CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Atlanta Braves had a number of flaws last year. Pitching papered over them.
Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton batted .179 and .184, respectively. Brian McCann and Jason Heyward played just over 100 games apiece because of injuries. Tim Hudson suffered a season-ending injury in July. Even promising shortstop Andrelton Simmons regressed offensively. But the Braves were fine because they had the best team ERA in the major leagues. They won 96 games and the National League East.
Now, only five months after a wrenching NL Division Series loss to the Dodgers, the Braves are in the midst of a full-blown pitching crisis.
Overreaction to spring injuries is a baseball tradition, but the Braves’ 24-hour vortex of bad news has left general manager Frank Wren with little choice: He must make a move to stabilize what used to be the sturdiest part of his roster.
Kris Medlen left Sunday’s game early because of a strained right forearm. Fellow starter Brandon Beachy departed after two innings Monday because discomfort in his bicep left him unable to finish or locate his pitches. And that’s in addition to Mike Minor’s questionable status for the Opening Day roster because of shoulder issues. (Minor was the only Atlanta pitcher to win a game in last year’s postseason.)
Beachy threw more balls than strikes Monday, and his velocity was noticeably below normal. When I asked if there would be a point during the spring when he cuts loose in an effort to throw as hard as he once did, he said, simply, "I tried."
Both Medlen and Beachy had Tommy John surgery earlier in their careers. Even if the Braves receive encouraging medical reports on each right-hander this week, there’s an unsustainable level of risk in their current rotation. Medlen, Hudson, Beachy and the since-departed Paul Maholm accounted for more than half of the Braves’ starts last year, and it’s possible not one of them will be on the 25-man roster when the regular season begins.
Gavin Floyd, rehabbing from a two-part elbow surgery, could be an option by May. That’s not soon enough. The Braves acquired right-hander Zach Stewart from the White Sox for cash Monday, but he hasn’t started a game in the majors since 2012 and is likely viewed as minor-league depth. Wren needs reliable innings, and every other general manager knows it.
Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija was an option during the offseason. The teams had preliminary trade talks over the winter that did not advance very far. How high of a price could Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer demand now? (For what it’s worth: Two sources told me the Braves and Rays never talked about David Price during the offseason. So, scratch him off the list of possibilities.)
Free agent Ervin Santana, who recently changed representation in the midst of a convoluted negotiation, is another option. But the Braves have a relatively modest payroll in comparison to their market size, and they’ve devoted far too much of it to the disappointing Uggla and B.J. Upton. Atlanta would be in a much different place if those two salaries weren’t on the books.
When Hudson left to sign with the Giants, the Braves figured they could replace him from within. That would have been a fine strategy if the returning pitchers had remained healthy. It doesn’t look like that will be the case. As of this moment, the Braves’ season-opening rotation could project as Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Freddy Garcia, David Hale and Minor (assuming he’s built up enough arm strength by mid-April).
For a Braves team that survived on starting pitching in 2013, that won’t be good enough — unless finishing second to the Washington Nationals is their goal.
Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.