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

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It's anyone's guess if Kenshin Kawakami will be in a Braves uniform in 2011.
It's anyone's guess if Kenshin Kawakami will be in a Braves uniform in 2011.

This is the part two of a five-part series of posts that will be on the site throughout the weekend. Part-1 was posted yesterday.

Question Two:  What about the last spot in the rotation?

The strongest part of the 2010 Braves team will likely continue to be the strongest part of the 2011 Braves team. It's also the part of the team that will need the least amount of change from this year to next -- the starting rotation. Last off-season we were worried about how to fit six starters into five spots, and this off-season we really only need to worry about the who will man the last spot in the rotation.

Tim Hudson re-emerged as the ace of the Atlanta staff after missing a year with Tommy John surgery. Derek Lowe found pitching nirvana in the final month of the season, and won the National League Pitcher of the Month award in September. Braves fans hope that is a sign of better things to come from the costly veteran. Tommy Hanson had his ups and downs in 2010, but he topped 200 innings and racked up the second most quality starts on the staff. His future his still bright, and he still has room to grow. Jair Jurrjens suffered injuries to begin and end the season, but in between he showed flashes of brilliance, though he could not recapture the numbers he posted the last two seasons.

And then there's the fifth spot in the Braves rotation. This was a carousel all year, with Kris Medlen being the most effective participant. But this year was his year for Tommy John surgery, and so he's out of the mix for the 2011 season.

Kenshin Kawakami has been the biggest disappointment of Frank Wren's tenure as General Manager, and it seemed that towards the end of the season Bobby Cox simply didn't want him in the game in any capacity. There's no telling what approach a new manager might take towards KK, but I would not be surprised to see the Braves simply eat the rest of the $6.7 million left on his contract. That could be the wrong approach, though. He likely doesn't have any trade value, so the Braves would be best to just hold on to him and see how he does in spring training, and either try to trade him then when they see how the rest of their staff shakes out, or install him as their fifth starter if the kids aren't ready.

The kids would be Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. Minor showed some great stuff when he first came up, but the rigors of the long season seemed to get to him, and when the league adjusted to him he didn't have the velocity left in his arm to compensate. Minor will likely be the odds-on favorite to win the fifth starter job in spring training, but he will have to win it.

Brandon Beachy came out of nowhere and made some great spot starts for the Braves in September. He pitched good enough to win when he was in the ballgame, but he didn't get much help from his defense or his offense. Considering he pitched twice against the Philies and kept the Braves in the game each time, Beachy easily could have a couple of wins instead of a couple of losses. He's a terrific option as a fifth starter, and perhaps an even better option as a swing man out of the bullpen.

With Minor and Beachy the Braves have two really good young pitchers who could hold down the fifth starter spot. Kawakami is probably plan-C on the Braves list. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Braves go after a low cost starter on the free agent market. If they let KK go and use one of the kids in the fifth spot, that leaves them with very little depth in the minor leagues in case of injury. Both Minor and Beachy look ready, but they could also use more time to refine their game in the minors, so bringing on a veteran for the fifth starter spot for one year could be a good move to provide depth.

It's a great problem to be talking about who will be the fifth starter, instead of who will be the third starter. Credit to Frank Wren and company for maintaining a solid starting core. That's been the foundation of many a Braves championship teams, and with a solid four in place for next year, the makings of another championship season is already there.

Coming up later, Question Three:  Who will be the Braves closer in 2011?