjens who has the chance to make his presence known as soon as this season.
Scouts, coaches and teammates alike all sing the praises of Jurrjens. His poise, repertoire and effective use of all of the above have propelled him to the top of the heap through the first two weeks of Grapefruit League play. Jurrjens is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts so far.
In seven starting assignments for the Tigers in 2007, Jurrjens turned in a 3-1 record and a 4.70 ERA despite shoulder problems that forced him to the DL after his third start. Most of the buzz around spring training camp at Disney’s Wide World has been about the talent of Jurrjens, making it difficult to say that he may not have already clinched a spot.
His last start against he Astros was somewhat shaky (four runs on four hits with four walks in 2 and 2/3 IP), but his other starts produced just one earned run over nine previous innings.
Prediction: MLB Starting Rotation
Chuck James, LHP | Age: 26
After winning 11 games in the past two seasons, Chuck James finds himself in danger of losing his spot in the rotation. James was Atlanta’s number three starter for the majority of the 2007 season, but his inability to consistently pitch beyond the fifth inning added still more stress to an already over-taxed Braves bullpen.
James brought some guts and a solid change-up to the Braves in 2006 and went 11-4 as a rookie, even though he did not get a start until the disastrous month of June that sunk the Braves play-off hopes. There was no reason not to expect more good things from the diminutive lefty last season.
On some levels, James produced on the stat-line. He went 11-10 with a 4.24 ERA in 30 starts. Unfortunately, with his club starving for innings, James pitched seven innings in just four starts last season. Some have astutely noticed that James devolved into a two-pitch pitcher, relying solely on a fastball/change-up combination. If James is able to effectively mix his slider back into the mix, then he could re-assert himself into the Braves rotation.
Shoulder woes have forced James to get a late start on his spring, but he was impressive with two scoreless innings in his first outing. It’s likely that the Braves will want him to continue to build up his arm strength with regular work at Triple-A, especially since the fifth start will not see as much action during the season’s first month.
Prediction: AAA Richmond Starting Rotation.
Jo-Jo Reyes, LHP | Age: 23
The Braves are certainly lucky to have no shortage of lefty starters, from Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton to Chuck James and Jo-Jo Reyes. Atlanta has a bright pitching prospect in Reyes, who seemed to get things going as the season drew to a close.
Reyes went 12-1 in 19 minor league starts last season before going 2-2 with a 6.22 in 10 starts with the parent club. After rough returns in the early going, Reyes mounted a respectable September (2-0, 3.10 ERA in 20.1 IP). More importantly, he only allowed one homer in his last four appearances of the season after allowing eight in his first seven outings.
The talent is there. Reyes has impressed the Braves at seemingly every stop along the way. He has three quality pitches with the ability to throw all of them for strikes. That is what helped Reyes make it to Atlanta last season, though the walks have become a bit of a concern since his arrival.
Reyes has issued more than his share of walks in his three spring appearances (seven in seven innings) to go along with nine hits allowed. All those base runners are going to pose a problem. With only six starts at Richmond last season, it is possible the Braves may wish to give him a little more time to sharpen his control before installing him in the rotation. He should be ready, should injury befall one of the Braves starters.
Prediction: AAA Richmond Starting Rotation
Jeff Bennett, RHP | Age: 27
Sometimes a club finds a pitcher by complete random chance. That is the case for the Atlanta Braves and Jeff Bennett. He exploded on to the scene with eight strike outs in five and 2/3 innings to earn a win in his Atlanta debut. By the way, Not only was that his first appearance with the Braves but it was also his first Major League start.
Bennett battled injuries after spending the 2004 season as a reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers. After spending 2005 in the minors, Atlanta had signed him in January of 2006. Unfortunately for Bennett, he wound up having his contract voided when a pre-existing elbow condition was discovered. But that didn’t stop him from the goal of making it back to the big leagues.
Spending most of last season as a reliever in stops with Mississippi and Richmond, Bennett made six starts while at Triple-A. That was enough to earn him a shot at the Major Leagues in September. One of the things that many noted about Bennett this spring was the fact that he has shed roughly 50 lbs.
The slimmed down Bennett has looked solid in his outings thus far, but not spectacular (0-1, 3.86 ERA in four games). Expectations should be tempered based on the fact that last season’s debut and subsequent outings was not an accurate sample size.
Still, Bennett looks to have something to offer. My guess is that it may just be in relief. With Oscar Villarreal now pitching for Houston and Tyler Yates struggling a bit, the Braves may want to keep the right arm of Bennett around in his original role.
Prediction: MLB Reliever
So there you have a look at four guys who could make an impact for the Braves this season. That’s just my look though. Injury could change everything around a couple of times before it’s all said and done. What do you think? Send along some comments/emails.
Till Next time,