This should be the best of times for the Atlanta Braves. Their principal challengers for the NL East title, the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies can’t get any traction and the Braves’ lead remains a comfortable 7 ½ games coming into Thursday night.
But Atlanta is watching its starting pitching fall by the wayside, with Paul Maholm hitting the DL and Tim Hudson breaking his ankle and being out indefinitely. What do the Braves have left and is it enough? That’s the focus of today’s MLB coverage.
The good news for Atlanta is that Mike Minor is having a breakout year. He’s become a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher, the one thing this staff was lacking, with a 2.98 ERA in his twenty starts. Julio Teheran has also finally blossomed and is having a good year with a 3.25 ERA in nineteen trips to the post. If you had known at the start of the year that the fate of Atlanta’s pitching would rest on Minor and Teheran, it would have, at the very least, made you nervous. But they’ve come through.
Kris Medlen was the hottest pitcher in the National League down the stretch in 2012. The magic hasn’t been quite the same this year, but nor was it reasonable to expect that. Medlen’s 3.78 ERA in 20 starts at least establishes that he’s on a good long-term career path.
The trio of Minor, Teheran and Medlen doesn’t sound flashy, but it’s pretty good. Between Minor and Medlen you have two pitchers who have shown they can pitch like aces for sustained stretches. The problem, at least as of today, is that’s literally all there is.
Tim Hudson’s days as an ace, going back to his key role with the Moneyball-era Oakland A’s (a role overlooked in the making of the movie), are long over. But Hudson was still steady, with a 3.97 ERA in his twenty starts. The one thing hurting Atlanta’s staff was that they were expecting too much from the vet, but the emergence of the young trio above had allowed Hudson to slide into a more natural role of solid veteran back-end help. Now that’s gone.
Maholm’s loss hurts, but only because there’s no reliable big-league help to replace him. His ERA was up to 4.41 and that’s after a good start to the season. Over Maholm’s last four starts, his ERA was 7.65. His injury is a left wrist contusion, and while he should be back in August, the Braves have to hope the rest does him some good.
The big X-factor, as it’s been all year, is Brandon Beachy. He’s got the stuff to be a top-of-the-line arm and when healthy he’s delivered. But he hasn’t been healthy much lately. Beachy is on rehab right now, and there are reports that he’ll make his first start for the Braves on Monday. The question now, is whether it’s too late for him to find a groove and be effective. You have to put me down as a big skeptic at this point.
That’s what manager Fredi Gonzalez is taking into the final months of the season. He can count in Minor, Teheran and Medlen, and he has to hope for the best with Maholm and Beachy. I suppose he can also hope for the best with Hudson—the veteran has not been ruled out for the year, but a broken ankle certainly doesn’t bode well.
THE ROTATION BY COMPARISON
Before we move to any conclusions, let’s compare Atlanta’s starting pitching to the rest of the NL East. Here’s how each team ranks in National League starters’ ERA, with any notable injury notes included…
Atlanta: 6th (this is a rank that’s been in slow decline throughout the year)
Philadelphia: 13th (Roy Halladay is pitching off a mound and hopes to be back by the end of August)
NY Mets: 7th
As you can see the division has at least respectable pitching. The Phils are the only team that’s truly bad, and they can at least bet on Cole Hamels finally turning it around and Halladay coming back. I’m not saying I would bet on those things, but that doesn’t make them unreasonable hopes.
ATLANTA BATTENS DOWN THE HATCHES
To me, the big number is 7 ½. That’s a lot of games to make up. I’ve stood by Washington as my preseason pick to win the NL East, and reaffirmed that over the All-Star break. And I fully expect the Nationals to make a push. Where I’m starting to have doubts is how long it’s taken Washington to get its act together, even with Bryce Harper healthy.
If Washington does rip off a stretch of something like 17-4, which is not unreasonable, given the quality of their starting pitching, then I think Atlanta’s going to be hard-pressed to hold them off. The back end spots of the Braves’ rotation, as currently constituted, are just way too weak and will be tantamount to giving up games.
I think the Maholm we’re seeing right now is much closer to the real thing then the one who started the season so well, and I’m not betting on Beachy, at least this year. Atlanta needs to make a trade between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Jake Peavy will be on the market, and a less drastic solution—someone who can just provide stable help in the 4 or 5 spot would also do the trick. Right now though, I don’t see the Braves’ decimated rotation holding this lead in the NL East.