On the surface the question of which five starting pitchers the Atlanta Braves will have in their rotation next season seems like a slam dunk. After all, it should be the same five that ended this season in the rotation: Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm, and Tommy Hanson. But it might not be that simple.
The easy answers for two spots are Kris Medlen and Mike Minor. Minor is under team control next season, and Medlen is in his first year of arbitration, and should be more than affordable at around $3 million. They were also the two best pitchers at the end of the year, so they should be guaranteed spots next season.
The Braves hold one year options on the old guys, Hudson and Maholm. Hudson's option is exactly what he made this past year, $9 million, and for a veteran starting pitcher who can still put up a sub-4.00 ERA and eat innings, he should be somewhat of a bargain at $9 million. Maholm pitched pretty well for Atlanta, and provides another left-handed option in the rotation -- an important factor to consider in the left-handed-hitter-heavy NL East. He has an easily affordable $6.5 million option on his contract which the Braves will almost certainly pick up.
So that's four spots in the rotation, but then we come to Thomas J. Hanson. Did you know that he had the worst ERA in the rotation? Worse than Minor, even though Minor started the year on pace to lead the team and the league in home runs allowed. In fact, Hanson allowed one more home run on the year than Minor. Hanson's season was horrible, and troubling; warning signs for a rapid decline are everywhere. The biggest cause for concern is in the chart below (via Fan Graphs):
That's Tommy Hanson's velocity over the years, and sadly enough we can almost see the injury that caused it to drop. Around the middle of last year, Hanson's shoulder began barking at him. At first it was inflammation, then a strained shoulder, then an impingement. No surgery was every performed, and the team used time as the way to heal him. But time didn't really work. Hanson did return to the rotation this season, and stayed relatively healthy, but he did not regain his pre-shoulder-problem velocity.
His velocity dropped four to five miles per hour -- a big deal for any pitcher, and an obstacle that Hanson could not navigate around. He tried to be a different pitcher, and that worked some in the first half of the season, but the league adjusted and Hanson could not overcome that adjustment in the second half.
And so in Hanson we see a potential repeat of the Jair Jurrjens situation. Jurrjens, by the way will almost certainly be non-tendered or released by the Braves, marking an unceremonious and Kawakami-esque departure from the team. The last thing the Braves want is to once again have the embarrassment of stashing millions in useless pitcher in the minors.
The Braves options for that last spot in the rotation exist in the form of Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. Delgado ended up with a better ERA in his Major League time than Hanson did -- he gave up fewer hits, fewer home runs, he was a better pitcher (and his velocity is still in the mid-90s). The Braves have been touting the reworked delivery of Teheran in the past couple of weeks -- not sure if that is an eye towards next year in the rotation or a propaganda effort to build up his trade value. The Braves also have Brandon Beachy coming back from Tommy John surgery in the middle of next season.
So the team has some options with Hanson. They could simply cut him loose and save themselves the $3 to $4 million arbitration fee. They will likely see if Hanson has any trade value, and quite frankly, even with one-plus year of diminished velocity he is likely to interest some clubs who are starved for starting pitching. He may not garner a return of anything more than a promising bullpen arm, but that could be a better option than simply releasing him. And remember that with the Braves, every million in payroll seems to matter, and the $3 to $4 million that Hanson is likely to earn in arbitration could be needed elsewhere, especially when minimum-salaried options like Delgado and Teheran seem to be ready.
I'm beginning to lean towards the Braves cutting ties with Hanson in one way or another, but most likely through an early off-season trade. They would then fill in the fifth spot in the rotation with either Delgado or Teheran, whichever they feel is ready at the end of spring training -- and they could swap them out during the first half of the season if one falters. Then in the second half they could ease Beachy back into the rotation when he returns from his injury rehab.
That plan would still leave the team with a backup rotation arm in either Delgado or Teheran, whichever one doesn't win the fifth starter's job. And they would also have potential backup rotation arms in up-and-coming left-handed prospects Sean Gilmartin and Daniel Rodriguez (the strikeout leader from the Mexican League the Braves signed at the end of this season). They could also find depth in any number of young prospects who could emerge as they climb the ladder to Gwinnett next season -- guys like Zeke Spruill, David Hale, and J.R. Graham.
So it certainly seems like, while there is depth in the Braves rotation, there is also flexibility. And seemingly the need to shed the weak link. As much as I originally thought there wouldn't be much movement in the rotation this off-season, I now believe the Braves must move Hanson, and should move him, if for no other reason than to open up a spot for Delgado or Teheran.