(Updated: 9:35 p.m.)
When this season started, Ben Sheets was a youth-league coach in Louisiana and Kris Medlen had pitched 2 1/3 innings in 20 months, the byproduct of Tommy John surgery. They now comprise 40 percent of the Braves’ starting rotation.
So much for the blueprint.
The Braves made official Saturday what can best be described as the backup plan: Medlen, who has been impressive out of the bullpen, will return to the starting rotation Tuesday against Houston barring an unlikely turn of events (completing a trade for a starter). Medlen joins Sheets, who hadn’t pitched a game in two years before signing with the Braves and immediately becoming subject matter for a power point at the next AMA convention.
This is the rotation that likely will guide the Braves down the stretch. It’s not quite what anybody envisioned in the spring and may not be the ideal five to get the Braves back to a postseason. But then the St. Louis Cardinals already set the standard for baseball improbabilities last October.
Sometimes Plan B’s work out. But this one needs to unfold like a parlay in a Las Vegas sportsbook.
The team’s postseason chances hinge on: 1) Tim Hudson’s ability to stay healthy; 2) Sheets continuing to defy medical logic (one earned run in 18 innings after major surgery and semi-retirement); 3) Tommy Hanson fixing some of his issues; 4) Mike Minor staying consistent after some early hiccups; 5) Medlen pitching as well in a starting role as he did coming out of the bullpen.
We’ll start with Minor, only because he just gave another performance worthy of Frank Wren screaming, “Hah! Told you we didn’t need Zach Greinke!”
After so many early-season issues, Minor is on a roll now. He allowed Philadelphia just one run on four hits in eight innings and struck out nine at Turner Field on Saturday night, leading a 2-1 victory. In his past four starts, Minor has yielded just seven runs in 27 1/3 innings.
In the past five games (four wins), Braves starters Minor (twice), Hudson, Hanson and Sheets have allowed eight earned runs in 33 innings.
That will get it done. But does asterisks by all five starters in the rotation cause some discomfort?
(The depth chart at the start of the season was Hudson-Hanson-Jair Jurrjens-Minor-Brandon Beachy, although Hudson’s back surgery forced him to miss the start of the season.)
Medlen deserved this shot, and he believes the comeback from surgery and the uncertainty of his role all season has made him mentally tougher. Physically, he said, “I feel great. I really feel like my secondary pitches are coming back. I guess it’ll be two years [since the surgery] in August. For the first month or two I felt like I was pitching with just fastball.”
Despite failing to land Greinke and having a deal for Ryan Dempster blocked, the Braves say they’re still trying to make a trade. When asked before Saturday’s game whether Sheets’ improbable ascent makes the team feel any less desperate to acquire a pitcher, manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “No, no, no. We’re looking to upgrade.”
But the reality is there’s probably nothing left on the market that would upgrade the Braves’ pitching. Greinke went to the Angels. Dempster prefers the Dodgers. (He hasn’t been moved yet, but the chances of a 180 seem remote.)
There are two other potential game-changers on the market: Miami’s Josh Johnson and Tampa Bay’s James Shields. But both have time left on their contracts after this season, so it follows the Marlins and Rays don’t feel desperate, and their trade respective requests are inflated.
There are other pitchers available. But all are depth guys – no better than what the Braves already have. So it’s probably not worth it for them to make a move.
From this point on, the Braves will rely on a rotation of 2s, 3s and 4s, their bullpen and what generally has been strong hitting (Dan Uggla’s .209 batting average notwithstanding).
Could this work? The Braves have won four straight, starting the night four games back of Washington in the National League East. Consistency has been an issue all season, particularly in starting pitching.
We’ll know soon enough if this is an aberration.
By Jeff Schultz