With about a month left before pitchers and catchers report, the Braves are pretty much set. The payroll is used up and set around $88-90 million. The only question about the lineup is where everyone is going to hit. The bullpen is pretty much set. If you’re looking for something to talk about surrounding the team, you have to look at the margins, and honestly, who really cares who the reserve center fielder or shortstop is? But heading into Spring Training, there is one spot on the roster up for grabs that may actually have a significant impact on the season—the fifth spot in the rotation. So who should get it, Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy?
Let’s take a quick look at their major-league starts last season, but before we get too excited, remember that the sample size is incredibly small. Minor made 8 starts (and 1 relief appearance) going 3-2 in 40 innings of 5.98 ERA ball. The ERA makes his debut look worse than it really was. A 9.52 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9 (3.91 K/BB) makes for excellent peripherals, and along with a 10% HR/FB, his FIP was a much better 3.77 (3.86 xFIP). What could be troubling is his .396 BABiP. Normally, BABiPs sit around .300, but if you throw straight fastballs and crappy breaking balls, major-league hitters will bash them thoroughly enough to break the "laws" of BABiP. Fortunately, none of his batted ball statistics suggest he was so awful, and even if he was, one could say he was just tired after throwing 155 innings. Beachy, on the other hand, had a much better superficial showing in his 3 starts with a 3.00 ERA, but his 9.00 K/9 and 4.20 BB/9 (2.14 K/BB) were much worse than Minor’s. His 3.98 xFIP (he gave up 0 HR, which is just not going to happen again), however, was nearly as good as Minor’s. Looking at only major-league stats, I would actually say that Minor is a little better given the difference in K/BB rate in more innings, but again, these samples are too small to draw too much from it.
Examining minor-league stats might prove more fruitful … if the two hadn’t had such different and unexpected seasons. Minor’s velocity spiked at least 2 mph from what was expected, and everyone, while pleasantly surprised, is trying to figure out if the increase is here to stay. If it is, then Minor can be an upper-echelon starter, but if he loses those mphs (really msph, but whatever), those corresponding increased strikeout rates won’t stay either. Moving back to Beachy, he didn’t have a velocity spike, but he came out of nowhere. No one expected his run of success, and they definitely didn’t expect it out of the rotation—he started the year in the bullpen and was expected to move up in that capacity. The same people who wonder about Minor’s velocity also wonder if Beachy can build on and/or maintain last season’s break-out performance.
So when stats won’t tell you much, you have to ask the scouts. Baseball America placed Minor 4th on their prospect list and Beachy 8th, believing Minor to be a possible 2 while Beachy could be a 3. John Sickels is less optimistic about Beachy, calling him a 4 at best, but he gives Minor the same grade that BA does. I don’t really need to go further—this is pretty much the universal opinion—but remember that the number 2 ceiling for Minor is based on the increased velocity. If he doesn’t keep it, he may not be significantly better than Beachy.
Okay, so normally there’s a lot of uncertainty about rookies, but there’s even more when discussing these two. Ultimately, it’s not the worst situation in the world as both seem to project as big-league starters, but when one or two wins might make the difference in a division or Wild Card race, this isn’t an insignificant the decision the Braves are going to have to make. Right now, Minor seems to be the favorite. He has the first-round pedigree, was called up first, had better peripherals in the majors, and threw 20 more innings (which means he won’t need to be coddled as much—Minor can go 180-190 innings without undue strain whereas Beachy should only go 150-160). Minor seems to be the better option, and Beachy could probably use a couple months in AAA to monitor his innings. I don’t disagree with this. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree. My fear, however, is that the fifth spot in the rotation will become a “Spring Training battle", but unless Minor catastrophically fails or his velocity drops significantly, the job should be his.