Patience wears thin in a pennant race
The Braves are, supposedly, in a pennant race. Some nights we’re not so sure about that. They’ll look like they’re a World Series contender one night (like on Monday when they won 14-4), while turning around the next night and looking short of a playoff team (like on Tuesday when they lost 8-7).
There are no mysteries as to what the problem is on this team. Everybody and their brother knows it’s the starting rotation, more specifically the bottom 60% of the rotation. John Smoltz is John Smoltz, and Tim Hudson is finally showing us why he was so good in Oakland.
But after that, it’s not pretty – at all.
Smoltz and Hudson are a combined 26-11 in 51 starts, with a 3.06 ERA. The rest of the rotation for the 2007 season: 20-32, 5.77 ERA in 75 starts, with 430 hits allowed in 379.1 innings pitched.
Take out Chuck James, the third starter on this club, and the numbers are even worse. Atlanta’s fourth and fifth starters this season are a combined 11-23 with a 6.57 ERA in 50 games started.
And that’s the reason ladies and gentlemen why the Atlanta Braves are only six games over .500 and six games out of first place.
We must remember, however, that the Braves are right in the thick of the wildcard race. We’ve been so caught up in the division stuff for the last seventeen years that the wildcard has always been like the notion of kissing your sister. But as play starts Wednesday, the Braves are only a game back in the wildcard.
Of course, the fact that the Braves are still in the wildcard race is almost trivial considering the concern everyone has for the rotation. How in the world, we all ask ourselves, can the Braves really have a chance at the playoffs when their chances are shot after Smoltz and Hudson?
The emotions are running high right now. The Braves Nation desperately wants to get back to the playoffs, as do the players of course. So there are a lot of questions being asked as to how the rotation got this bad.
The list of reasons, and some may even say excuses, is long. Mike Hampton’s injuries, Chuck James’s inability to throw a third pitch, Kyle Davies’s failure to develop, Lance Cormier’s injury and subsequent ineffectiveness, Mark Redman’s frightful lack of talent, Anthony Lerew’s tender elbow, and Jo Jo Reyes just not being ready.
Some might say that Hampton should not even be mentioned, but since the Braves are paying him he can’t be ignored. There is no doubt the decline after Smoltz and Hudson has been severe, and even if Hampton had been back at 80% this season he would have been a better number three starter than anyone they’ve had.
James is now on the disabled list. The reason given was somewhat fancy, but the bottom line is the Braves needed to get him out of there for a start or two. James has talent, but his reluctance to throw the slider as his third pitch is coming back to haunt him at the end of his first full season in the big leagues. On the nights where one of his two pitches is off, James is toast. And until he decides to throw that slider, he’s going to be hard-pressed to be anything more than a number five. You have to get more innings from a number three or number four starter, and right now James is not much better than a five-inning guy.
The last guy on the list is the rookie Reyes, who could not get out of the third inning last night and is clearly not ready. The Braves don’t prefer to have a rookie starter in a pennant race, but they are running out of internal options. With James out, Reyes is going to have to go at least one more time (on Sunday), unless General Manager John Schuerholz acquires a starter in a deal.
The frustration that Braves’ fans have with Reyes is expected, but there is no reason to form a conclusion on this 22-year-old lefty’s future. Sure, he’s not ready. He needs a bit more time in the minor leagues. But some of the comments that have been made about Reyes being yet another mediocre homegrown pitcher are downright idiotic.
Yes, Reyes has to work on his control. We’ve seen in several of his starts with Atlanta that the walks have killed him. But this kid has good stuff, good makeup, and is still only 22. There’s no reason to conclude what his future might be after his cup of coffee.
You would think some Braves’ fans would have learned a lesson from the past. How many people gave up too early on Adam LaRoche, before he was finally given the chance to play everyday and prove he was a solid big leaguer? And last summer, in his very first professional season, then-seventeen year old Cody Johnson was throw under the bus for struggling, despite the fact that an injury was a major reason for his troubles?
Yet LaRoche got that chance to play everyday and proved he was a solid player. And Johnson? Well he is perhaps the best player in the Appalachian League this season. But many people were concluding last summer that the seventeen-year old was a bust and would never become a solid prospect.
Reyes deserves patience, but the problem is no one wants to be patient when there’s a pennant race going on. Development takes time, but the time really doesn’t need to be in mid-August when you’re battling for a playoff spot. But to conclude that Reyes is never going to develop into a decent pitcher after six big league starts?
When Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were coming up in the late-1980s, it was much easier to live through their growing pains. The Braves were horrible then so losing wasn’t as painful as it is now. This team is in the thick of a pennant race, and it’s tough to watch a young pitcher try to give this team quality innings when it’s just not in them – at least not yet.
Yes, the Braves need a veteran starting pitcher in there instead of Jo Jo Reyes and even instead of Lance Cormier. John Schuerholz tried to acquire one before the trade deadline. He tried for Mark Buerhle before the White Sox re-signed their lefty. He tried for Jon Garland, only to be turned down when he offered Edgar Renteria. He tried for Bronson Arroyo (whom the Braves face tonight), but was turned down by the Reds.
Getting a starting pitcher is not easy. Schuerholz would have preferred to trade Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus for some stud pitcher, but what team is going to trade some stud pitcher? It just doesn’t happen.
So some will instead blame the farm system. ‘Well the farm system should have developed more starting pitchers,’ critics will say. Please remember the numerous trades Schuerholz has made over the last four years with young pitchers included. Those deals have depleted the farm system at the upper levels, so that now much of the pitching depth is in Myrtle Beach and below.
In the last four years, Schuerholz has traded the following pitchers away: Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Beau Jones, Kyle Davies, Will Startup, Macay McBride, Horacio Ramirez, Ricardo Rodriguez, Todd Blackford, Angelo Burrows, Zach Miner, Roman Colon, Dan Meyer, Alec Zumwalt, Jose Cappellan, Matt Merricks, Bubba Nelson, Jung Bong, Andy Pratt, Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, and Matt Belisle.
Of those 22 pitchers, ten have pitched in the big leagues at some point this season. And even though some of those pitchers didn’t pan out or were maybe not as good as advertised, you don’t know how they would have done if they had stayed with Atlanta. Plus, it simply decreased the depth that in turn also decreased the number of internal options.
Sometimes when you don’t have pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine around anymore you have to have a little luck in the starting rotation. I suppose we could say the Braves were lucky with Buddy Carlyle, but that really hasn’t been enough. Even Buddy is not someone you’re going to be completely comfortable with if the Braves were even able to get into the playoffs.
This team has an outstanding offense, one that has to be one of the best in the game. But without some help in the rotation, it’s going to be really, really tough for this team to be serious contenders in the last month of the season.
That being said, the Braves are still only a game out in the wildcard, which is amazing considering the pathetic state of the rotation after the top two aces. But perhaps this team will get a little bit of luck and find somebody, either internally or in a deal, that can help give this club some quality innings.
And then maybe our patience, which is runnign short right now, will be rewarded with more baseball in October.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.