For half a season the Braves couldn’t find enough good starting pitchers. Now they have so many they’re planning to deploy a six-man rotation. They’re not doing this because they’re desperate. They’re doing it because they think it’ll make a rotation that has finally begun to function work even better.
Here we return to a fairly key phrase: “A rotation that has finally begun to function.”
And here we note: The Braves are tinkering with what, to get ungrammatical, not only ain’t broke but what, not so long ago, was a mess.
The Braves see it this way: Tommy Hanson is due back from the disabled list, and it would make no sense to ship him to the bullpen or Gwinnett. Hanson has proved he’s a big-league starter. (Even in this lesser season, he has won 12 games.) Kris Medlen, deputized as Hanson’s replacement, has won two of his three starts with an ERA of 2.16, and the Braves like that, too.
Tim Hudson is a rotation fixture. The retread Ben Sheets has made himself one (five quality starts in six tries). Paul Malholm was imported to be a starter, and he’s 2-for-2 in quality starts since his arrival and 8-for-8 over his past six weeks. And Mike Minor left after six innings Monday night against San Diego with the Braves trailing 3-0 but having posted his sixth quality start in his past seven appearances — this after managing four in his first 15.
Say it again: The five-man rotation is working. The Braves have the National League’s best ERA since the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, they also have baseball’s best record since July 5. But rotations can be capricious things: Starting pitchers are conditioned to take a turn every five days, not six. One more day mightn’t seem a big deal to us laypeople, but you shudder at the thought of a starting five that struggled to gain traction losing its grip because somebody got too cute.
Even as he was announcing the move Monday, manager Fredi Gonzalez acted as if he was knocking on wood. In baseball, gluts tend to work themselves out, he kept saying. The Braves are going to the six-pack, he said, “as of 5 o’clock on Monday, but it could change at any time. When I walk back and talk to Bubba [head trainer Jeff Porter], it could change.”
About here, you’re saying: “They’re only planning to do it through Aug. 29. What can go wrong in 2 1/2 weeks?” Well, we return to August 2011. The Braves had won six of seven and were headed to New York for a weekend series against the Mets, whereupon Hurricane Irene forced the Saturday and Sunday games to be postponed. The Braves were already scheduled to be off on Monday. General manager Frank Wren believes that unplanned long weekend threw his team off its stride and led into the Epic Collapse of September.
Yes, there’s a chance this six-man rotation will do no harm and actually keep the Braves’ arms fresher for September (and presumably October), but why take the chance at all? Medlen has made three strong starts, yes, but he’s not by trade a full-blooded starter. He’s a spot guy, and he has value as a reliever. It might not be fair — and I’m aware that Medlen is a fan favorite — but fairness shouldn’t be the first consideration with a playoff berth in play. Unless/until Hanson proves he can’t win games, Medlen should return to the bullpen.
These next 2 1/2 weeks are apt to tell the tale of this regular season. After lately beating up on lesser lights, the Braves now must face the second-in-the-West Dodgers here, the division-leading Nationals and Giants at their places and the Padres, who have been rather good since the All-Star break, both here and there. The Braves are in great shape today. But they were in great shape last August.
I’m not predicting the six-man rotation will blow this. (Then again, I didn’t think anything could blow it a year ago.) I’m just saying: The Braves worked all season to get this rotation into shape. It’d be a shame to have anything mess it up.
By Mark Bradley