A major-league roster includes 25 players. Custom now holds that 12 of those are pitchers, and you’d think devoting 48 percent of resources to one position would leave said position well stocked. Then you look at the Atlanta Braves, and you realize a dozen go as far as it once did.
The Braves entered Game 3 of their series against the Yankees with their pitching staff an amalgam of wellness clinic and departure lounge. Brandon Beachy, who leads the majors in ERA, was supposed to start Wednesday night but, owing to slight elbow soreness, was bumped back to Saturday. Wednesday’s starter thus became Tim Hudson, who’d missed his regular turn due to a tender ankle.
Reliever Eric O’Flaherty was unavailable again Wednesday after waking Monday with a sore elbow. “We’re trying to keep him off the disabled list,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. The rookie reliever Cory Gearrin was likewise unavailable for big-league duty, having been returned to Gwinnett after two eventful nights in the majors. (On Monday, Gearrin worked two innings and induced two double plays; on Tuesday, he yielded the game-losing home run to Nick Swisher.)
Anthony Varvaro took Gearrin’s place on the roster, but Varvaro stands to be a short-timer himself. Kris Medlen, dispatched to Class AAA to ready himself as a starter, threw 97 pitches Wednesday and will be recalled soon. Just what he’ll be doing once he gets back, nobody knows. “Frank [Wren, the general manager] and I will see,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll have some conversation.”
Medlen’s time with Gwinnett was prompted by the holes in the starting rotation, which was supposed to be iron-clad. But Jair Jurrjens, a 2011 All-Star, was so awful in his first four starts of the season that he was summarily demoted, and his absence forced the Braves to rely on both Mike Minor and Randall Delgado, as opposed to one or the other, to start big-league games. Neither has been great, but both have done better lately.
Which means … what? Probably that the status will remain quo. Asked before Wednesday’s game about the possibility of demoting either Minor or Delgado, Gonzalez said: “It’d be hard. We see progress there.”
Besides, recent events indicate a deeper need for Medlen in the bullpen. The rapid unraveling of Tuesday’s game showed the impact a missing arm (or two, or three) can have. As noted, O’Flaherty was of no use. Had he been, he might have become the first reliever summoned in the eighth inning, as opposed to Johnny Venters, who would face four Yankees and retire none.
Had Medlen not been pitching in Pawtucket, R.I., on Tuesday, he might have replaced Venters. (So might Chad Durbin, except that he’d worked four times in five days and was also unavailable. Do relievers have a union on top of the baseball players’ union?) And the round of managerial second-guessing that greeted Tuesday’s loss might have been rendered moot.
“With 20/20 hindsight, the only thing I might have done different is go with [Cristhian] Martinez instead of Gearin,” Gonzalez said, and even then that wouldn’t have been an optimal matchup.
Swisher is a switch-hitter who does better work against right-handers. (Of his 39 RBIs, 34 have come while hitting left-handed.) Without O’Flaherty, the Braves’ lefty relief consisted of Venters — and he hadn’t gotten anybody out and had yielded Alex Rodiguez’s Gehrig-matching grand slam to boot. Making it worse: Gearrin is a sidearmer, and a righty sidearmer’s effectiveness is halved when facing a lefty. On cue, Swisher swatted the second pitch he saw.
In sum, the Braves have pitching issues, and not just in the rotation. The bullpen cupboard isn’t overflowing, either. Medlen’s return should help, but it’s never a good sign when starters are missing starts and relievers aren’t available to relieve. And the regular season has 99 games to go.
It has become a midsummer ritual to ponder what bat the Braves might land at the trade deadline, but this July could be different. This time they need arms. The best arms — they figure to include Zack Greinke of Milwaukee and Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza of the Cubs — tend to cost even more than available bats, and the Braves haven’t been inclined to pay retail price since Liberty Media bought the club.
For a couple of weeks, this correspondent has been asking Gonzalez if he has enough pitching. The manager’s latest answer: “Even when you think you have enough, you can always use more.” To these ears, that sounded like a diplomatic way of saying, “Arms welcome — apply within.”
By Mark Bradley