• Exclusives

    Braves Boast Deepest Pitching Staff in Baseball

    By Kent Covington

    For a second consecutive season, the Braves head into spring training uncertain of who their fifth starter will be.  For some teams, this could be a problem. It could be an indication that a team possesses no more than 3 or 4 quality starters and must head to camp hoping some AAA journeyman or mid-level prospect will pleasantly surprise and lay claim to the job.

    Not so in Atlanta.

    RHP, Randall Delgado

    The Braves have the opposite problem, if that’s what you want to call it. They have no fewer than nine—that’s right, NINE—viable starting rotation options. Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy are locks for the ’12 rotation.  That leaves five deserving young arms for just one job opening, which was created when veteran, Derek Lowe, was traded to Cleveland over the winter.

    Here’s a look at their options for the 5th spot in the rotation:

    Kris Medlen was impressive in his 14 starts in 2010, going 5-0 with a 3.86 ERA before losing the remainder of the season to “Tommy John” surgery. Any team in Major League Baseball, including the Braves, would be happy to have a now healthy Medlen at the back of their rotation. But Kris has also proven valuable in relief, and with Atlanta’s glut of starting pitchers, Medlen figures start the season in the bullpen.

    Arodys Vizcaino, the top-rated prospect acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vasquez trade a couple years back, has been a starting pitcher nearly his entire professional career. In four minor league seasons, the hard-throwing righty made only 15 bullpen appearances. His first big league opportunity, however, came in relief last year after an August promotion from AAA Gwinnett. Vizcaino struck out 17 batters and allowed 16 hits in 17 innings. His 4.67 ERA was skewed upward by one especially poor September outing. Overall, however, he impressed the Braves’ brass enough to figure into their ’12 plans. But like Medlen, while deserving of an opportunity to compete for a starting job, Atlanta’s pitching depth, coupled with his value to the ‘pen means he will almost certainly pitch in relief.

    Julio Teheran is widely considered the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. Triple-A hitters would be hard pressed to argue with that evaluation after watching him post a 15-3 record with a 2.55 ERA in 24 starts for the “G-Braves” last year. His performance in five ’11 Major League starts wasn’t all that fans may have hoped for from the young phenom, but a few welcome-to-the-big-leagues moments from a 20 year-old getting his first taste of Major League Baseball won’t concern the Braves in the slightest. He is universally expected to take his place at the top of the Atlanta rotation in the not-too-distant future and will compete for the 5th starter job this spring.

    Randall Delgado had spent the better part of two years standing in the king sized shadow cast by Julio Teheran.  However, Delgado cemented his own blue chip status after posting a 2.83 ERA in seven big league starts last season. Most analysts consider Delgado to be the second-best young arm in the Braves organization, behind Teheran. But make no mistake, many other franchises would consider him their foremost pitching prospect. He too will compete for a place in the Braves’ rotation.

    LHP, Mike Minor

    Mike Minor, while well regarded, is not nearly as celebrated as Teheran or Delgado. He is, however, perhaps the most developed of the three and is the only lefty among all of Atlanta’s starting pitching candidates. Minor made his big league debut in 2010 and set the Braves franchise record for strikeouts in a game (12) in his third Major League start. He put up respectable numbers in 15 starts for the Braves last season (5-3, 4.14 ERA) and is thought to be a favorite to claim Derek Lowe’s old job.  Minor is in the hot seat. He’s reached a critical crossroads in his career where the Braves must determine whether or not he factors into their future plans. He must either take the job and run with it… or make way for all of the other young arms patiently waiting for their big chance. For this reason, Minor is widely believed to be at the front of the line.

    While the Braves will eventually be forced to choose just one starter from the trio of Teheran, Delgado and Minor, all three could go north with the big league club prior to opening day. With Hudson expected to open the season on the DL while making his way back from off-season back surgery, two of these three young hurlers could begin the season in the starting rotation. And Braves GM, Frank Wren, says both Teheran and Delgado will be considered candidates for a bullpen job if either or both fail to earn a place in the rotation.

    RHP, Julio Teheran

    Remarkably, Atlanta’s pitching depth doesn’t stop with the aforementioned arms. Sean Gilmartin, JJ Hoover and Zeke Spruill headline the next wave of Braves pitching prospects currently blazing a big league path.

    As for the already established talent in the Atlanta rotation… Prior to the all-star break last year, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson arguably outperformed every other trio in Major League Baseball. And Brandon Beachy turned heads with a remarkable rookie campaign (7-3, 3.68 ERA, with 169 strikeouts in 141 innings.

    Health is the only concern for this Atlanta rotation. While now reportedly 100% healthy, Jurrjens and Hanson missed nearly the entire second half of the ’11 season to injury. And again, Hudson will open the season on the DL (expected back in April or early May at the latest). The Braves are genuinely optimistic about all of their “big 3” starters, but they’re undoubtedly happy to have tremendous pitching depth, just in case.

    How ‘bout the bullpen?  Boasting the game’s most dominant relief trio of Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, Atlanta’s ‘pen is considered by many analysts to be baseball’s best. Setting the table for “The Untouchables” at the back end of the ‘pen is a solid cast, which could include Peter Moylan and Chisthian Martinez, as well as Medlen and Teheran or Delgado.

    This Atlanta pitching staff proved its metal throughout the first half of last season (before injuries to Jurrjens and Hanson), running a back-and-forth horserace with the acclaimed Philadelphia staff for the league’s top team ERA.  If healthy, the Braves could brandish MLB’s most stifling pitching staff in ’12.  Only time will tell.

    This may or may not be the best pitching staff in the game, but it is certainly the deepest.

    Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.