As Minor outduels Wainwright, 'ace' talk reemerges

BY foxsports • July 26, 2013

ATLANTA -- Mike Minor is on top of things.

During his previous start in Chicago, Braves catcher Evan Gattis pointed out to the left-hander that his arm slot was lower than usual, a mechanical issue that has the potential to affect pitch location and overall effectiveness against opposing batters. After consulting the film with pitching coach Roger McDowell during that same inning -- an exercise that confirmed Gattis' observation -- a conscientious Minor made the effort to start coming over the ball more.

"Once I tried to get on top of the ball more, I could feel it. And so tonight was a little bit different, like that first inning it was different from the last couple of starts because my arm slot was lower, and then tonight I tried to raise it up a little bit," Minor said after the Braves' 3-1 win against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday. "It was a little shaky at first, but then repeating pitches in bullpen and in the first inning, after the first inning I felt more rhythm. Pitches were starting to come out in the same spot. I was starting to work pretty well."

Though it did not translate into a win in The Windy City (despite a superb start vs. the White Sox), the tweak paid off against the National League's preeminent team.

If Adam Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals are the NL's barometer of playoff readiness, then Minor, who outdueled the league's Cy Young frontrunner in Game One of the teams' three-game weekend series, passed the test with flying colors. In terms of timing, the 25-year-old's over-the-top performance was just what the GM ordered. Coming off two consecutive games in New York where veteran Tim Hudson fractured his right ankle and rookie Alex Wood labored his way toward his second career loss, a need for staff stability was nearing a season high entering Friday night.

Minor provided just that.

While working seven innings, Minor allowed just one run on four hits while striking out five Cardinals. He did not allow a single free pass, retiring 17 of the 20 batters he faced following the lone run he gave up -- a solo shot by All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. Wainwright (13-6 record, MLB-leading 5.0 WAR) was tagged for three earned runs in seven innings of work, even giving up a home run for just the seventh time in 2013.

"(Minor) did a hell of a job for us," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He beat a hell of a team."

In four of his five July outings, the lefty logged a quality start, with his two efforts against the White Sox and Cards being two of his career's very best. Given the gravity of Friday's circumstances -- depleted pitching staff; NL's best team (62-38) boasting a top-3 scoring offense; matched up with one of the best pitchers around -- there's a case to be made for the victory being the best start of Minor's young career.

"We've seen the numbers. They seem like they all can hit anything," Minor said of the Cardinals, who have scored an NL-best 496 runs this season. "So it was more like we had our own gameplan, watching film and tonight we just put it all together."

For a Braves team setting its sights on a World Series run, these are the types of wins that come at a premium in October and November. As Braves general manager Frank Wren openly discussed prior to the series opener, the organization is actively scouring a thin trade market for a quality arm -- either starter or reliever. (A few of the popular names mentioned: Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana, Bud Norris, Phil Hughes.) But it's worth noting that there's nobody available with Minor's 2013 numbers: he leads Braves starters in WAR (2.6), ERA (2.89) and fielding-independent pitching (3.24 FIP, excluding Alex Wood, who has primarily worked in relief). For comparison, here are the numbers for some of the previous names:

Jake Peavy: 1.2 WAR, 4.28 ERA, 4.10 FIP
Ervin Santana: 2.1 WAR, 3.06 ERA, 3.81 FIP
Bud Norris: 1.9 WAR, 3.93 ERA, 3.87 FIP

The inevitable "ace" discussion came up in the Braves' clubhouse following the game, but both Minor and Gonzalez disagreed. The stats may tell a different story -- at the very least, Minor's been the most productive starter on the staff this season -- but Minor floated Hudson's name as the team's ace. Gonzalez just wants his young pitcher to keep doing what he's doing.

"Mike Minor doesn't have to do anything. He's been this good for a while," Gonzalez said. "We saw him growing up and getting better and better I think it was about this time last year. You look back at some of his starts. Let's let him dictate his own career and let's not start putting labels or anything like that yet."

Regardless, Atlanta is not in position to snag a designated ace in this market. Peavy is not a Cy Young-caliber pitcher anymore, neither is anyone else the team has a viable chance at landing. Mike Minor is the guy, and that's not a negative -- he's one of the 25 most valuable pitchers in baseball.

But when Minor admittedly experienced difficulties locating his pitches earlier in the year, notably over a stretch from June 4 to July 3 where he ran up a 4.50 ERA in 36 innings, there was a built-in staff cushion. The team still finished the month with a 16-12 record as Hudson, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran all pitched well. That cushion is now significantly diminished, both by injury and recent performance. Barring Brandon Beachy's immediate return to 2012 form coming off Tommy John surgery, Minor is the No. 1 moving forward. Well, aside from official clubhouse designations, he has been all along.

Though the organization should still feel comfortable with a (healthy) stretch-run staff of Minor-Beachy-Medlen-Teheran-Maholm, it will need Minor to take the mound against the NL's best if the team were to advance to postseason play. He's likely to be the go-to option against the Wainwrights and Kershaws of the MLB world moving forward.

And if Friday night was a second-half measuring stick . . . he's capable of measuring up quite nicely.