Rotation's uncertainty could put more pressure on Braves offense

The Kris Medlen Watch continues, part of pitching concerns that could lead to a new look to the Braves rotation -- and put more pressure on the offense for the defending NL East champs to avoid a slow start.

Kris Medlen will get a second opinion after an MRI showed "some involvement of the ligament." He left Sunday's game vs. the Mets after grabbing his elbow.

Brad Barr / USA TODAY Sports

The Kris Medlen watch continues, raging at the center of bevy of concerns surrounding the Braves pitching staff.

General manager Frank Wren met with media Tuesday, saying an MRI showed "some involvement of the ligament" of Medlen, who left Sunday's start with what, at the time, was called a right forearm strain.

Medlen will get a second opinion, and for now there's the possibility that he won't need a second Tommy John surgery. Still, the uncertainty is a major blow for a rotation that has another question mark with Brandon Beachy.

Monday, Beachy exited a scheduled four-inning start after two due to tightness in his right arm, a further issue from the elbow ailments that resulted in Tommy John surgery in June 2012 and saw him shut down after five starts last season with inflammation.

Beachy told reporters he's not worried about it, and there's have been no discussions of his undergoing an MRI or word that he would miss a start of not be ready for the season.

While Fredi Gonzalez has said Mike Minor's not expected to miss more than one regular-season start, he has been limited after after undergoing urinary tract surgery this winter that kept him from throwing all January. He has yet to face live hitters.

It all sets up the possibility that, barring any additions to the roster, the Braves could open the season with a rotation of Beachy -- if there are no more complications -- Julio Teheran (22), Alex Wood (23), David Hale (26) and 37-year-old Freddy Garcia, a group that combined for 50 starts in 2013, with 30 of those coming from Teheran.

While Teheran (23) and Wood (22) look like rising stars, Garcia seemingly resurgent, and Hale showing promise in three career starts, there's reason to believe the Braves could more than hold their own with a rotation of that foursome and Beachy until Minor and Gavin Floyd (expected to be available in May after Tommy John surgery) are available. Though potentially replacing Medlen and his 2.40 ERA since the 2012 All-Star break, which is second only to the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw among starters with at least 250 innings, will be difficult.

Speculation has already turned to the Braves making a run at free agent Ervin Santana. Coming off a rebound season (3.24 ERA, 127 ERA+ and 3.16 K/BB ration in 211 innings), he's already turned down the Blue Jays' offer of $14 million for one season and is believed to be seeking $50 million over four.

The debate there is, should Medlen not be available, will the Braves seek a pricy, long-term fix for a concern they could address at the trade deadline?

It's just another question surrounding a rotation that looked deep and rock-solid but suddenly has plenty, a situation that may mean the Braves will have to lean on their offense more this season.

Amid the offense's feast-or-famine ways -- the Braves led the NL with 181 home runs and also, for the third straight season, set a franchise record with 1,384 strikeouts -- it was the starting pitching that kept them in games.

The rotation had 102 quality starts last season, which led the NL, but if Medlen is out, only 31 of those will be courtesy of players available on Opening Day, with Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm (13 each), no longer on the roster.

After winning the division by 10 games over the Nationals last year, Atlanta is expecting a much tougher battle this time around, especially from Washington, which is healthy and added to two ares of strength in trading for starter Doug Fister (via the Tigers) and reliever Jerry Blevins (from the A's).

With a staff of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister, the Nats may challenge for the best rotation in baseball and Blevins and his 52 strikeouts in 60 innings last year only adds to a bullpen anchored by Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.

"We all have solid teams," said Braves outfielder Jason Heyward. "We all have the mindsets that we want to win. We all have the experience. We all have the young players. We all have the pitching. We all have good defense. I feel like it's going to be a crapshoot, but it's a lot of fun and a lot of good competition."

It was the Nationals who were the favorites in the East a year ago, but lost 14 of 24 from April 5-30, a stretched capped with consecutive losses to the Braves in Washington, D.C., that put Atlanta up 6 1/2 games.

The Nats played catchup the rest of the season, and despite going 32-16 down the stretch, couldn't make a run at the Braves, whose margin of victory in the division trailed only the West champion Dodgers, who won by 11 games.

The Braves have plenty of firepower, returning four players who hit at least 21 home runs last season in Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis and Dan Uggla and Justin Upton, and a Craig Kimbrel-led bullpen that led the majors with a 2.46 ERA.

Last season, the rotation was among those strengths, ranking sixth overall with a 3.51 ERA and it provided some of the biggest surprises of last season. Those came largely via the players that could make up four of those five spots in Tehran, Wood, Hale and Garcia if Medlen's injury keeps him out an extended period of time.

Now, Atlanta may be asking that same group to surprise again -- and for Beachy to return to the form that saw him lead the NL with a 2.00 ERA before his 2012 injury.

The narrative of a preseason highlighted by extensions to young stars could get a new, unforeseen wrinkle. But what hasn't is the Braves knew they were going into the season with a target on their backs as NL East champs. That wasn't going to alter their approach, so why should anything else?

"There's no extra emphasis on 'Hey, this year we have to go with a different mindset.' No, it's not that," Heyward said. "We feel like every year we are in the hunt."

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