Monday, February 25, 2008

Johnny, Timmy, Tommy and who?

The Braves enter training camp this year with at least eight pitchers that are serious candidates for the starting rotation. Clearly, not everyone’s going to have a chair when the music stops. Time will tell who’s in and who’s out, but here’s a look at the emerging battle royale:

John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and Tom Glavine: are all locks.

So then what? In a world of no sure things, the other Braves vying for pitching spots are bets just waiting to be hedged.

Lefty Mike Hampton is: the wildcard.

At this point, there are only two important things to know about Mike Hampton. One, he hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since his own Tommy John surgery in 2005 and several subsequent setbacks, elbow-related and otherwise. And two, he’s under contract for an awful lot of money ($15M) in 2008, so the Braves will give him every opportunity to prove he has something left after nearly three years out of the game. And maybe Hampton will show something akin to the guy who compiled a 32-20 record in 72 starts after being acquired by the Braves in 2003.

Though his elbow is reportedly a-okay — as is the hamstring he ganked in his first inning of winter ball — I give Hampton no better than a 50-50 chance of making it through April in the rotation. He could bump a door or slip in the shower tomorrow, and another season’s lost in the blink of an eye.

Come to think of it, he probably shouldn’t blink, either. He’s likely to sprain an eyelid.

Southpaw Chuck James is: the bubble guy.

James has experience going for him, having put up a respectable 4.00 ERA and 22-14 record in parts of three seasons with the Braves. But he has two problems — one of which is currently compounding the other.
First, James is suffering from a slight tear of the rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder. As-is, the team doctors say it’s treatable with rest, though there’s no way of predicting how another few thousand pitches this season will affect it. For the moment, James is limited to light work and long-tossing, with his first spring start currently slated for March 20.

That puts James behind in his preparation, and that’s especially bad news in his case. James’ biggest problem in the majors has been home runs allowed — 52 in 57 games to date, and a whopping 32 in 30 starts last season. His troubles are directly attributable to good power hitters waiting for his fastball, which they can often do because James only throws two pitches. Though his changeup is above-average, it isn’t enough to keep savvy hitters from sitting on the heater and parking it in the seats. A solid third pitch would keep hitters honest and likely tab James as a top-of-the-rotation candidate for Atlanta’s future — but he can’t practice new pitches while he’s sitting on the sidelines. And a late-March start won’t help his cause.

Righty Jeff Bennett is: the ‘arm of all trades’

Late last September, the Braves asked reliever Bennett to make two starts, in his first major league action since Tommy John surgery (are you sensing a pattern here?) in 2006. Bennett performed so well in those starts (plus one relief appearance) that the Braves appear to be strongly considering him for a rotation spot this spring.
Why, I’m not so sure.

Maybe in his surgery the docs replaced his elbow with some sort of supercharged bionic model, but otherwise I don’t see any strong evidence of Bennett being an effective starting pitcher. In the two seasons prior to his surgery, he made over 100 appearances (with the Brewers and their AAA affiliate) — but not a single start. In 2003, he made seven starts in AA/AAA in the Pirates organization — but he managed just a 5-7 record overall.

So Bennett had some nice appearances last year, and I do believe he’d be a great long reliever/swing man in the bullpen. But, for reasons that aren’t fully evident on the surface, he could also end up in the rotation. Go figure.

Jo-Jo Reyes and Jair Jurrjens are: the prospects.

Ideally, some combination of the hurlers above will man the rotation coming out of camp, allowing the Braves to get Reyes and Jurrjens a bit more seasoning. Reyes, a 23-year-old lefty, shot through the minor leagues last year, compiling a 12-1 record and 2.72 ERA in his only AA and AAA action to date. The big leaguers were not so kind, however, and Reyes managed only a 2-2 record and 6.22 ERA in 11 games with Atlanta. Another few months of minor league action may be in order to help Reyes hone his pitching skills — and regain some confidence in his own talent.

Jurrjens likewise rose quickly through the ranks, seeing action in 7 games with Detroit last year and bypassing the AAA level altogether. Atlanta would no doubt prefer to unleash Jurrjens on International League hitters for a while, rather than throw him into the fire of the National League East. The big question is whether they’ll have that luxury — and whether the young righthander will show enough during the spring to be considered.

With so many questions, factors, and health issues to consider, it’s hard to say what the Atlanta rotation might look like in August, or even April. All we know now is that it’s likely to contain at least two lefties, and it’ll probably be on the old side


D'Andre Williams said...

I am a braves fan (I am not here to talk trash, I as a Braves fan and person have more class than that) and Mike Hampton is pitching great in camp so far. Many of the Braves beat writers have said that he looks the best on the pitching side. If he can stay healthy our rotation can be really good this year. I don't think that Chuck James will be ready by spring training. So I expect for Jair Jurrjens to win the #5 spot in the rotation. The Braves rotation is probably going to look like this, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, and Jair Jurrjens. And don't count out the Braves. But you Mets and Phillies can keep fight amoungest yourselfs. Its going to be a dog fight to win the NL East this year. The Braves having a great lineup, HARD thrower arms in the pen, and a deep quality rotation is going to help us later in the season. I am not going to make any predicions, but the 14 time in a row division wining Braves are going to be a force to be rekkon with. BTW, you have a very nice blog. My blog is very similar to yours. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks D'Andre. Believe me I'm not sleeping on the Braves. It's a 3 team race. I would not be surprised if all three teams finish within 6 games of each other.