NL East Arms Race: Atlanta Braves
There was a time when the Atlanta Braves were perennial Division
Champs. For 14-consecutive seasons, Atlanta marched in to October largely on
the strength of their outstanding starting rotation.
Now, some three seasons removed from their last postseason
appearances, the Braves are going back to their roots in order to gain
entry to October. The “Arms Race” series rolls on with an in depth look
at the Atlanta pitching staff.
Looking back at the 2008 season, the Braves can readily identify
that injuries in the pitching department cost them any chance of
returning to the postseason. The losses to key personnel were not
exclusive to the rotation either, as Atlanta’s bullpen suffered the
same kind of misfortune to key arms.
General Manager Frank Wren was a man on a mission this
winter, charged with rebuilding a beaten and battered rotation for 2009
and beyond. Wren stated his goal was to add at least two
front-of-the-rotation starters at season’s end.
The initial targets to anchor the rotation included San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy and free-agent A.J. Burnett.
However, after weeks of negotiations, any trade agreement with the
Padres reached an impasse. Opting to stay in the American League,
Burnett signed a five-year pact with the New York Yankees.
While the early travails of the GM were met with disappointment,
Wren made the first move when he hooked up for a trade with the Chicago
White Sox that netted veteran right-hander Javier Vazquez just prior to the winter meetings.
Vazquez, 32, had long been coveted by Braves manager Bobby Cox.
While his stuff has not always translated into the results many have
thought were to come after his breakthrough season of 2001, Vazquez has
averaged 13 wins and 216 innings over the past nine seasons.
The new year got off on a bad note when Braves icon John Smoltz left the only Major League club he had known for 21-season to sign with the Boston Red Sox.
Smoltz had hoped to return to Atlanta, but was unimpressed with
Atlanta’s largely incentive-based offer. The Braves cited health
concerns that tempered their willingness to make a large guarantee for
Smoltz, who was recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery.
Ultimately, Boston came up with an offer with a larger base salary,
more attainable incentives and that targets a June 1 return date for
Smoltz. Just like that, Smoltz and the Braves turned a page that many
thought would happen only in his retirement.
While fans and scribes alike scrambled to make sense of Smoltz’s
decision, Wren proved unabated by the inability to lure Burnett to
Atlanta and went back to the free-agent well with two bold moves in a
span of 72-hours.
The first move was signing Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami
to a three year $23 million deal. Kawakami, 33, spent an 11-year career
with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League and compiled 112-72
record with a 3.22 ERA in 1642.1 innings.
Just two days later, the Braves landed one of the top starting
pitchers available when they signed Derek Lowe to a four-year $60
million contract. Lowe, 35, will anchor the new-look Braves rotation
after going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 34
starts last season.
Lowe spent the first eight seasons of his career in the AL,
primarily with the Boston Red Sox. Since 2002, the sinker-balling
righty has averaged 15 wins and 208 innings per season. In a 12-year
career, Lowe is 126-107 with a 3.75 ERA and 85 saves.
The acqusition of Lowe, Vazquez and Kawakami fortifies the rotation in front of stand-out young hurler, Jair Jurrjens.
In his first full season, Jurrjens, 23, turned in 13 wins and a 3.68
ERA in 31 starts to come in third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
One of the more interesting position battles for Atlanta this spring
will be for the fifth starter’s spot. Some of the pieces left over from
2008’s “all-hands-on-deck experiment” will be vying for the opportunity
to fill out that final spot.
Among these pitchers will be right-handers Jorge Campillo and Charlie Morton, as well as lefty Jo-Jo Reyes.
Campillo, 30, enjoyed modest success after joining the Atlanta
rotation, going 8-7 with a 4.34 ERA in his 25 starts. His relief work,
1.25 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 15 appearances, bodes well if Atlanta
chooses to utilize Campillo out of the pen.
Morton, 25, and Reyes did not fair as well on the whole, though both
showed flashes of what put them among the top organizational pitching
prospects. Morton, was just 4-8 with a 6.18 ERA in 14 starts after a
Possessing a four-seam fastball that tops out around 95 mph that is
complemented by a two-seamer, solid curve and change-up, Morton has all
the tools to develop into a valued starter. Command problems hampered
Morton’s development earlier in his minor league career and seemed to
relapse during his stint with Atlanta.
