Braves' rotation full of potential, questions
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Their veteran ace, Tim Hudson -- the guy for whom an average season is about 16 wins and a couple hundred innings -- had two veterbrae fused by bone-producing proteins a couple months back. He's out until late April, at the earliest.One ace-in-waiting, Tommy Hanson, had persistent shoulder woes that limited him to five starts in the second half last season. Another, Jair Jurrjens, had a knee issue that sidelined him at the end of 2010 and again in '11. The four other arms in the Atlanta Braves' immediate rotation picture -- Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran -- all have obvious upside, with the notable caveat that they've combined to work just 334 2/3 innings at the Major League level to date. Oh, and another depth option high on the prospects list, Arodys Vizcaino, has an appointment scheduled with Dr. James Andrews on Monday due to elbow discomfort. Add it all up, and you have the makings of one of the Majors' more intriguing starting staffs -- one that will pave the way to a bullpen that was amazing in terms of performance, but alarming in terms of workload last season. For an Atlanta team that did next to nothing in the transaction column after a September collapse in 2011, it's all going to come down to the pitching this season. And this, if you're scoring at home, is a pitching staff with a lot of potential -- and a lot of questions. "What stands out to me is how many options there are here," Hanson said. "There's a ton of them. I don't think any other team has close to what we have. We could almost build two starting staffs in the big leagues with what we have." Only one is necessary, of course, and the Braves had enough depth to wave goodbye to the veteran Derek Lowe, and even foot the bill for two-thirds of the $15 million he'll make with the Indians this season. But just because you have depth doesn't mean you're free from dilemmas. For the Braves, they revolve around health. On that front, Hudson gave "two thumbs up" to the results of his November surgery, and he's begun throwing bullpens with an eye on joining the Braves in late April or early May. "We're not writing anything down in stone," he said. "It's not out of the realm of possibility to pitch a game or two down here before they leave, which would be good." When healthy, the 36-year-old Hudson is a dependable leader in both results and rapport. Over the past two seasons, he's won 33 games with a 3.02 ERA and 443 2/3 innings pitched. The question, once he gets back on the mound, is whether his groundball-inducing tendencies will be compromised in any measure by the loss of Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. The 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky is expected to be the starter at short, though he's been pushed in camp by fellow 22-year-old Andrelton Simmons. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the loss of Gonzalez affects the Braves' infield defense. For now, Hudson just wants to get back in the groove. But he's heartened by the fact that the Braves have plenty of other options to turn to in his short-term absence. "It's not just depth," he said. "It's quality depth. A lot of organizations say they have a lot of depth, a lot of guys competing for a job, but the quality's not there, I think that's what makes it easier to deal with missing some time is letting these kids come up and prove they can compete at this level. Obviously, you let them know that just because they're young kids and not established yet doesn't mean we're not ready to compete." Beachy, 25, proved he's ready to compete right from the get-go in his rookie season, going 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 25 starts. He reintroduced a slider to his repertoire and got dazzling results, notching a 28.6 percent strikeout rate to look like a star-in-waiting. Minor was the one Beachy beat out for the No. 5 starting slot in camp last year, though Minor did go on to make 15 starts as a rotation fill-in. Minor's hits allowed per nine innings (10.1) were second only to the struggling Lowe on the Braves' pitching staff, and opposing batters posted a .785 OPS against him. With Minor, then, there are clearly wrinkles to iron out. The good news for him is that he'll have a chance to do that in the big leagues right from the outset this season. Delgado and Teheran, who is ranked No. 1 in MLB.com's Top 20 Braves Prospects list, are vying for the No. 5 spot in camp this year, and the 22-year-old Delgado might have the upper hand at the moment. Delgado is an intriguing arm in his own right, given the quality of his breaking ball, but Teheran, just 21, is the one with the more eye-catching arsenal. "An electric arm," Hudson said. "A very loose, live arm. Great arm speed with his offspeed, especially his changeup. That's what makes him really good. I think his ceiling is probably higher than anybody's. He does need some polishing, but I think that's just going to come with time and experience. I was pitching against LSU when I was his age. He [was] much better at 20 years old than I was. But I didn't have to get big league hitters out, either. You just hope he can grow and not get overwhelmed." That's the basic point with the backend of this Atlanta staff. It needs time to grow and develop at the big league level. This is why the health and effectiveness of Hanson and Jurrjens is so important. They, too, come with questions. Hanson has tweaked his delivery ever so slightly in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on his shoulder. A small tear was discovered in his rotator cuff last summer and did not require surgery, and Hanson, upon the advice of the team's physical therapist, eliminated the slight pause in his delivery and adjusted his arm slot to reduce the stress on the shoulder. "It's not like I'm overhauling my whole mechanics," Hanson said. "Pitchers make changes all the time. It's an adjustment, but it's not a huge adjustment." Jurrjens was among the game's most dominant starters in the first half last season, before the knee woes that pestered him in 2010 sprouted up again. Though some of his results in three spring starts have been painful (to the tune of a 9.72 ERA in 8 1/3 innings), Jurrjens has been pain-free, and that's half the battle. The Braves' starting staff has to battle this season to preserve one of the bigs' best bullpens. Lefty setup man Jonny Venters, closer Craig Kimbrel and lefty Eric O'Flaherty ranked fourth, seventh and 26th, respectively, in pitches thrown among Major League relievers last season. "The deeper we go, the less workload they have," Hudson said. "Last year, as a starting rotation, we were either really good and going deep into games, or we were getting knocked out of games kinda quick, which puts a handcuff on that bullpen. We had three guys down there that were so good that any time there was a jam midgame it was very easy to make a call down there and get those guys up." This year, the Braves hope Kris Medlen, now recovered from Tommy John surgery, and Peter Moylan, recovering from shoulder surgery, can also ease some of the pressure on those three top arms in the back of the 'pen. They hoped the same for Vizcaino, but his ailing elbow and visit with Andrews do not bode well. And so another health concern has cropped up on a Braves pitching staff loaded with them. Atlanta has an enviable number of quality options on its roster, with the hope that the quality outweighs the questions. "This organization," Hudson said, "had three Hall of Famers pitching for them for a lot of years. That's going to make a lot of wins for you. The potential's here for something to be set up like that for the future. But it's just potential."
A lot of potential. And a lot of questions.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.