The Atlanta Braves will remain in limbo when it comes to pitcher Kris Medlen’s pitching arm.
The 28-year-old starter injured his elbow ligament in his previous outing against the New York Mets, according to general manager Frank Wren, though the right-hander will need to undergo further tests and get a second opinion, likely from Dr. James Andrews, who completed Medlen’s Tommy John surgery back in 2010, in order to pinpoint the extent of the injury.
"A diagnosis would be premature at this point. He will undergo further tests until we seek a second opinion," Wren said on Tuesday. "An MRI can sometimes be inconclusive when a player has had a previous Tommy John surgery."
So, the team will wait to assess the damage.
But this is far from good news for an organization all of a sudden steeped in rotation concerns.
From the outside looking in, Medlen’s early exit from Sunday’s game against the Mets certainly looked troublesome. Much like his initial elbow injury back in 2010, the Braves starter and recent signee of a one-year, $5.8 million arbitration deal immediately hopped off the mound following a fourth-inning pitch, heading straight to the dugout as manager Fredi Gonzalez and team trainers met him on the field. The initial diagnosis was a right forearm strain, which would have put Medlen’s projected Opening Day start in jeopardy in and of itself, but his Monday MRI showing an "injury to the ligament" could be mean something much more severe.
The vague news leaves the Braves rotation in a precarious situation, especially through the early part of the team’s schedule, as all indications are that Medlen will not be ready to go by Opening Day. Injuries to ligaments, no matter how severe, are not taken lightly by baseball minds.
Medlen will likely join a host of Atlanta starters expected not to be at full strength to start the year — Mike Minor is recovering from an offseason urinary tract procedure and is expected to miss at least one start; free agent acquisition Gavin Floyd will not be ready until around mid-May while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery; recovering starter Brandon Beachy, who is also on the long Tommy John comeback trail, made headlines on Monday after leaving a game early with discomfort in his right bicep — and, if those names are indeed unavailable come Opening Day, the Braves will rely on a patchwork staff to try and avoid a slow start.
Right-hander Julio Teheran, 23, who the club extended to the tune of six years, $32.4 million this offseason, looks poised to take over the Opening Day role, as he’s the only player left on the roster after Medlen and Minor to log at least 85 MLB innings last season. The team obviously believes in his talents enough to throw long-term guarantees his way, but that’s a tall task for him to take on, even in the short term. Behind him is a group that could include the likes of lefty Alex Wood — a very talented young pitcher, but one who is expected to be saddled with an innings limit this season — rookie David Hale and veteran pitcher Freddy Garcia, who is looking to make the club on a minor league contract after pitching above expectations late last season.
There could perhaps be a few spot-starters from the Triple-A group (think 40-man roster additions Aaron Northcraft and Cody Martin) thrown into that potential mix as well, but do not expect the rest of the farm system to be of much use in this situation; many of the Braves’ top pitching prospects (Lucas Sims, Jason Hursh, Mauricio Cabrera, J.R. Graham) are likely to be at the very least one year away from contributing at the major league level.
The next obvious question: Would Atlanta look for trade options around the league or to the free agent market if Medlen’s injury turns out to be more severe? Ervin Santana is the most popular free agent name on the market, but he could draw a heavy $13-14 million price for the Braves’ rough $100 million payroll, not to mention a compensatory draft pick to the Kansas City Royals. He’s an effective player (3.0 WAR last season), but how high is the team willing to bid? Trade options Jeff Samardzija (Cubs), Zach Britton (Orioles) and Vance Worley (Twins), among others, have also been tossed around.
For what it’s worth, Wren did tell reporters the team is exploring the market on Tuesday.
At least until Minor and/or Beachy get healthy, it’s an untested rotation as presently constituted, especially when compared to Atlanta’s primary NL East competition: the Washington Nationals.
There are plenty of questions still remaining for the Braves staff — the biggest concern on the roster just weeks away from the regular season — and the initial news on Medlen did not answer many of them. But, second opinion or not, it’s clear his arm is not healthy heading into the season, and the Braves were certainly hoping for some better news in that department.