Guerry Clegg commentary: Braves face tough decisions with injured pitchers returning

April 19, 2014 

Ostensibly, the goal was merely to hold the starting rotation together with duct tape and bungee cords until help arrived. Just get through April without lagging too far behind the Washington Nationals.

Maybe by then, Mike Minor will be ready and Ervin Santana will have knocked off all the rust and the Atlanta Braves could put up a spirited chase for a wild card spot.

At least, that was the perceived plan. The Braves apparently had different ideas. With Friday night's 6-0 win over the New York Mets, the Braves improved to 11-5, tied with Oakland for the second-best record in baseball, one win behind the Milwaukee Brewers, against whom the Braves took two-of-three in the season-opening series.

They've done so with two projected starting pitchers, Minor and Gavin Floyd, still on the disabled list and Santana having pitched only twice before Saturday night.

And yet, only one team in the major league leagues has an entire five-man starting rotation with earned run averages under 3.00.

That team would not be the Los Angeles Dodgers with a budget approaching Warren Buffet's annual income.

That team would not be the Detroit Tigers, whom some baseball analysts believe have the strongest rotation since the Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux glory days.

That team would not be the San Francisco Giants, who seemingly stole Tim Hudson from the Braves for $23 million over two years to add to an already strong rotation.

That team would not be last season's World Series participants, the Boston Red Sox or St. Louis Cardinals.

That team would not be the Washington Nationals, whom the national media keep trying to anoint the class of the National League East.

No, the only team in baseball with five starters under 3.00 would be the team which lost two of its top four starters -- Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy -- on consecutive days in spring training to season-ending elbow injuries.

Granted, it's still April. All five of the Braves' starters are one rough outing away from seeing their ERA's swell. But so far, this patch-work rotation has been nothing short of sensational. In their first 16 starts, the starters have allowed more than two earned runs only once, when rookie David Hale -- making just his fourth big league start ever -- gave up three runs in 4 innings.

They've shut out opponents in five starts, and that doesn't include one start by Aaron Harang in which the bullpen allowed an inherited runner to score. Nor does it include Alex Wood's last start when he pitched seven shutout innings and gave up the game's only run in the eighth. They have six other starts in which they allowed only one earned run.

Santana and Harang, signed to replace Medlen and Beachy, have combined for 39 innings and three earned runs (0.68 ERA).

With Minor and Floyd expected to return next week, the Braves have a problem most teams would love to have. They have seven capable starters for five rotation spots. What do they do?

The first step is relatively easy. Either move Hale to the bullpen or send him back to Gwinnett for more work and insert Minor into the rotation. But what they do with Floyd?

One thought has been to move Wood to the bullpen, which could use another lights-out left-hander. But how do you take out a guy who has held opponents to one earned run in three of his four starts? They certainly don't do anything with Julio Teheran, Harang or Santana.

They could bring Floyd out of the bullpen for now until they need another starter. They could also trade him to a team desperate for starting pitching. How desperate? Perhaps desperate enough to take Dan Uggla's contract off their hands in a package deal. Now there's a thought.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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