Braves rotation primed for big season
If pitching wins championships, then the Atlanta Braves have the arms to lay the foundation for success in 2013.
There is a good mix of old and new in the starting rotation. Some already have impressive resumes, while others have something to prove this season.
The National League East could prove to be a two team race as it was in 2012. The Braves will rely heavily on their starting staff in order to overcome the Washington Nationals and bring Atlanta its first division title since 2005.
Each of these men will play an integral part in the Braves’ quest for October.
Tim Hudson is the veteran anchor of this rotation. He enters his 15th season in the big leagues and ninth with the Braves.
Hudson, 37, stands just three wins shy of 200 for his career and has led the Atlanta staff in victories five times, including each of the last three seasons.
Since the Oakland Athletics opted to break up the famed “Big Three” of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Hudson after 2004, it has been the Atlanta right-hander who has yielded the most consistent results. His .654 career winning percentage ranks fourth best among active hurlers with at least 100 decisions.
The Georgia native, who played his college ball at Auburn University, was given the chance to pitch for the team he grew up watching when he was traded from Oakland to Atlanta on December 16, 2004.
Hudson’s tenure in Atlanta has been productive, something he discussed with Mark Bowman of MLB.com this week:
“It’s been a while, and I feel like it’s been a good time here,” he said. “I feel like I’ve pulled my weight, or I wouldn’t have been here this long. Those were the expectations when I got here — to establish myself as a guy who could be here for a while.”
A tenacious competitor who utilizes a split-finger fastball, Hudson has historically done a great job of keeping the ball on the ground. He boasts a career mark of just 0.6 HR per 9 IP, which is fifth best among active pitchers with at least 100 decisions.
However, his 2012 ground ball to fly ball ratio of 1.71 dipped slightly below his career mark of 2.05, which led to a career-low nine double plays being turned behind him.
Atlanta exercised its $9 million team option on Hudson last October, a relative bargain for a proven 15-game winner in today’s market. He will need to get back to his ground ball ways in order to help the Braves make a run in the postseason.
Kris Medlen was perhaps the most dominant starter in Major League Baseball over the final two months of 2012. His ascension from long man to staff ace was one of Atlanta’s major second half storylines.
The 27-year-old enters the spring with his spot in the rotation already sewn up. Medlen’s incredible ride through the final months of 2012 proved he was more than ready for the responsibility of taking his turn every fifth day.
One tends to attract quite a bit of attention by going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA over a 12 start stretch, especially when it comes to close out the season. That fine work earned Medlen NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August and September.
Opponents batted just .191 against him in his 12 starting assignments last season. Medlen’s superb control and nasty change-up had hitters shaking their collective heads according to ESPN’s Mark Simon.
Medlen was not shabby in 38 relief outings prior to replacing Jair Jurrjens the rotation on July 29. He finished 2012 with a 1.57 ERA in 138 IP across 50 total appearances, falling 24 innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title.
Perhaps the most staggering statistic was the run of success the Braves enjoyed when Medlen started a game. Dating back to 2010, Atlanta won 23 consecutive games started by Medlen before suffering the Wild Card loss to St. Louis last October.
Following the righty’s final regular season start, teammate Chipper Jones summed up Medlen’s value to MLB.com‘s Mark Bowman:
“He’s developed himself into the ace of our staff,” Jones said. “We know that if we go out there and give him three or four runs, the game is basically over. We all knew he was capable of that. He just needed to get healthy and be given the opportunity. He was very valuable to our ballclub out there in the ‘pen, but I think you see he’s a little more valuable to us in the starting rotation.”
Atlanta entered last season with Medlen as somewhat of a luxury arm in the bullpen, but things are very different in 2013. His mettle will be further tested over the course of a full season in the rotation.
The Braves are counting on Medlen to provide an encore performance this year.
It was a tale of two seasons for left-hander Mike Minor in 2012. His great second half erased the memories of early struggles and rewarded the Braves for sticking with him.
Minor was 4-6 with a 6.26 ERA after 16 starts in the season’s first half. He had surrendered 19 home runs and walked 40 batters in 92 innings to that point, but a different Minor appeared after the All-Star Break.
The lefty pitched with much more precision in the second half, cutting his walks down to just 16 over his final 14 starts. Keeping the ball in the park was the other area Minor needed to improve on. He passed that test as well, allowing just seven home runs over that stretch.
What a difference those two things made. Minor turned in a 2.16 ERA in 87 1/3 innings after the break. His second half record was just 6-4, but the Braves offense scored two or fewer runs in eight of Minor’s final 14 starts.
