• Exclusives

    The lowly Atlanta Braves, Star Trek and Vanilla Ice

    One year ago, the Braves were looking merely to tweak their 96-win roster as they sought to defend their NL East pennant. This winter they are licking their wounds after finishing the season tied with the New York Mets at 79-83.

    Vanilla Ice hit 2 fewer HR than Dan Uggla in 2014.

    Vanilla Ice hit 2 fewer HR than Dan Uggla in 2014.

    But before we discuss the lowly state of the Atlanta Braves, let’s take a moment to recognize just how spoiled Braves fans really are. Don’t get defensive. I only chastise because I care.

    For proper perspective we turn to … Vanilla Ice, of course. Who else? Collaborate and listen, y’all.

    2014 was just Atlanta’s 3rd losing season since Vanilla topped the Billboard Charts in 1990.

    Think about that. Over the past 24 years the Braves have had 3 losing seasons. THREE. That’s more winning seasons than the Yankees, Red Sox or any other team over that span. Yet is seems many Braves fans choose to dwell on the fact that their team has won only one World Series over the past 20 years.

    I’d like to point out that that’s one more more World Series Championship than 20 other MLB teams over that stretch. Only 5 teams have won multiple championships since the Braves won it in ’95. (And one of them is the Marlins — would you rather have been a Fish fan over the past 20 years?)  I’d say Braves fans have had it pretty doggone good for the past 2 decades plus. So let’s gives thanks. This is, after all, the time of year when we’re supposed to count our blessings, right?

    Okay, end lecture. On to the problem at hand.

    Team Building

    THE LOWLY STATE OF THE BRAVES

    Atlanta finished 17 games out of first place last season.  Even more troubling is the fact that Baseball Prospectus ranked the Braves’ farm system 24th in baseball in 2014, down from No.18 the previous year.

    There is a silver lining, though. Despite a depleted farm system, the Atlanta Braves are a very young team with great deal of 20-something talent at the big league level. That puts them in a far better position than, say, the aging Phillies. Still, the organization is not in terrific shape.

    So how did the Braves end up here?

    Well, it’s safe to say upper management felt that flawed leadership at the baseball operations level was part of the problem. Our first clue was the heads sent rolling down Hank Aaron Drive before the champagne had even dried out of the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field from the Nationals’ division-clinching celebration.  And maybe the suits were exactly right about that. Perhaps a good front office shakeup was needed.

    I would submit to you, however, that much of the blame for the Braves’ disadvantaged state belongs with someone whom the team, unfortunately, cannot fire or replace:

    Lady Luck.

    It’s easy to forget how many times the Braves have been slugged in the groin by injuries in recent years because, for the most part,  they’ve done a pretty darned good job overcoming their misfortune (2014 notwithstanding).

    ATLANTA’S PITCHING INJURY WOES

    Let’s start with the loss of a pair of top-of-rotation starters, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, three years ago. Consider the ascendant careers of these two righties mid-way through the 2011 season, just prior to the injuries that eventually claimed their big league careers.

    Hanson-Jurrjens info graphic 600px_b

    At the half-way point of the 2011 season, Hanson looked like one of the top young starters in the league and Jurrjens had baseball’s best ERA.

    By the of the end of August their careers were effectively over.

    Injuries not only ended their respective 2012 seasons early, but also took a lasting toll. Both Jurrjens and Hanson pitched on, but they were never the same.

    Losing two high-end starters to career-altering injuries is a devastating blow that would be very hard for any team to withstand. But lo and behold, a year later, near the halfway point of the season, baseball’s best ERA once again belonged to an Atlanta Brave.

    This man has seen more of Atlanta's top young starters in recent yeraas than pitching coach Roger McDowell.

    Dr. James Andrews has spent more time top young Braves starters in recent years than Atlanta’s pitching coach.

    By mid-June, 2012, RHP Brandon Beachy looked like he might just be Atlanta’s next emerging ace, posting eye-popping numbers through the season’s first half. And yet again, the Braves boasted one of the league’s top young starting pitchers.

    AS OF JUNE 16, 2012:

    Brandon Beachy: 5-5, 2.00 ERA + .171 opp batting avg.

    Less than a week later, however, he was done for the season after undergoing “Tommy John” surgery.

    While the loss of Beachy hit the Braves hard, later that season, yet another young Atlanta hurler emerged as one of the league’s elite.

    After transitioning from the bullpen to the starting rotation for the final 2 months of the season, Kris Medlen proceeded to record one of the great stretch run performances in the history of Major League Baseball. Medlen went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA through 12 starts to help the Braves secure a postseason berth.

    He followed up his historic late-season display with a terrific 2013 season: 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA over 197 innings.

    Then, as Medlen prepared for the 2014 season, it happened. Again. Torn UCL. Done for the year.

    Days later, Atlanta’s hopes of returning a healthy Brandon Beachy to the rotation went up in smoke as he too would require another “Tommy John” procedure.  It was the second ligament replacement surgery for both Medlen and Beachy, making their path forward far less clear.

    Medlen-Beachy info graphic 600px

    Folks, think about this for a moment. The Braves lost FOUR young, high-end starters to career-altering/career-threatening injuries in the span of just a few years.

    Add to that the loss of one of baseball’s most dominant relievers, Jonny Venters, to a second and then a third Tommy John surgery.

    They were also without top setup man Eric O’Flaherty for all of 2013. Oh, and don’t forget the season-ending ankle injury to Tim Hudson that year.

    And the freak elbow injury that knocked Gavin Floyd out of the Braves rotation in 2014.

