With the departure of Tim Hudson, the back end of the Braves' rotation is a bit uncertain. While there are multiple internal options, there's also the possibility that they could trade for a veteran/ace. Let's first establish the sure bets (barring injury of course):
1) Kris Medlen - He probably isn't the ace of the staff, stuff or performance wise, but he is the longest tenured Brave (WHAT?!) and has performed extremely well for Atlanta out of the rotation. As such he'll most likely be labeled the "#1 starter" even though on this team that really is a meaningless term.
3) Julio Teheran - In a season where there was some concern after a bad performance in AAA the year before, Julio was a tremendous surprise, as he exceeded virtually all reasonable expectations for him. With another dominant season, he most likely becomes the clear #1 starter for the team, but at the moment he's probably nominally the #3 starter.
Next we'll look at the internal candidates for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation.
After the above three, things get much more questionable, as the remaining options are either coming off injury (Brandon Beachy) or very young (Alex Wood and David Hale). This is where we will focus most of our attention.
4) Alex Wood - The young UGA product was dynamite as a rookie last season, and he's looking to take a similar leap forward to the ones Mike Minor and Julio Teheran made for the Braves in recent seasons. Alex showed a lot of great signs last year, his strikeout rate was especially impressive, as he lead all Braves starters who made 10 or more starts in K/9 at 8.92.
However, there are a few causes for concern with Alex. First is his control, he sported a 3.13 BB/9 rate last year, which was by far the worst of starters that made 10 or more starts. That number is workable, though barely, if he continues to strike people out at such a lofty rate. However, if that number were to increase at all, or if his strikeouts were to drop at all, he could quickly find himself out of the rotation.
Further, while Alex Wood was something of a FIP darling last year -- his FIP was 2.65 and his ERA 3.13 -- we must look at how that resulted. What we find is that Wood did see an abnormally high BABIP against him, at .343, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the Braves' staff, who saw a .292 BABIP against. This especially rang true when we examine his BABIP against on line drives, where the rest of the staff allowed .695 BABIP on line drives and Wood allowed .792. Wood similarly gave up a .240 BABIP against on ground balls, versus the rest of the staff only allowing a .214 number. It's possible Wood was just getting hit harder, but it's also possible, if not likely, that he was merely unlucky with balls in play, especially considering the small sample size. What might also be possible is that some near homeruns, instead, turned into off-the-wall doubles, because he gave up oddly few homeruns.
Wood's extremely low HR/FB ratio, which sat at 5%, was another reason for his great success last season. This is nearly half of what you would normally expect from a pitcher. This number is a bit concerning, because it tends to be very prone to anomalies over short sample sizes, such at Wood's 11 starts last season. This is the primary reason why Wood, while having an excellent FIP, actually had a worse xFIP than ERA. It might be possible that Wood can again limit hitters to a tiny 5% HR/FB ratio next season, but it seems unlikely. When you combine this possible HR/FB worry with his walk rate concerns, you can see the potential could be there for a major step back.
However, Wood was a young pitcher. We might expect that he will improve his control slightly next year, or at least maintain it. And while the HR/FB rate will probably be closer to 10% this year than the 5% it was last year, some of this correction will likely be counterbalanced by his BABIP against coming more in line with what the rest of the Braves' staff tends to allow (i.e. what the defense usually gives up). But again, we can see that Wood is far from a sure thing, given the small sample size last year, the funky delivery (that may be prone to breaking down over a full season's workload, we don't know), and the HR/FB and walk rate worries. He's certainly not a guy you want your whole season to be riding on. He's a guy you want just be happy with what you get out of him.
5) Brandon Beachy - Beachy is another interesting case. The one time staff ace blew his elbow out, got surgery, came back, and then had to have further surgery to clean it up. The Braves believe that Beachy will be fully ready to go by spring training and will have no limitations. However, will we see the Brandon Beachy of old? Was the Brandon Beachy of old even real or just a small sample mirage?
