Braves consider risks of six-man rotation

The stretch is daunting.

The Braves play the next 20 games in 20 days, 13 of which will be spent fighting the temptation to buy those cool SkyMall gadgets with a return flight from New York and then trips to Washington, San Fran and San Diego.

So it’s not surprising to see manager Fredi Gonzalez playing around with the idea of a six-man rotation.

The premise has its merits.

And risks.

And if Gonzalez goes through with it, there will be plenty of folks second-guessing the six-man move, successful or not.

We can talk and write about the pros and cons of using six starters until our mouths go dry and our fingers cramp up at right angles. None of it matters, though, until we see how Tommy Hanson pitches if he comes off the DL on Aug. 15.

Remember, Hanson wasn’t the master of illusion when the Braves shelved him with a strained back. His back hurt, but his arm was the root of Gonzalez’s headaches.

With 12 wins, Hanson leads the Braves in victories.

He’s 7-1 in his last 11 starts, but he gave up runs in bunches in consecutive starts against the Mets and Nationals in July and didn’t last longer than 5 1/3 innings in his last four starts.

He had a 6.21 ERA for the month – one of his worst in his three-plus years with the Braves — sending his season’s ERA from 3.32 on June 15 to its current 4.29.

So if Hanson’s back isn’t better and he’s not ready to resume his role on what’s shaping up to be a strong starting staff, the six-man rotation is moot.

“We can’t consider it until we see where Tommy’s at,” Gonzalez said recently. “But it makes a lot of sense.”

I agree.

If Hanson comes back strong, what’s wrong with trying it out, at least until the Braves can make it through the end of the month.

It’ll keep Kris Medlen where he belongs and help the other starters stay fresh and focused on September.

And besides, he deserves a spot in the rotation.

He should have been there in April, and he’s pitched like he wants to stay there now, allowing one run in 10 1/3 innings as a starter.

Medlen is a free spirit, a guy whose mind is constantly working. He’s like that mischievous kid who’s always looking for a way to cause some good-natured trouble.

But knowing when he’s pitching seems to keep him centered. It gives him a goal to focus on, something to work toward.

Hanson’s fragility has already been proven.

He’s pitched 126 innings in 2012 and has reached 200 only once with the Braves. They want to avoid hitting rewind on the end of 2011, when Hanson’s season was done after one August start.

A six-man rotation could save some grind on Tim Hudson’s bad ankle and other creaky bones and joints.

It could also help Ben Sheets grind more magical mileage out of his reconstructed elbow, stretch out Mike Minor’s innings (at 123 2/3, he’s already surpassed his high as a pro) and make sure Paul Maholm is primed for his first September pennant race.

Another couple of day’s rest over the next two weeks also couldn’t hurt Medlen, since he hasn’t been a regular in the rotation since 2010.

The Braves are in the midst of their best stretch this season.

They’re 12-3 in their past 15 games — or since Chipper Jones joined Twitter — and 22-8 over the past month. They’ve gradually crept to sixth in the NL in team ERA (3.74), which has been aided considerably by their 1.88 mark in that 15-game stretch.

They need to do everything possible to keep it going.

Even if that means using a six-man rotation.