Should the Atlanta Braves Be Panicking About Recent Pitching Injuries?

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Should the Atlanta Braves Be Panicking About Recent Pitching Injuries?
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

There is no such thing as a five-man rotation anymore. Looking around the league, teams are planning ahead for injuries to their pitchers to determine how deep they can go, packing in seven or eight guys rather than trying to prevent injuries or shorten up the rotation. A great example of this is the Atlanta Braves, a team that is already suffering through injuries to Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, as well as a known issue with new acquisition Gavin Floyd. 

The Braves announced Tuesday morning that an MRI on Medlen showed "ligament involvement." Given that Medlen had Tommy John surgery in 2010, this is not a good sign. Dave O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had more info: 

While Medlen will have more tests, many speculate that he will need a second replacement of his UCL. Leo Mazzone, a former Braves pitching coach, was on 680 The Fan in Atlanta and said, "Any ligament involvement is bad." Medlen does not have a complete tear (rupture) of the ligament, though it is also more difficult to read the ligament after the replacement, due both to physical changes and the hardware used.

What the Braves have now is a mess. If the season were to start today, the most likely scenario would have Freddy Garcia as the second starting pitcher and Alex Wood, who would be the bullpen lefty in a perfect world, would shift over to be the third man in the starting rotation. Behind them, the Braves would have to get creative, with prospect Cody Martin being the top possibility. 

That not only puts pressure on the back of the rotation, it puts a ton of pressure on the ace-by-default Julio Teheran. The young pitcher only went 185 innings last season, and to expect much more than 200 would be stretching things. While Teheran does project as a potential ace, the Braves also have to protect him in the first season where he'll jump the 190-innings hurdle.

That one, more than any other mark, is a real test for pitchers. While 200 innings is used more because it's a round number, my research from 2003 showed that 190 seemed to be the bigger test. Pitchers that stayed above that mark tended to do it year after year, but once they dropped below it, even by a little, it was tough to come back. There are a lot of pitchers who never make that mark, though they can be very productive otherwise.

A team goes into a season planning for 1,500 innings. The season is set to be 1,458, but there's extra-innings games and maybe the playoffs, so 1,500 is a good number. For starters, the team needs to get somewhere between 900 and 1,000 innings. Having five 200-inning pitchers is unlikely, so a team either needs one or two to go above the mark, for the bullpen to take more of the load or for the load to be distributed over more than five pitchers. 

Given the situation now, general manager Frank Wren and his team are likely looking at all the options. Panic is a poor negotiating position, but when the plan for depth that they had—signing Garcia and Floyd to protect younger pitchers like Martin—has failed in mid-March, every other team is going to know the situation. I imagine that scouts are already watching the back fields at Disney for an ask.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Many are wondering if the Braves will make a last-minute offer for Ervin Santana, the last solid free-agent pitcher on the market. After firing his agent, Santana has received several offers and was strongly linked to the Blue Jays. While Santana has a preference to stay in the AL, the Braves could be forced to up their offer and make him consider Atlanta.

Others are asking whether Wren will hit the trade market. There's very little available, with crazy Twitter ideas coming fast and furious. Options like David Price and Jeff Samardzija have been mentioned, but neither the Rays nor the Cubs would give up either of their aces without a ridiculous return, something the Braves just don't have, even if they were willing to add on to a package starting with Christian Bethancourt. A major trade would gut the team's system, though the Braves could give a lower-level prospect for a more ready pitcher.

On pure stats, the Braves had a terrible 2013. They ranked 27th out of 30 teams, losing over 1,500 days to the DL. For pitchers, it was over half the total, with four pitchers losing more than 100 days each. That is significantly up from losing pitcher totals in the 500-day range in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Most of those major losses was to Tommy John surgery. While many say it's unavoidable, the sheer numbers that the Braves have had demand some attention. Compare having multiple pitchers in various stages of rehab to the Rays, a team that's had three Tommy John surgeries in the past decade. Yes, it's possible to reduce injuries, though it requires a serious commitment. 

As I mentioned earlier, one of the possibilities for filling in behind the injured starters is to transfer some of the load to the pen.

For the Braves, that may not work either. They already have Jonny Venters rehabbing to return and had lost Eric O'Flaherty to Tommy John as well, though O'Flaherty signed with the Oakland A's this offseason despite his status. The Braves pen has more depth, even if Wood gets shifted to the rotation, but the pitchers are young and untested—precisely the type of pen that a team shouldn't shift the load to if there's another option. 

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

In fact, more of this pen may need to be shifted over. Wirfin Obispo is fighting for a pen slot, but at age 29, he might be pushed to make a couple spot starts. The same is true for David Hale, who has the advantage of having worked as a starter for much of last season at Triple-A Gwinnett. Besides Cody Martin, the bulk of the Braves' pitching prospects are in the low minors, making that a tougher shift. 

Some of this may recall the Toronto Blue Jays. For over a decade, the Jays have had a terrible time keeping pitchers healthy. Their medical staff is well regarded, but pitchers at all levels and of all types end up with all sorts of arm issues. It's a major hole in their plans and has held them back by causing depth issues and taking out some top prospects from longer-term usage. 

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Braves are also well regarded, but their pitching problems have seemingly been coming to a head over the past few seasons.

One source I spoke with believes that the pitching program the Braves use is at fault. "You can't look right at when Leo Mazzone left. That's been too far out, but his influence and his program has faded. There's probably no one left that worked with him," I was told Monday. 

There are no easy solutions here, though the Braves are looking at all possibilities. The team has not been progressive in regard to biomechanics, but the Braves do use video heavily to assess pitchers. My source also told me that the team is willing to get creative with organizing its staff and would consider a four-man rotation if it felt that was the best way to get through the season. 

Frank Wren and skipper Fredi Gonzalez have a big task ahead of them. It's hard enough to build a pitching staff in modern baseball. It's even harder to rebuild one on the fly.

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