The Atlanta Braves have been extremely successful to start the 2014 season and currently lead the NL East with a 17-8 record, play that has been highlighted by a starting rotation that has been among the best in baseball from top to bottom.
As impressive as the rotation for the Bravos has been through twenty-six contests (MLB-best 1.90 ERA), the problem of too many pieces in the puzzle officially comes up on Friday, when left-hander Mike Minor returns after a rehab stint. The issue will soon include Gavin Floyd, the veteran who is also preparing to come off of the Braves’ disabled list.
Too much pitching seems like the perfect problem to pop up in baseball, but with that being said, someone currently in the picture will have to be moved elsewhere; whether that move will include a trip to the bullpen, the AAA Gwinnett Braves, or off the roster completely is not entirely clear.
An argument that many people have tried to make leading up to the additions of Minor and Floyd has concerned the idea of a six-man rotation, an uncommon-but-not-unknown tactic that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is no stranger to, as Atlanta used Tim Hudson, Ben Sheets, Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm, Mike Minor, and Tommy Hanson for a temporary period in the fall of 2012.
However, the practice is not one that has led to much success in MLB and stands as a strategy that is followed by more flack that positive feedback. “They ruin the timing of starting pitchers who normally rest four days between starts,” explained MLB.com’s Terence Moore back in 2012. “They don’t allow your ace to pitch as often as he normally would. They cause issues with your bullpen. They force you to choose between playing with either one less reliever or one guy on the bench.”
So, who’s the odd man out in the rotation? Before we look at the likely suspects, let’s first eliminate three men that I believe have secured their spot.
It seems like a safe bet to eliminate twenty-three-year-old Julio Teheran from giving up his spot in the rotation. Teheran–who served as the team’s Opening Day starter as the leader of a then-short-handed four-man rotation–has done all that has been asked of him and then some, and through six starts he has a 2-1 record with a gaudy ERA of 1.47 accompanied by 26 strikeouts and a WHIP of 0.930.
Following Teheran in not having to sweat this situation out is Ervin Santana, the pitcher that the Braves signed to a one-year, $14.1 million deal in early March following the season-ending injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Santana has been nothing short of solid for Atlanta up to this point in the season, currently holding a 3-0 record with an ERA of 1.98; Santana also has 31 strikeouts while allowing just one home run. Santana’s contract alone would make a move to the bullpen unlikely, but consider his play and it’s obvious that he’s not going anywhere.
The final player that is surely safe in this balancing equation has to be Aaron Harang, who the Braves picked up at the end of spring training after releasing Freddy Garcia. Harang came in with an apparent interim tag tacked to his chest and promptly rocked opposing batters game after game, which included 6.2 solid innings in his first start of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers as well as an outing on Apr. 18 against the New York Mets in which the thirty-five-year-old pitched seven no-hit innings before being pulled due to a high pitch count. The Braves found a diamond in the rough in Harang, so moving the former Cincinnati Reds ace out of the rotation would be nothing short of a monumental mistake.
Excluding these three starters leaves four men to fill two spots: Minor, Floyd, Alex Wood, and David Hale. I hate to say that anything is certain in this situation, but I feel very confident that Minor has a secure spot due to his consistency with the team (former No. 1 draft pick who has a 32-24 record in 4 seasons). Now it’s time to look at each of the remaining three men’s contributions and see who will likely be in and who will be out.
One of the most promising young starters in the Braves organization is twenty-three-year-old Alex Wood, a former pitcher at the University of Georgia who was called up last May and ended the 2013 campaign with a 3-3 mark that included 77 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.13. Still very inexperienced at the MLB level, Wood had pitched impressively well despite having almost no run support from his offense (Atlanta has failed to score in his last three starts) until Tuesday’s 9-0 loss to the Miami Marlins in which the left-hander gave up seven earned runs on ten hits in just 5.0 innings of work. The misadventure in Miami saw Wood’s ERA nearly double to 2.93, which makes the situation surrounding him even cloudier; will this bad outing, in which the Braves essentially sent out the B-team to back up Wood, be enough evidence that Wood cannot handle pitching every fifth day?
Alongside Wood is David Hale, a twenty-six-year-old Princeton graduate who got the call to the Majors last September and only got better as the season closed out. Hale has been no slacker for Atlanta so far in 2014, now holding a 1-0 record with 15 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.24, and an ERA of 2.31 in 23.1 innings of work. Hale held his own through eight innings in the Braves’ 4-1 victory over the Reds on Apr. 26, allowing just four base runners (2 hits and 2 walks) and a single run in his first win of the year. Hale is still what amounts to a greenhorn, only having thrown 34.1 Major League innings up to this point; Wood, by comparison, has pitched in 117.2. Will this factor into Fredi’s decision?
The last piece to evaluate is Gavin Floyd, a thirty-one-year-old who has ten years of starting experience with stints with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago White Sox. Floyd, who has a career record of 70-70 with an ERA of 4.48, signed a one-year, $4 million with the Braves last winter after a disappointing 2013 campaign in which he went 0-4 before being shut down due to Tommy John surgery on Apr. 28. Floyd appeared durable during his rehab assignment with the Gwinnett Braves in the last month, appearing in 5 games and recording a 1-1 record with a 3.26 ERA and a WHIP of 1.34. Floyd has the upper-hand against the other two pitchers in question when it comes to experience and financial status, but is that enough to completely balance the weight in Floyd’s favor?
Although the pair did their part to help the Braves start the 2014 season off strong, my gut tells me that Alex Wood and David Hale will both move to the bullpen as long relievers in favor of Floyd taking on the fifth spot in the rotation. Floyd’s promotion may lead to the hurlers moving to AAA, but it’s sensible to believe that one or both may remain with the club in case one of the five starters gets hurt or struggles mightily; in that case, look out for Gus Schlosser and/or Ian Thomas to be sent down.