As Spring draws closer we can anticipate warmer weather, conversations about Spring break, and the beginning of baseball season. All of the teams are now in the beginning stages of Spring training. I am definitely excited, and what is even more exciting for me is that the Atlanta Braves have gotten back to the formula that served them so well during their run of 14 consecutive division championships. They have put together a strong pitching staff from top to bottom, but it is their starting rotation that is going to win them a lot of games.
I believe the Braves are one of the few teams that can say that they have four guys who have a solid case to be the opening day starter. While it is hard to determine if they have a bonafide ace at this point, it is quite easy to say they have multiple players with the potential to be that ace by the end of the season.
Jair Jurrjens is one of the guys that I think may end up being the ace of the staff. He had a fine season in 2009, winning 14 games with an ERA of 2.61. If he had any type of run support he would have won close to 20 games and merited some Cy Young consideration. The one thing that concerns me about Jurrjens is the fact that he experienced some shoulder stiffness over the Winter. He had an MRI last week that revealed no structural damage. But as a fan, when I hear something like that, the first names that enter my mind are Tommy John and Dr. James Andrews. Keep in mind he did throw 215 innings last season.
Another young future ace the Braves have is Tommy Hanson. Braves fans have been hearing about Hanson for some time. He did not disappoint once he was called up to the big leagues shortly before midseason. He posted an 11-4 record with an ERA under three. The young fireballer has quickly become a favorite in Atlanta and his future is tremendously bright.
Two grizzled veterans make up the next two starting spots with Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. Huddy, as he is referred to by teammates, is over a year removed from the aforementioned Tommy John surgery. But he showed the Braves enough in his return at the end of last season to reward him with a three-year contract. Hudson is the real wild card of this rotation, and this team. If he recaptures the form of his pre-surgery days, this team will make a strong run at the postseason.
Derek Lowe is coming off a down year, and those struggles led to his name being mentioned quite often in trade rumors during the offseason. But, despite the overall frustration by fans, he still managed to win 15 games.
Holding down the fifth slot in the rotation is Kenshin Kawakami. He was an extreme point of frustration for Loyal Homer at times last season, but as the season progressed he showed improvement. I believe part of the reason for his on-field improvement was the fact that he began to adjust to life in the USA after coming over from Japan. He ended up with an ERA under four. If he duplicates that as a fifth starter, the Braves will be more than pleased. What is sure to provide a big help to Kawakami is the addition of fellow countrymen Takashi Saito. With someone else to lean on, it will only add to Kawakami’s confidence.
Those five guys all have varying degrees of potential. If they stay healthy, I believe they have the best FIVE man rotation in the league.