From all indications, General Manager John Schuerholz is prepared to upgrade the Braves’ starting rotation. But as we saw this past season, it’s very important to have significant internal options in case of injuries.
We’ve already discussed the situation the Braves have with their rotation: John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, Chuck James, Horacio Ramirez, and Kyle Davies. That’s six pitchers for five spots. But with changes on the horizon, it’s also crucial to see who are the additional possibilities for next season.
Richmond might provide a couple of options. Anthony Lerew had a tough season in 2006, posting a 5.26 ERA in 25 games between Richmond and Mississippi. Lerew still has good stuff, but he frustrated the Braves with his performance. He might be used as trade bait, but if he could return to Richmond and do well as a starter, the Braves could use him in a fill-in situation.
The jury is still out on whether or not Lerew needs to go back to the bullpen, the role he was preparing for last spring when he was suddenly moved back to the rotation. It’s all about Lerew being effective; if he is pitching well, and if the Braves need help, they’ll call on him.
Matt Wright was great in Mississippi (2.22 ERA in 15 games), but he struggled in Richmond (5.77 ERA in 10 games). The tall right-hander needs to go back to Richmond for more seasoning, and again, if he’s doing well there, he could get the call. Most believe Wright will be a reliever if he makes the big leagues, but his stint in Double-A in 2005 does make you wonder how effective he might be if given the chance to start.
The next candidates were in AA last season. Sean White made a great impression on Bobby Cox back in spring training, and for a while it looked like he had a chance to make the Atlanta roster as a reliever. White went back to Mississippi, but he struggled with injuries and made only 16 starts. But with White making a good showing last spring, he’ll probably be brought back so Cox can get another look at him. Chances are White will be in AAA Richmond next season, and with Cox having such a positive impression on him, if White’s doing well, he could easily get a start if needed.
Francisley Bueno opened some scouts’ eyes this summer in AA Mississippi. He had trouble staying healthy, but when he pitched he showed several plus pitches. Bueno might be invited to big league camp as a non-roster player, so he could showcase his stuff for Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell. If he could stay off the disabled list, Bueno presents an option, especially if the team needs a lefty.
Brady Endl is another southpaw who had injury trouble in 2005. He was doing great in spring training in minor league camp, but then he had trouble with his collarbone, elbow, and shoulder. Endl was making great strides last season, and if he gets back on track and stays healthy, he’s another one that could open some eyes and merit consideration.
The Braves best pitching prospect is Matt Harrison, and of all the internal options, he’s the one to keep an eye on. Most believe the lefty could only need one season before he’s ready to make a contribution. But if he does well in AA to start the 2007 season, then it’s only a matter of getting him a chance. Some predict Harrison could be as good as a number two starter in the big leagues, but he’s awfully young (only 21) so the Braves are not going to rush him. But talent-wise, and especially if the Braves needed a long-term option, Harrison could be the one to get the call.
No one could have ever predicted that guys like Jason Shiell, Travis Smith, and even Kevin Barry would make starts for the Braves in 2006, as no one could have ever predicted the injuries the team suffered through. So don’t be surprised if a couple of Quad-A type starters, with previous experience starting in the big leagues, are brought in this winter. The Braves will probably prepare themselves a bit better - just in case.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.