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At 55-67, the Braves are far from their pre-season expectations and World Series aspirations. The teams expected success hinged on a potentially dominant rotation that included Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Mike Hampton, and Jair Jurrjens. Its been five months since opening day and weve seen both Hudson and Smoltz undergo season-ending surgeries, while Hampton and Glavine have combined to make only seventeen starts. With Atlantas fans and front office looking to 2009, we may very well see only one name from that list in next years opening day rotation. Hudson is out until at least late August, Smoltz wouldnt be back until later in the season if he is able to return at all, and both Glavine and Hampton seem very unlikely to be re-signed due to their age, durability concerns, and lack of performance this season.
Assuming Jurrjens is the only one of those five who will start next year in the Braves rotation, there will be four more spots to fill. Online reports have said that Atlanta GM Frank Wren will be looking for two front of the rotation starters from this years free agent market, which leaves two in-house options for the final two spots. Barring injury or a complete collapse during the final month of the season, Jorge Campillo seems like a lock with either Jo-Jo Reyes or Charlie Morton starting out of the fifth spot. That battle will almost certainly go right through spring training next year but Morton has to be the favorite at this point. Hes got better stuff, better control, better command, and seems to have made a better impression on the Braves coaching staff.
This years crop of free agent starters is shaping up to be one of the best in quite a while so Wren will have plenty of options. The headliners of the group are Milwaukee aces C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, with names like Jon Garland, Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster, and A.J. Burnett (assuming he opts out) making up the second tier. If youve been following the Braves, you know that Frank Wren has a lot of flexibility when it comes to this off-seasons payroll. My estimate has about $45 million coming off the books at the end of the season. With that kind of money, it is certainly possible that the Braves could land one of the top tier guys as well as a second tier starter, while still having enough money to address the teams outfield deficiencies (to put it very lightly).
This season may be a disappointment, but with a strong core of young players, a very talented bullpen, and the money to address the teams needs this off-season, the Braves are expected to contend in 2009. With a few off-season moves, Frank Wren could potentially build the playoff-caliber rotation and roster that was expected of the Braves heading into the 2008 season. For the first time in a number of years, the Braves will be serious players in the free agent market and just a few good moves could make them a division favorite even after the loss of Tim Hudson.