I have been of the opinion the entire year that when Brandon Beachy is ready to return, there will be a spot that has essentially been left wide open for him. By that I meant that either someone will have been pitching very poorly or that someone will have gotten hurt, which would leave a void for Beachy to slot into the rotation.
After all, every team in baseball has used more than five starters this year. Every team aside from the Braves, that is. It was very reasonable to think that this situation would essentially just figure itself out. To date it has not, and with each passing day Beachy comes closer and closer to his return and the Braves continue to have a more difficult decision to make.
Each of the Braves starters is between 1.6 and 0.6 FanGraphs WAR. What makes it even more difficult is that aside from Staff Ace Mike Minor they all sit between 0.8 and 0.6. There has been no obvious candidate to be removed from the rotation. The staff, outside of Minor, have all essentially been equals. Some have been more or less fortunate than others, but for the most part they have all been comparable. So let's look at the options pitcher by pitcher.
Obviously, Minor is the one guy who has pitched so well that he is not even in consideration to be removed from the rotation. We'll move on from him.
Maholm is an impending free agent. The notion that the Braves should trade him to make room for Beachy sounds good in a vacuum, but then the team is left with the same amount of depth in the rotation that they currently have (they have none, and the health of the rotation to date is probably the biggest reason for the team's success).
You simply cannot trade Maholm at this point and expect that it is a good decision for the remainder of the year. It is possible that no starter gets hurt or pitches poorly for the remainder of the year, but is it likely? The answer to that is no. Having six starting pitchers is a good thing, and trading one away is a very risky decision.
Outside of Minor, Teheran has been the team's best starter. He started off rough but he has been absolutely incredible after his first three starts. Since this is his first year starting, sending him down is an option. It is a less risky option than trading Maholm because if they need Teheran back up they can simply just recall him. There is a level of risk in this move however, and that is involved in sending down a young pitcher who is having success and expecting it to not hurt his psyche.
He could be perfectly fine with it and go back down to the minors to increase the confidence in his changeup and be ready at a moment's notice. But he could also take a big mental step back in this situation. We do not know how he would react because in all honesty we do not know him. It is a variable that needs to be considered, but as outsiders we do not really know how to weigh that variable.
Results wise, Hudson has been the team's worst starter. He has the highest ERA and a 4-5 record despite the team being well above .500 for the season. The way to remove Hudson from the rotation would be to move him to the bullpen, where he has made just one appearance in his entire career -- in 2008 if you remember it.
Hudson is one of the leaders on the team and has been one of the more consistent pitchers in the game during his time with the Braves. I do not doubt that Hudson would excel in a bullpen role but I do feel like he would feel slighted by being removed from the rotation. For the most part, the Braves should not worry about hurting people's feelings, but Hudson is one of the lone Braves that has earned the right to have his feelings worried about.
He has also pitched well as of late, with a 3.20 ERA in his past four starts. This is certainly a possibility but I would be somewhat surprised to see the Braves actually pull the trigger here.
The most reasonable choice of all, in my opinion, is to move Medlen into an important set-up role and allow Beachy to take his spot. Medlen has had tons of success in the bullpen in the past and with Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters out for the year, Medlen can help fill the gap they have left. He also is very good against left-handers and with those two out he should be able to not only fill in as a set up man but be a viable target to get tough lefties out in situational spots as well.
But this is not an easy call either. Medlen does have an ERA of just 2.87 for the year and was the best pitcher in baseball after the All-Star break last season. His peripherals are not nearly as impressive, as his strikeout rate has dropped and his walk rate has jumped, but he has still been able to limit the amount of runs he has allowed and has pitched better of late as well with back-to-back outings with over six innings pitched and no runs allowed.
Six Man Rotation
The Braves do have the ability to use a six man rotation for a couple weeks and make their decision then. Maybe they find out that Beachy is not ready, maybe someone gets hurt in that time frame and it figures itself out, or maybe someone stinks up the joint and makes the decision easy.
If nobody struggles between now and when Beachy is ready to get the call, this is probably the way I would go. Normally, I hate six man rotations because it means your top starters see the mound less. It would certainly be unfortunate to see Minor make a start or two less by year's end because we filled up the rotation with six men, but top-to-bottom the six starters are all somewhat comparable. Minor has shown himself to be the best over the past calendar year but Medlen has been right there as well with the veterans pitching well and Teheran pitching as well as advertised.
My decision, and what I think the Braves will ultimately do, is go through the rotation two to three times with six men in it and make their decision then. This gives them some flexibility and they have already went with a short bullpen for a bit this season. Doing so again is not the greatest way to have an efficient 25 man roster, but with a difficult decision like this it may make sense as a short term option.