In baseball, occasionally, the present can be an misleading predictor for the future.
Prime example: Take the Braves' pitching staff from two or three seasons ago, then look at the changes that have been made since. Was it not just during the 2008 and 2009 season that a 22- and 23-year-old Jair Jurrjens played the role of future ace (and All-Star snub) for Atlanta? Was Tommy Hanson not supposed to develop into a front-end starter to go right along with Jurrjens to anchor the rotation for years to come?
In the not-so-distant past, Jurrjens and Hanson were the future. Now, one looks to be a No. 4 or 5 starter for a West Coast contender while another still searches for employment.
Such is the business of baseball, especially in an organization like the Braves where pitching talent is productive, young and unyielding.
The Braves traded Hanson to the Angels in December for strong-armed reliever Jordan Walden, avoiding the 26-year-old's first year of eligibility for arbitration. The Angels handed Hanson a 3.7 million contract for 2013, which would have made him the third-highest paid starter on Atlanta's roster behind Tim Hudson at 9 million and Paul Maholm at 6.5 million and put plenty of scrutiny on the franchise's front office. It avoided all of that, though and despite leading the team in wins (13) and finishing third in innings pitched (174.2), Hanson now finds himself back in his home state of California.
Good move? Likely, yes. His strikeouts per nine innings was on the decline, while his walk and home run rates hit career highs last season. Add in the declining velocity of his fastball granted, all of this negative information is probably related to Hanson's health issues on some level and it looks like a smart move by a team flush with young arms all around.
Jurrjens' decline was even steeper, falling from a Rookie of the Year candidate and 2011 All-Star to Atlanta not even tendering a contract this offseason. He's had his own set of health issues, starting just 10 games last season, but that's a freefall for a guy who should be in his prime. Think about this: From 2008-11, only eleven other pitchers posted a lower ERA than Jurrjens' (3.34) among pitchers who threw 650 innings or more.
But the control-oriented Jurrjens always posted alarmingly low strikeout rates, so when his ERA ballooned to nearly double the number of batters he was striking out per nine innings, he negatively impacted the team and it was time to say goodbye.
The moral of the story is that although Atlanta boasts a plethora of arms other teams have coveted, especially via trade discussions, over the years, anything can happen.
With a young corps of Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran, as well as prospects like Sean Gilmartin making a push this season, there are plenty of questions surrounding this talented roster.
Can Kris Medlen approach his historic 2012 numbers?
Before delving into this question, let's first put Medlen's previous year into perspective:
-- After returning from Tommy John surgery, Medlen entered the bullpen before making his first start of the season on July 31. Of course, he won and continued a streak that would stretch to a major league record 23 straight games the Braves won with Medlen starting. The team won all 10 of his regular season starts in 2012. Truthfully, it's one of the all-time great runs in baseball history.
-- Although he didn't qualify for any major pitching statistic a mere 24 innings separated him from the rest of the pack he would have led the league in ERA, win percentage and finished second in strikeout-to-walk ratio. After entering the rotation, he went 9-0 with a microscopic 0.97 ERA, struck out 84 batters in 83.2 innings and was, overall, the best pitcher in baseball. Bar none.
-- Winning. Lots and lots of winning.
Of course, all of those numbers came to a screeching halt in the Braves' loss in the one-game wild-card playoff, where Medlen finally lost after giving up two earned runs (three others came via errors). So he's not invincible, we've learned that.
Perhaps last season was a bit of a charmed run, but Medlen has shown that he can perform around that level in the past. His control is off the charts right now and he's never been the type of pitcher to give up the long ball. With that nasty changeup, don't expect his strikeout rates to decline dramatically.
Working with former Braves legend Greg Maddux at the World Baseball Classic will only help Medlen, as well.
Can Brandon Beachy follow footsteps in his return from Tommy John surgery?
Let's get this out of the way: If Beachy can rediscover his 2011 self before going down with a partially torn UCL in his right elbow last season, Atlanta will, without question, boast one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
Although pitching with soreness for a large portion of last season, Beachy posted a 5-5 record, but led all of baseball with a 2.00 ERA. The strange aspect considering the potential of the young right-hander is that most reference his league-low ERA in 2012 as his key statistic, but, in truth, his 2011 season was even better. He struck out more than three more batters per nine innings, posted a more impressive fielding independent pitching (FIP) score and walked fewer batters. The main difference? Last season, thanks to an improved defense behind him, opposing batters' batting average on balls in play dropped by 107 points.
That number has the tendency to fluctuate year-to-year, even with elite pitchers, so it's not exactly a measure to whole-heartedly rely on.
Beachy is following successful Tommy John patients in fellow starters Medlen and Hudson, and said during Tuesday's early pitching program that having those guys around has helped with the 12-month process. If his arm and stuff return, he's a top-of-the-rotation type of guy who could give the Braves a lethal combination of Medlen-Beachy-Hudson in whatever order manager Fredi Gonzalez prefers.
He's expected to return in mid-June. When that happens, depending on his status, who knows how effective this rotation could be.
Who wins the fifth spot in the rotation?
This comes with one caveat: As of writing this, the Braves have not made a trade for Justin Upton or any other outfielder, so Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and all other young pitching prospects are still on the 40-man roster.
For now, it appears this is Delgado's slot to lose, although much will be decided in Spring Training. If Teheran pitches lights out and Delgado struggles, all bets are off. (Don't count out Gilmartin pushing for this spot later on this season, either.) Delgado has the edge in experience here, and is expected to have a slight inside track on it to open up the season. Just for argument's sake, here's a look at their major league careers to date:
-- Delgado: 5-10 record; 127.2 innings pitched; 3.95 ERA; 6.633.95 strikeoutswalks per nine innings; 4.36 FIP
-- Teheran: 1-1 record; 26 innings pitched; 5.19 ERA; 5.193.12 strikeoutswalks per nine innings; 4.86 FIP
Delgado has the edge across the board with the exception of his tendency to walk batters, which he will need to cut down on to become a consistent starter at the big league level. Teheran likely just needs some more experience since that small sample size offers little to work with he has, however, posted some ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratios in the minors. Either way, the Braves look to be in good shape depth-wise.
As of writing this, I expect the Opening Day rotation will read Medlen, Hudson, Maholm, Minor and Delgado, and work itself out from there.