Prior to the signing of Ervin Santana on Wednesday, the Braves five-man rotation on Opening Day was presumably Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, and a toss-up between David Hale and Freddy Garcia for the fifth spot. Two of these starters have lingering injury concerns that may make them unavailable at the start of the season. Reports surfaced earlier this week that Mike Minor's *ahem* procedure and the resulting soreness therefrom could keep him out until at least the second week of April, though the hope remains that he could slot into the back of the rotation and not miss his turn due to the way the schedule falls during the first week of the season. Beachy's minor setback on Monday, while not catastrophic, further exacerbates the concerns surrounding his long and winding road to recovery. Further, Beachy's ineffectiveness thus far in terms of his stuff - while not a huge concern due to his ongoing recovery and the fact that it's the second week of March - still paints a rather grim picture when forecasting what to expect when the calendar flips to April. If he's forced to miss his next couple of starts this spring, that's less time he's able to face live batters in a no-pressure environment and continue to hone the efficacy and command of his entire repertoire, one of the main concerns when making one's way back from Tommy John surgery. If this occurs, it's hard to see a situation in which the Braves would allow Beachy to take the mound during the first week of April. Additionally, while not an injury concern, Santana will not be ready to go until mid-April due to his late signing, according to Mark Bowman.
At this point, however, how the rotation shakes out in the first week of the season is small potatoes compared to the overall health of the rotation throughout the 2014 season. It's safe to assume that Minor can come back fully healthy from his injury and take his spot near the top of the rotation. Counting on Beachy is a riskier proposition, and the signing of Santana, in a way, highlights the uncertainty surrounding his ongoing comeback. If Beachy is the Beachy of old, the signing of Santana, while certainly a nice addition, would have been a bit excessive at the margin. It's quite clear that Beachy is not the Beachy of old, at least not yet.
Where does this leave the staff over the entirety of the season? Not taking into account the first week of the season because nobody knows how that will shake out, Teheran, Minor, Santana, and Wood are locks (again, assuming Minor is fine when he returns). Beachy is a wild card in terms of health, as outlined above. Gavin Floyd will reportedly be ready at some point in May, and while all preliminary reports have been positive, May will mark the one-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery. Twelve months is certainly a reasonable recovery time for Tommy John surgery in today's world, but while we certainly can't predict this, there remains at least a minor possibility that he will face some sort of setback between now and then, pushing his return date back further into May/June. Again, this isn't to be expected, but we do need to realize that early May seems to be the absolute best-case scenario for Floyd's return.
I realize I'm highlighting less-than-optimal scenarios here, but we're building to something. As we've seen in recent years, it takes a village to fill a rotation over the course of an entire season, and 2014 looks to be no different from the outset. With the current injury concerns lingering around the rotation, this places emphasis on the sixth, seventh, and eighth starters on the depth chart, pitchers who will likely throw important innings down the stretch. Enter David Hale, the pitcher I expect to have the most success of the starters currently on the periphery.
A third-round pick in 2009 out of Princeton, Hale was barbecued during his time in the minors, taking it level-by-level and spending time in both the rotation and the bullpen throughout. One of the more encouraging signs throughout his development was the way he adapted to starting when he became a full-time rotation member prior to the 2012 season. He posted good results during this season in Double-A, missing bats and logging over 145 innings, but the main concern was an elevated walk rate. Despite this, he cracked the 40-man roster last offseason and pitched very well in Gwinnett's rotation. Though the strikeout rate dropped, Hale cut his walk rate by 3.5 percentage points, throwing more quality strikes and inducing more weak contact on the ground, evidenced by a 48.5 percent ground ball rate. He earned a cup of coffee in September, starting two games against the Phillies and Padres. While he threw incredibly well against these two shallow lineups, he doesn't project to strike out thirty percent of batters over the course of an entire season.
Hale throws three pitches: a low-to-mid 90s fastball that generates a generous amount of arm-side sink and run, a low-80s slider with sharp two-plane slice when he stays on top of the ball, and a low-80s changeup that, despite middling results in the minors, flashed average potential in his two major-league starts. The former two-way player at Princeton is very athletic with a relatively clean drop-and-drive delivery. With average command and control that has gotten better as he's climbed the ladder, all of the ingredients are there for a back-end starter who can chew innings and provide solid, albeit unspectacular, production, especially in his cost-controlled years. ZiPS and Steamer paint two different pictures for his 2014 season - ZiPS projects him to have a 5.08 ERA while Steamer is a bit more optimistic, projecting a 4.17 ERA.
As it currently stands, Hale, Garcia, Aaron Northcraft, and Cody Martin are the four in-house candidates who stand the highest chance to fill in at some point during the season due to their current position on the 40-man roster. While Garcia has, by far, the most major-league experience, my confidence lies with Hale as the one who could see the most success due to his ability to throw enough quality strikes, miss a decent amount of bats, and induce a healthy amount of grounders (46.4 percent ground ball rate since 2011). As mentioned prior, Garcia has the requisite innings at the major league level, yet despite Fredi's comments, he doesn't miss enough bats or solicit enough *weak* contact to inspire confidence. Northcraft hasn't seen any time above Double-A, and one could argue that Martin still needs seasoning in the upper minors. While they should be ready to provide assistance in September, Hale is the better option in the short-term.
While the signing of Santana initially sent Hale's stock plummeting, the overall fragility within in terms of injuries and the like should keep him around on the major-league roster, where he will look to provide stability and value at the back-end of the rotation during the different iterations through which the rotation will go as the season progresses. Additionally, an ancillary benefit of having him around is that his repertoire will play well if used in long relief during a time in which the rotation is relatively healthy, essentially occupying the role formerly filled by Cristhian Martinez. I envisage a scenario in which Hale throws, at the very least, 80 innings across the entire season between the bullpen and starting rotation, very similar to what Alex Wood did last season. While I don't see him necessarily having the same amount of success as Wood did in 2013, a close to league-average ERA would not be a major surprise given his repertoire and the results he's seen over his past two seasons in the upper minors.