Top-5 Off-Season Questions For The Atlanta Braves: #2

Is Mike Minor ready to be in the rotation on opening day?

This is part two of a five part series of posts that will examine the most pressing questions for the Atlanta Braves this off-season.

Question Two:  Which five starting pitchers should the Braves open 2012 with?

This is not going to be a "trash Derek Lowe" post, but we're not going to let Lowe off the hook either. Lowe was not good at pitching in any month after April last season -- a level of suck that culminated in an 8.75 ERA and an 0-and-5 record in September. He couldn't get anyone out, as opposing batters hit .373 against him in the season's final month.

Suffice to say that the Derek Lowe experiment in Atlanta has not worked. At all. Not even the one really good month in September of 2010. All that month did was buy him more time -- akin to Scott Proctor pitching three scoreless innings in an 18-inning game. But now we know for sure that we can't win with Lowe.

So when we talk about next year's starting rotation, Derek Lowe should not be in the conversation. Truly, if he could be, he should be sold to a Japanese team, or exiled to double-A like Kenshin Kawakami was. Unless the Braves want to take on another under-performing contract in return, the Braves are stuck with Lowe for one more year.

Beyond Lowe there was another problem with the 2011 starting pitching staff -- staying healthy. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson succumbed to nagging injuries during the season's second half. While JJ and Tommy put up 1.87 and 2.44 ERAs respectively in the season's first half, they posted ERAs of 5.88 and 8.10 in limited action during the second half. Whether it was the injures or not, the only redeeming factor for JJ and Tommy in the second half was that they were injured -- otherwise they might have rivaled Lowe for worst pitcher on the team.

Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy carried the staff in the second half, while Randall Delgado and Mike Minor proved they were both ready for permanent spots in the starting rotation. And here is where we come to the question of this post, which of the starting pitchers already mentioned should form the rotation next year? Oh, and don't forget about the kid who could be better than any of them, Julio Teheran. He led the International League in wins and (almost) ERA, and has little left to prove in the minor leagues. That's seven starting pitchers to fit into five spots (no, I'm not counting Lowe). There's also Kris Medlen, whose role is yet to be determined for next season, but who could also end up in the conversation for the rotation.

Teheran and Minor are the two young pitchers who should be ready to step in for a full season in the Majors. Each has made over 20 starts at triple-A, while Delgado has made only four. All three need to work on going deeper into games, and while that can be learned at the big league level, it can be learned with less adverse affects at the minor league level. So while each seem ready to be big league starters, there's still no reason to rush them or to clear spots in the existing big league rotation. As injuries to three of Atlanta's starters this past year have shown, it's a great luxury to have a pitcher waiting in the minors ready to step into the rotation.

Starting pitching is one of the most sought after commodities by any team. The Braves, flush with talented starters and in need of several additional pieces for next year's team (to be discussed in future posts), seem likely to trade one of their current starting pitchers.

Jurrjens and Hanson would be the two pitchers most likely to get moved. While both are coming off injuries in the second half, they each dominated during the season's first half, and there are plenty of teams who would take a chance on either pitcher. They are also the most likely to get moved due to their expected salary increases through arbitration this winter. The Braves should be able to afford both next year, but neither look likely to stay in Atlanta and sign long-term deals -- both pitchers are Scott Boras clients.

This is actually a good position for the Braves to be in -- they have tradable pitchers, but they don't have to trade them. Atlanta can sit and wait for the right deal and hopefully maximize their return. All the while knowing that they have a cadre of replacements ready to step in and fill the void.

Nevertheless, I predict we'll see one of either Jurrjens or Hanson traded this off-season. When you add up the money, the young pitchers ready to step in, and the team's need in other areas, the evidence is overwhelmingly there in favor of a trade. Add to that the Braves decision to have Jurrjens make a rehab start in the Instructional League even after the season was over, and you can see the team's desire to prove he was healthy going into the off-season.

In the comments, tell us which five pitchers you think will be in the Braves opening day starting rotation.

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