    If the universe is playing some sort of joke here, it really needs to work on its sense of humor. I’m willing to wager that there has never been a team hit that hard by pitching injuries in just a few years’ time.

    You know, maybe it’s not Lady Luck after all. Perhaps there’s a far more malevolent force at work. Is there a Grim Reaper of sorts among the baseball gods — a dark devouring spirit which, with ruthless efficiency, claims the careers of young Major League standouts the way Jonny Venters used to dispatch opposing hitters?  I wouldn’t have thought so just a few years ago, but you can call me a believer now.

    WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN? 

    Okay so … as every Star Trek fan knows, everything that can happen does happen in separate quantum realities. Here’s a refresher, courtesy of Lt. Commander Data.

    So let’s examine the alternate reality in which the Braves don’t suffer career altering/ending injuries to four top young starting pitchers and one of the game’s top relievers in a few years’ time. Suppose all those arms remained relatively healthy. What might have been?  Here’s how I think it would have played out:

    If not for injuries, here is a list of young starting pitchers who would have featured prominently in the Braves starting rotation at some point between 2012 and 2014.

    Kris Medlen
    Tommy Hanson
    Jair Jurrjens
    Brandon Beachy
    Mike Minor
    Julio Teheran
    Alex Wood

    Of that group, Jurrjens and Hanson (if healthy and not diminished by injury) would have been the first two starters in line for free agency and would likely have been traded at some point over the last year or two.

    The Braves might have opted to keep an undamaged Tommy Hanson through the 2014 season, but if so, he likely would have been on the block this winter.

    Brandon Beachy's once promising career is in jeopardy after undergoing a second "Tommy John" surgery in March.

    RHP Brandon Beachy’s underwent a second “Tommy John” surgery in March.

    HOW DIFFERENT WOULD THE BRAVES BE RIGHT NOW? 

    If not for injuries, the 2015 rotation would, in all probability, be: Medlen, Beachy, Teheran, Minor and Wood.  An excellent, young, low-cost rotation.

    Jurrjens and Hanson, if unabated by injury, would have been highly valuable trade chips. How valuable?

    While both starters where on track for career years in 2011 before their injuries, it wasn’t their first taste of success. In 2009, Jurrjens had the league’s 3rd best ERA (2.60) finishing just ahead of Adam Wainright and Clayton Kershaw in that category. For Hanson’s part, he was sporting a sub-3.00 career ERA at the 2011 All-Star break (albeit in just his 3rd season).

    CAREER NUMBERS AS OF ALL-STAR BREAK – 2011 (w/ Braves): 

    Jurrjens:  46-28, 3.17 ERA (630 inn).

    Hanson: 31-19, 2.99 ERA (434 inn).

    How much talent could the Braves have gathered for a pair of young top-of-rotation starters?

    A lot.

    Jair Jurrjens would most likely have been traded following the 2012 season, when a healthy Atlanta rotation would have been loaded, 1-5, even without Jurrjens (Medlen, Hudson, Hanson, Beachy, Minor). Using  Jurrjens as a bargaining chip, who knows … the Braves might have opted to fill their need for a center-fielder via trade that winter, rather than signing BJ Upton to a franchise record 5-year, 75 million dollar deal.

    Johnny Venters' was released this month by the Braves after undergoing his third "Tommy John" surgery.

    LHP Jonny Venters’ was released this month by the Braves after undergoing his third “Tommy John” surgery.

    Meanwhile, Jonny Venters’ price tag would have started to swell considerably via arbitration last year in route to free agency after the 2015 season. Venters, at his best, was one of MLB’s most dominant forces — a closer relegated to a setup role in ATL behind Craig Kimbrel. Another team looking for a closer may have very well have offered the Braves more than they could refuse, given Venters’ swelling price tag and approaching free agency.

    WHAT COULD THE BRAVES HAVE HAULED IN? 

    What kind of talent could the Braves have hauled in in return for an undamaged Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Jonny Venters?

    Regarding Jurrjens and Hanson, consider the Anibal Sanchez trade a couple of years ago. The Marlins sent Sanchez and Omar Infante to Detroit. In return, they got several prospects, including the Tigers’ top pitching prospect. Yes, the Tigers got Sanchez AND Infante, but at the time of this trade, Infante was no longer the standout performer Braves fans remember from his time in Atlanta. That trade was about Anibal.

    As we think about Venters, one of MLB’s most dominant relievers until overuse began to catch up with him in 2012, consider San Diego’s trade of Huston Street to the Angels last year. The Padres got two of LA’s top-5 prospects, including their best overall prospect as rated by Baseball America, Taylor Lindsey.

    It’s not at all farfetched to imagine that the Braves could have landed as many as a half-dozen high end prospects in return for a healthy, Jurrjens, Hanson and Venters.

    Also bear in mind that, given health, it would not have been necessary for the Braves to spend a combined $20 mill on Erin Santana, Gavin Floyd and Aaron Harang last season. Those resources could have been spent elsewhere. Nor would it have been necessary to trade Jason Heyward for a starting pitcher.

    Web

    Injuries, of course, happen to every team. Keeping everyone healthy is a rosy hypothetical scenario. But I say again … when has there been a team THIS hard hit by pitching injuries in just a few years’ time?

    Farm systems are replenished in large part by cashing in some of your big league bargaining chips to restock the talent pool. Tragically, injuries stole a very large pile of chips from the Braves’ table.

    The Braves’ current talent deficit has less to do with the front office not doing its job than the fact that baseball’s Grim Reaper did do his.

    Follow Kent on Twitter: @FriedbasballATL

    Kent Covington is a national radio news reporter and BravesWire Editor.