A look at the starting pitchers
Right now, the only title the Braves are winning is probably “Best Under-.500 Team,” and neither they nor fans like myself are hoping that’s how they will finish. The lineup simply hasn’t been doing their part; despite decent overall numbers, they have totally imploded in close situations.
The starting pitching has been a similar nuisance. They also have strong numbers, but they’ve already put an unbearable-in-the-long-term load on the bullpen: 95 2/3 innings of relief pitching and 96 separate appearances in 27 team games. Jair Jurrjens is the staff leader in IP per game started at 6.4, so even he’s giving way to 2.6 innings of relief work (probably 2-3 appearances) on average. Hudson and Smoltz are both in the 5.5 range, and everyone else who has started is under 5. I hate to lump Jeff Bennett in there, since he has performed admirably given the circumstances, but Tom Glavine and Chuck James are under 5 innings per start as well. Of the Braves’ 27 games, only 13 of them have seen the starter go at least 6 innings with a positive or zero WPA.
The team’s composition and Bobby Cox’s managerial quirks don’t seem to be helping matters. The Braves came into the year relying on two starters over 40 in Smoltz and Glavine, planned to have Mike Hampton in the rotation even though he hadn’t pitched since 2005, and were throwing Jurrjens into the mix because none of the other options had worked for them last year (James, Reyes, Bennett, Carlyle). Sure, there was a lot of depth, but it wasn’t good depth. That is, unless the young guys like Jurrjens and Reyes managed to come through.
Jurrjens has been nothing less than outstanding in six starts. Four of them have met my “quality” baseline, and he’s got a very good 3.05 ERA with strong command. He’s been hit-lucky so far with a .234 BABIP and a 22.5% line drive rate (which would imply about a .340 BABIP), but he’s been able to keep the ball down and has shown remarkable command. Even when more hits start falling in, and they will (his current 6.34 H/9 rate is lower than any number he put up in the minors since he repeated rookie ball in 2004), it looks like he might be able to keep his ERA down.
Reyes has been similarly outstanding in AAA, and he’ll be the #4 starter for the immediate future behind Hudson, Glavine, and Jurrjens. He was only averaging about 5 innings per start before getting pulled early in his latest outing (after finding out he was getting called up), but his command was exactly the way it was in his AAA appearances last year). He was averaging over a strikeout an inning (25/23) with as many innings pitched as baserunners allowed. I’m still not convinced he’s ready for a full-time major-league role yet, but it’s hard to say he’s not the team’s best immediate option to start.
Tim Hudson’s velocity issues are a bit of a concern, since we doesn’t seem to know from one start to the next whether he’s going to have his stuff, but he’s still the most reliable option the Braves have and a decent enough ace for a team with a great lineup.
Smoltz’s arm, or the elephant in the room
So what’s it going to mean if John Smoltz returns from his injury not as a starter, but as a reliever?
The Braves will get more of a max effort from him on a per-inning basis, and he has proven that to be more than enough to get even the best major league hitters out. He will also pitch fewer innings, and regardless of how well he pitches, he won’t be anywhere near as valuable as he has been the last few years as a starter.
Ultimately, this is a decision to be made by doctors and people far more knowledgeable about baseball injuries and Smoltz’s arm specifically, so I can’t really argue with them if he is, from a medical perspective, simply unable to give the Braves 100 pitches every five days. He will probably be a tremendous reliever, although he will be tremendously overpaid at $14 million. It will be a tough decision for the team to keep him in ’09 at $12M as a reliever. (I think his contract makes ’09 a club option if he doesn’t pitch 200 innings.)
If we can assume that Soriano returns and that eventually Gonzalez gets back to full-strength, the Braves could have one of the best bullpens in baseball with Smoltz also out there. Current closer Manny Acosta would be a middle reliever, and you’d get to pick between guys like Boyer, Ohman, and Campillo for lower-leverage outings. It looks like Cox will continue using Royce Ring as a LOOGY regardless of his performance against righties, but if it were me, he’d be in that mix as a full-inning guy.
For now, the main question is: how far can a Smoltz-less rotation get the Braves, and will Frank Wren trade for help if it doesn’t work out? Tim Dierkes mentioned Kevin Millwood and Joe Blanton yesterday as two of the best options on the trade market, and he mentioned today that they have possibly been scouting Anthony Reyes. I imagine both would cost the Braves at least Brent Lillibridge, if the Braves are interested in dealing at all.
Stay tuned, and let me know if you get any text messages from Mr. Smoltz.