I don't think there is much reason to believe that Beachy won't be healthy next season. However, given the amount of time he missed, I do think it may take him longer to get back his feel and stamina than the rest of the staff. We could see him not really ready to start early in the season, not because of injury, but more because of rust. Due to Beachy's fly ball tendencies, even if he's slightly off, things can go bad in a hurry (much like we've seen from Mike Minor at times). Early in the season, I think it'd be risky to be expecting a whole lot out of Beachy. Now whether the Braves can afford the risk of letting him get ready while pitching real games in April is an open question and probably won't be answered until spring training.
Further, there have always been questions surrounding just how good Brandon Beachy would ultimately be. Beachy was an undrafted find out of the independent leagues, and many scouts still question his talent level. In 2011, Beachy was a strikeout machine, sporting one of the best K/9 numbers in the game, at 10.74. He combined this with a workable 2.92 BB/9 number to have a great season. In 2012 though we saw his strikeouts drop and his walks rise, to 7.56 and 3.22 per 9 IP respectively. He was able to actually lower his ERA to 2.00, mostly due to have a well below average HR/FB ratio of 6.7% (the previous season he was at a more normal 9.8%). This lead to an odd scenario where his ERA plummeted from 2011 to 2012 (3.68 down to 2.00), yet his xFIP jumped dramatically (from 3.16 to 4.14).
What does all this mean? Much like Alex Wood, I don't think we know what we're going to get out of Brandon Beachy. Nearly any line on him, from something like 200 Ks in 190 IP with a 2.80 ERA all the way to 145 Ks, in 110 IP with a 4.60 ERA wouldn't surprise me at all. He has that wide a range of a variance, I think. Much like Wood, I think the Braves will be best suited if they don't have to depend on Beachy being great, and if he is, well, awesome.
6) David Hale - David Hale made two excellent starts towards the end of last season, and some view him as a realistic option for a 5th starter job, should Beachy or Wood falter. He shouldn't be.
David Hale was thoroughly mediocre in the minor leagues and then made two excellent starts in the majors. I don't think it's reasonable that we should expect a guy who, in the minors, only managed to strike out around 7 per 9 IP, yet walked between 3 and 4 batters per 9 IP every season to find success in the major leagues. Steamer projects Hale to start 25 games and be worth -0.4 wins. I think it's fairly safe to say if Hale is indeed as bad as he projects to be, he won't make 25 starts. The Braves are likely hoping he doesn't make anything more than a couple of fill in starts.
That covers the internal options. While I think that the Braves are hoping that Beachy and Wood are the 4th and 5th starters for the team, they likely feel highly uneasy about those being their only realistic options, or having to depend on quality innings out of David Hale. I absolutely expect we will see the Braves sign a veteran this off season, or perhaps in spring training. Would it maybe be the Ace of Legends, that so many fans have been clamoring for? David Price perhaps?
No. Probably not. I think Mark covered this angle relatively well. Trading for a True Ace would likely both exhaust the team's payroll flexibility, and the farm system. The Braves do not have the financial flexibility to not only pay for an ace, but also give up valuable prospects, who they will be dependent on in future seasons to allow them to remain competitive despite payroll limitations.
I don't even think we're looking at a mid level guy, like Tim Hudson. If we were going to sign a guy like that, we'd likely have signed Tim. I think we'll be looking at a mediocre/bad innings eater type pitcher. Somebody sort of like Freddy Garcia or Livan Hernandez, though perhaps slightly better than that. A guy who can give rotational depth if things go bad, and fill in the bullpen if they don't. It likely won't be a popular move, but it is also the safe move. Because while you don't want to risk going into the season with just five viable starters, two of which have questions, you also don't want to risk spending more than you can really afford for a pitcher that you end up ultimately not needing. You want a guy who, if things go right, you can not be too concerned with the money you essentially wasted on him, while also being comfortable throwing him out there while you research the trade market for a better candidate if things go wrong with Beachy and/or Wood.
The Braves are facing a lot of risk with the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation, and how they ultimately play out may very well be the most significant factor towards where they end up in 2014.