Reyes, 24, seemed to be hitting his stride after eight brilliant
innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 13. However,
from that point on Reyes dropped his final seven decisions to finish
just 3-11 with a 5.81 ERA in 23 appearances. Both Reyes and Morton
could be used as trade bait to net the Braves an outfielder as well.
The list does not stop there. Top prospect Tommy Hanson, a
22-year old hard throwing who lit up the Airzona Fall League will
likely be given the opportunity to audition as well. Hanson was 11-5
with a 2.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 25 starts between two stops.
Atlanta could also choose to let Hanson begin the season in Triple-A
Righty James Parr got a brief look last season and will also
be in camp to compete for a spot on the big league squad. Parr, who
turns 27 later this month, posted two good starts before being shelled
in his final three. He figures to be a long shot to grab the vacant
Tom Glavine could emerge as a candidate to fill the fifth
starter’s slot as well. That is, if the Braves and the 42-year old
Glavine can agree on terms. Glavine’s homecoming was marred by injury
and ended when the 300-game winner had surgery on both his elbow and
shoulder after going just 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA in 13 starts.
With a clean bill of health issued by his doctors, the Braves have
made Glavine an offer that is believed to be worth $1-2 million and
contain little or no incentives. The search for a left fielder will not
allow the Braves to stray from their initial offer, so the ball is
essentially in Glavine’s court.
The Braves also have Tim Hudson, who could make a comeback
from ligament replacement surgery in August or September. Hudson, 33,
was having a stellar 2008 season, 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 23
appearances, before the elbow injury.
The dominoes in the bullpen started falling in the spring, when projected closer Rafael Soriano
reported to camp with discomfort in his pitching elbow. Soriano had
just three saves in 14 appearances and spent much of the year on the DL
before elbow surgery ended his season in August.
Set-up man Peter Moylan came into his own in 2007, sporting a
1.80 ERA in 80 appearances and holding righties to a .184 average. His
encore campaign was over by mid-April, when he was forced to undergo
Tommy John surgery. The loss of Moylan was a void Atlanta struggled to
fill for the rest of the season.
Mike Gonzalez returned in June to assume the closer’s duties,
picking up 14 saves in 16 opportunities. Now fully healed from his
Tommy John surgery in 2007, Gonzalez has pronounced himself ready to
show the Braves the same pitcher they sought when they acquired him
from Pittsburgh in December of 2006.
The rest of the cast includes right-handers Blaine Boyer, Jeff Bennett and Manny Acosta. Each saw more than their fair share action due to the rash of injuries.
Boyer spent his winter working out with Smoltz, in hopes of building
both the mental and physical stamina to become a more complete pitcher.
Last season, Boyer seemed to tire from his frequent appearances.
After posting a 3.93 ERA in 51 first half appearances, Boyer was
shelled for an 11.17 ERA in 25 outings after the All-Star Break and was
all but shut down in September.
Acosta, 27, had a brief opportunity as Atlanta’s closer before a
wild streak in June and a freak hamstring injury suffered running the
bases took put him out of action.
Atlanta will likely utilize Bennett as a long reliever, along with
one of the starters who fails to earn a rotation spot. Bennett, 28,
made a career-high 72 appearances and seemed to find a groove over the
season’s final month. Buddy Carlyle could also get a look in the long relief role.
Wren added lefty Boone Logan in the Vazquez deal, and claiming lefty Eric O’Flaherty from the Seattle Mariners. The duo will compete with Jeff Ridgway,
among others, to earn a spot as lefty specialist or in middle relief.
Logan has seen the most time in the majors of the three, totalling 144
appearances over the past three seasons while with the White Sox.
The Braves are still optimistic that they will be able to bring back lefty Will Ohman,
who enjoyed a career season in his first year with Atlanta. Ohman, 31,
made 83 appearances in 2008 and held opposing lefties to just a .200
average. Wren extended an offer to Ohman more than two months ago, but
the two sides do not appear any closer to a deal in the first week of