According to Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South, the Atlanta brass was expecting Minor to step up last season:
“We felt, when we left spring training last year, that Mike had turned the corner in maturity,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren. “He got off to a great start in the first month and then had two months of growing pains, before finally figuring it out the rest of the year. We look for Mike to build off what he learned from last year.”
The final three months of the season were proof that the Braves not only gauged his potential properly in the first round of the 2009 draft, but also in spring training.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield believes Minor’s improved location, especially with the change-up to right-hand batters, was the key to his second half turnaround.
While his work may have been in the shadow of Medlen down the stretch, Minor established himself as a major part of the rotation.
More of the same will be asked in 2013.
Like Minor, fellow southpaw Paul Maholm is a former first round pick. That is more or less where the similarities end between the two.
Maholm, 30, spent the bulk of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates before signing as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs in January of 2012. His stay in Chicago was brief, but Maholm did enough to entice the Braves to add him to their starting staff last July.
Atlanta acquired Maholm to bolster the rotation and help cope with the loss of Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow surgery.
Maholm enjoyed the best season of his career between Chicago and Atlanta. He set career-highs with 13 wins and 140 strikeouts, while his 3.67 ERA was just a fraction off his previous best set in 2011.
The lefty also came with an palatable $6.5 million team option which Atlanta exercised in October.
Every staff needs a veteran pitcher who can supply innings. Maholm is that man for the Braves, averaging 30 starts and 184 innings per season since 2006.
Maholm provided stability to the rotation in his 11 starts last season and will be expected to do so again.
Paired with Minor, Maholm gives Atlanta two solid lefties to balance the starting staff.
Given Beachy’s injury, opportunity is once again knocking at the door of highly regarded right-hander Julio Teheran.
One look at the Braves depth chart proves it.
With his name appearing with the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Matt Moore, the expectations for Teheran’s success were built in. He got a taste of the big leagues in 2011 after finishing with an impressive 15-3 record and a 2.55 ERA in 144 2/3 innings of work at Triple-A Gwinnett.
The stage was set, but the spring of 2012 was nothing short of disastrous for Teheran. He struggled mightily and never got on track after being sent back to Triple-A. His final numbers there included a 7-9 record with a 5.08 ERA in 131 IP.
More disturbing was the spike in the number of home runs allowed by the 21-year-old. He served up nine homers in just five appearances last spring, including six in one outing. His Grapefruit League struggles carried over to his International League performance, where he allowed 18 more long balls in 26 starts with Gwinnett.
Keep in mind, Teheran had given up just 20 total home runs in his first 383 2/3 professional innings.
Coming off a solid winter-ball showing in the Dominican Republic, Teheran spoke with David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after reporting to camp:
“I feel like I have more confidence,” said Teheran, who allowed just two hits in 16-2/3 scoreless innings over his final three winter-ball starts, to finish 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA in seven starts for Licey. “I know I have to work hard to be the fifth starter, but in my mind, just work hard and I’ll be there.”
With Randall Delgado now in Arizona, Teheran is the favorite to land the fifth starter spot. There is always the possibility that a dark horse candidate may emerge to challenge him. Lefty Sean Gilmartin will get a look, but the 2011 first round pick has just seven starts above Double-A.
This could be a make or break season for the talented but as yet unproven Teheran.
Beachy held a major league-leading 2.00 ERA through 13 starts before he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last June. It was a big blow to the Braves staff, but helped open the door for Medlen to eventually join the rotation.
Despite the fact that he may not be ready to pitch until mid-season, Beachy still figures heavily into the Atlanta rotation. His rehab from Tommy John surgery is progressing, but there are still hurdles to clear before Beachy is ready to return.
In a 2011 article, Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated wrote that the typical recovery time from Tommy John surgery is 9-12 months. Beachy reported along with all the other Atlanta pitchers this week, but is still unable to throw off the mound.
The righty updated David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the timetable for taking the mound again:
“I’m not going to get hung up on an actual date,” he said, “because I haven’t even been on a mound yet. And I don’t know how it’s going to respond to the build-up. I’m just excited to get on the mound.”
Over parts of three big league seasons, the 26-year-old Beachy is 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA. He is without question the biggest strikeout pitcher on the Atlanta staff, piling up 252 K’s in 237 2/3 career innings. That is fine work for a third baseman turned occasional closer who went undrafted out of Indiana Wesleyan University.
Even without Beachy, the rotation has the depth and the talent to keep Atlanta in contention. There is a mix of experience and potential to go along with a balance of righties and lefties. It is a formidable group that will play a big part if the Braves are to make an extended run through October.