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2009_post-mortem_part_2_the_amazing_starting_rotation_1-v15-2821 | October | 2009 Articles

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2009 Post-Mortem Part 2: The Amazing Starting Rotation.

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Second in an occasional series of analyses of the Braves' 2009 campaign, with an eye toward 2010. The first was on the end to our season -- a six-game losing streak that made the long offseason a lot harder for fans to swallow. Part two is about our starting rotation, once again the best in the majors.

It's too bad the Braves weren't able to make it into the playoffs, but no one will blame the starting rotation. First in the majors in ERA, second in FIP, second in innings pitched, third fewest homers allowed, third in OPS against, third in WHIP -- it was inarguably one of the best, and arguably the single best, staff in all of baseball. It was an especially impressive showing for a rotation that was 20th in baseball in ERA last year despite the best efforts of Jair Jurrjens, and which hadn't led the league in ERA since having led every single year from 1992-2002. Roger McDowell was hired to be the next Leo Mazzone: his pitchers' performance this year is a strong indication that he was a good choice.

McDowell has to be mentioned, because as good as the pitchers were, no one would confuse any of them with 1992-2002 Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, or Tom Glavine. Not one pitcher on the roster has any Cy Youngs on the shelf, and only Tim Hudson (#2 in 2000, when Pedro won it going away, and Hudson had an ERA nearly two and a half runs higher than Petey) and Derek Lowe (#3 in 2002, behind Zito and Pedro) have ever even received consideration. Instead, other than Lowe, the staff collectively overachieved. As Tom has covered, while Lowe drastically underperformed his FIP, Jair Jurrjens even more drastically overperformed his own, as did Tommy Hanson. And Javier Vazquez produced the best season of his career, setting career highs in ERA, ERA+, and K/BB, while coming within one of his career high in wins and within three of his career high in strikeouts.

Lowe's performance was disappointing, but thanks to the stellar years enjoyed by Vazquez, Hanson, and Jurrjens, the Braves were able to hide him in the back end of the rotation. As I've written, I'm extremely concerned about him for the duration of his contract if he's unable to bring his strikeouts back in line with his career numbers, but if this year was just an aberration, it more than evened out thanks to his rotationmates' success. The rest of the back end of the rotation was similarly strong: after an unsuccessful last audition for Jo-Jo Reyes, and a middling performance by Medlen, who found much greater success in the pen, Kenshin Kawakami and Tim Hudson combined to produce #3 starter numbers while being effectively #5 on the starter depth chart.

Kawakami was maligned early in the year because of a poor April and the even poorer early performance of Garret Anderson, because fans presumed that Frank Wren made a choice to pay Kawakami rather than pay a slugger. While the acquisition of Nate McLouth and trade of Jeff Francoeur substantially improved our offense, the critics had a point: this year, pitching was not our problem. Still, Kawakami more than earned his money, as Tom has written. Next year, Jurrjens and Hanson are both likely to fall back to earth a bit, while Kawakami's likely to perform at a similar level -- somewhere around a 4.00 ERA through somewhere around 30 starts. (I never get tired of pointing this out, but when I translated his Japanese stats to an American context, I came up with a 3.80 ERA. His ERA this year? 3.86.)

Almost certainly, one of these guys will get traded. It seems quite possible that the Braves will decline Hudson's option, then attempt sign him to a multiyear deal, and considering his performance at the end of the year, keeping the southern sinkerballer in Atlanta seems like a great idea. The offseason pitching market hasn't shaped up yet, and won't till after the World Series; John Lackey will certainly get paid, but unless a lot of options are declined, the pickings will be slim after that. Of all the Braves' pitchers, I think Lowe and Kawakami's contracts are least likely to be traded, because of the number of years and dollars remaining for each.

Jair Jurrjens isn't likely to be traded by any means, but he's also at the very peak of his value, a young, team-controlled pitcher coming off a career year at the tender age of 23. Then again, with Hanson and Jurrjens looking like Glavine and Maddux redux, it's hard to imagine Wren ever willingly letting either one go. Over the next four years, the Braves almost certainly will have a better chance to win in the playoffs with Jurrjens than without him. He should stay, and he will. Meanwhile, Hanson is, of course, untradeable. He's the most valuable player in the organization and one of the most valuable in all of baseball. He's due for a regression next year, but that doesn't mean he'll actually regress: his potential is virtually limitless, and over the course of the year his components improved substantially, a good indication for 2010.

If the Braves are unable to come to terms with Hudson for an extension, it's possible but not likely that they might exercise his option and then attempt to trade his one-year contract. Javy Vazquez is probably likeliest to go, because he's just got one year left, and $11.5 million is quite reasonable for a guy with a 2.87 ERA -- unfortunately, he's got a reputation for being up and down, which may depress his value a little bit. He's almost certainly due for a regression to the mean: his ERA and FIP are both more than a run lower than his career average.

After the Braves have decided who will stay and who will go, their thorniest question will be who should start on opening day. Based on dollars and precedent it should be Lowe; based on 2009 performance it should be Jurrjens; based on potential it should be Hanson. 2010 will be Bobby's last in the dugout, but it should be another memorable one for the Braves. They have all the pieces in place for another terrific rotation.
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