First things first: Tim Hudson is a class act, fierce competitor and heck of a pitcher, universally respected throughout baseball.
So disturbing was the grotesque fractured right ankle he suffered Wednesday night that players, fans and media responded with an outpouring of support on Twitter.
Now, without Hudson, the Atlanta Braves must take the difficult next step: Addressing the top of their rotation, which already was the weakest part of their club.
Hudson is the Braves’ No. 1 starter, but mostly on reputation. Left-hander Mike Minor, the Braves’ No. 2 starter, might not even be a true No. 2.
Some with the Braves believe their next 23 players are as good as anyone’s. It’s just difficult for their top starters to match up with, say, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Phillies’ Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.
And with Hudson set to undergo season-ending surgery once the swelling in his ankle subsides, the Braves are even more compromised.
The trade market for starting pitching improved somewhat on Wednesday, when sources told FOXSports.com that the Kansas City Royals were willing to listen to offers for right-hander Ervin Santana, and would trade him for the right price.
Perhaps the Braves will move on Santana, Chicago White Sox righty Jake Peavy or Houston Astros righty Bud Norris. But none of those pitchers is a No. 1 starter, and the acquisition cost for each could be exorbitant.
The Braves already had planned for rookie left-hander Alex Wood to replace lefty Paul Maholm, who is on the disabled list with a left wrist contusion. Righty Brandon Beachy, 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, made what was expected to be one of his final rehab starts Wednesday night, and could replace Hudson.
Hudson is 38, Maholm 31. Everyone else is a relative baby. The average age of the revamped Braves’ rotation — Wood and Beachy, plus Minor and right-handers Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran — would be 24.4.
It’s crazy how quickly things change in baseball. Prior to Wednesday night, the Braves’ only goal before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline was to add a left-handed reliever — not necessarily an elite specialist, just someone who could get a left-handed hitter or two out in say, the sixth or seventh inning.
Hudson’s injury will force club officials to reassess.
The Braves lead the Philadelphia Phillies by eight games in the NL East and the Washington Nationals by nine. Comfortable as those margins are, they’re less comfortable without Hudson.
UPGRADE NEEDED IN ST. LOUIS — OR MAYBE NOT
If the postseason began today, the St. Louis Cardinals likely would pitch right-handers Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn in the first three games.
Wainwright, no question. Miller, perhaps, though he could wear down in his first full season as a major league starter. Lynn, not so much, considering that he has a 6.32 ERA in his last eight starts.
The Cardinals obviously could use another quality starter, but according to major league sources, they’re not actively pursuing Norris and they’re not interested in Toronto lefty Mark Buehrle.
The sudden availability of Santana, a potential free agent, figures to pique the Cardinals’ interest, and the team scouted Peavy in his return from a fractured rib last Saturday.
But the Cardinals, by declining to push for Chicago Cubs righty Matt Garza, already have demonstrated that they’re wary of rentals and they won’t trade any of their elite young talent for an incremental upgrade.
Which could mean that they refrain from making a major trade for a pitcher, instead relying on their surplus of young arms to carry them through the pennant race and — assuming they get there — the postseason.
In this market, significant upgrades are difficult to find.
Santana might qualify, but the Royals’ price for him likely will be higher than the draft pick they would receive between the first and second rounds if they made him a qualifying offer and he departed as a free agent.
The White Sox, meanwhile, want a decent return for Peavy — and never mind that Peavy is a physical risk who is under contract for $14.5 million in 2014. The game is so flush with revenues, few teams need to dump salaries anymore.
Well, the Cardinals will not trade right-hander Michael Wacha or righty Carlos Martinez for either of those pitchers. And by the time the sellers lower their prices — if they lower their prices — the Cards might be more inclined to go with their internal options.
They can get through the regular season with little difficulty — Wacha and Martinez will both be available to spell Miller, righty Joe Kelly or whomever else might need a break in September. Wacha has thrown only 85 2/3 innings between the majors and minors this season, Martinez just 63.
The postseason would present a bigger challenge.
After Wainwright, the rotation would be one question after another. But if you’re the Cardinals, would you rather sacrifice top prospects for Santana or Peavy — and pay the balances of their respective contracts — or turn all of those big young arms loose?
A trade can’t be ruled out. But in this market, a trade might not be worth the trouble.
PICKING THROUGH THE PITCHING CARCASS
One rival executive said Wednesday that the package the Cubs extracted from the Texas Rangers for Garza only will increase the Astros’ demands for Norris, who might only be a third or fourth starter, but at least is under club control through 2015.
The Cubs, in acquiring four players for Garza, did rather well considering that most clubs balked at acquiring him as a rental. They also were smart to act when they did, before last-minute surprises like Santana crowded the market.
The Oakland Athletics, who made a late run at Garza, didn’t mind the idea of acquiring him for only a dozen or so starts — “every player we have is a rental,” one club official cracked.
The current labor agreement, however, discourages most teams from taking a similar approach.
Draft picks are not as plentiful as they once were, and the restrictions on amateur spending make teams even more reluctant to part with prospects. What’s more, clubs no longer can receive draft-pick compensation for potential free agents whom they acquire in the middle of a season.
The Boston Red Sox never got serious on Garza, in part because they were concerned with his injury history, sources said. Peavy would be an even bigger medical gamble, given the extra year on his contract. Perhaps that is why team president Larry Lucchino told WEEI on Thursday morning that the team is looking “pretty hard” at Cuban righty Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who would cost only money.
Otherwise, the Sox might face little choice but to jump on Peavy or Santana given the uncertainty over righty Clay Buchholz and the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles mounting strong challenges in the AL East.
Two previously available starting pitchers — Milwaukee Brewers righties Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse — now figure to stay put. Both could have greater trade value in the offseason, when different dynamics will be in play.
At that point, Gallardo will have two years and $24.25 million left on his contract, Lohse two years and $22 million. Both of their average salaries will be lower than the amount of the qualifying offer, which is likely to be more than $14 million. And both will be more affordable than free agents like Santana, who likely will seek three-year deals at bigger numbers.
SO, WHAT DID THE CUBS GET?
Class-A right-hander C.J. Edwards, who throws up to 96 mph with a good changeup and breaking ball, probably possesses the biggest upside of the four players in the Garza deal. But Edwards, 21, packs only 155 pounds onto his 6-foot-2 frame, so his durability is in question.
Edwards’ slight stature evokes memories of Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, and some of the Rangers’ minor league coaches even called him “Oil Can,” according to a team official. But Edwards, after learning that Boyd had drug problems, asked the coaches to stop, the official said.
The Cubs view right-hander Justin Grimm, 24, as a fifth starter or setup reliever. Right-hander Neal Ramirez, 24, the likely player to be named, is another power arm, but one with a history of injury. His game management and difficulty pitching out of trouble also are concerns, a scout said.
Third baseman Mike Olt, who turns 25 on Aug. 27, is perhaps the most interesting player in the deal. A year ago, the Rangers deemed him untouchable in potential trades for Garza and right-hander Zack Greinke. But Olt suffered a concussion in the Dominican Winter League and had vision problems early in the season.
“I’ll give the guy credit, he’s still playing hard, carrying himself the right way,” the scout said. “But he has a long way to go. His swing is really stiff, and there is some length to it.”
THE MARKET FOR HITTERS: ANOTHER “MEH”
New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman said it just right when he called the market for offensive players “offensive.”
White Sox outfielder Alex Rios probably is the biggest prize, and rival clubs question whether he is consistent enough to merit his remaining salary — about $5 million this season, $12.5 million next season and either a $1 million buyout or $13.5 million club option in 2015.
The Rangers ask for Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton “every week,” according to a major league source, but every week they get the same answer — “no.” So Texas is considering Rios as well as a number of other right-handed hitters, including the Marlins’ Justin Ruggiano and Padres’ Chris Denorfia, sources said.
Rios obviously would be the best possible fit if right fielder Nelson Cruz is suspended as part of the Biogenesis investigation, but the Rangers — after paying dearly for Garza — might be wary of trading additional high-level prospects. Their major league-ready pitching, in particular, is growing thin.
Given all that, the Rangers might prefer lesser hitters at a lower price. The team, however, has not yet mounted a serious push for Ruggiano, and the Padres do not plan to trade Denorfia (or, for that matter, Carlos Quentin), sources said.
Seattle Mariners first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales, a switch-hitter, likely would appeal to the Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and other clubs. The Mariners, though, probably will not move him — they are trying to win as many games as possible, and Morales has helped fuel the team’s 13-6 surge in July, providing cover for the M’s younger hitters.
JUST HOW POLARIZING IS HE?
Some with the Brewers privately wonder if it will be more difficult for the team to attract free agents this offseason, given the hostility that so many players express toward Ryan Braun.
Free agents generally go to the highest bidder, but it’s conceivable that some players will not want to be teammates with Braun, who on Monday was suspended for the rest of the season after violating baseball’s Basic Agreement and Joint Drug Policy.
Many players are angry at Braun for claiming he had done nothing wrong. Some free agents, though, also might question whether Braun will be the same hitter now that he will face more rigorous testing, and whether the Brewers’ offense will be diminished as a result.
K-ROD: THE ORIOLES LIKED HIM BEST
The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers indeed were the other two AL clubs that pursued reliever Francisco Rodriguez, according to a major league source. The Red Sox, however, planned to continue closing with righty Koji Uehara if they had acquired Rodriguez, the source said.
The Orioles placed a greater value on Rodriguez, even though they don’t plan to use him as a full-time closer. The player they traded to the Brewers, infielder Nick Delmonico, cost them $1.525 million as a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft. The Brewers actually liked Delmonico in that draft, but knew he wanted first-round money.
Rodriguez’s success against left-handed hitters this season could make him a viable alternative to closer Jim Johnson in certain matchups. K-Rod’s splits are downright odd, and perhaps due to small samples — left-handed hitters have a .369 OPS against him in 49 at-bats, right-handers an .823 OPS against him in 37 ABs.
Johnson’s splits are practically even — left-handed hitters have a .702 OPS against him in 96 at-bats, righties a .682 OPS against him in 76 ABs.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Athletics’ biggest need is an offensive threat such as Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, but the lack of quality bats on the market is prompting the club to explore trades for starting pitchers.
The A’s run at Garza wasn’t merely a ploy; the team, according to major league sources, also is interested in both Peavy and Santana (the expected pursuit of Peavy first was reported by CBSSports.com).
Every team wants to fill needs, but the ultimate objective is to outscore the opponent. The best way for a team to do that sometimes is to add to a strength — particularly if that team cannot sensibly address a weakness.
• Some rival executives attribute part of the Nationals’ offensive problems to the loss of outfielder Michael Morse, an outcome few anticipated when the Nats essentially exchanged Morse for Denard Span in their lineup.
“Morse made them deep and dangerous — he was one more big bat you had to deal with,” one exec said.
• The Braves still strike out at a higher rate than any team in the NL but the Mets, but they’re improving month by month.
They struck out once every 3.99 plate appearances in April, followed by once every 4.30 PAs in May, once every 4.62 in June and now once every 5.14 in July.
• The Phillies are narrowing their search for a backup center fielder. Chris Dickerson, who recently was designated for assignment by the Orioles, could be one possibility.
The Phillies don’t figure to be too aggressive — they’re three games below .500, eight games back in the NL East and eight back in the race for the second wild card.