Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Around the Horn: Starting rotation
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in less than six weeks, it's not too early to start dissecting the Braves' 2012 roster. This is the first of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at Atlanta's projected starters and other options heading into Spring Training.

ATLANTA -- Three years ago, Braves general manager Frank Wren was finishing up what was essentially a complete reconstruction of his starting rotation. To account for John Smoltz's departure, Tim Hudson's injury-related absence and the uninspiring developments of some prospects, he acquired Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami.

While the Kawakami signing was a bust, Vazquez proved stellar during his one season with the team, and Lowe's shaky three-year tenure with the club was highlighted by a perfect September that provided Atlanta a spot in the 2010 postseason.

Given what Wren had to work with in terms of starting pitching exiting the 2008 season, he certainly had reason to be pleased with the rotations the Braves utilized each of the past three seasons.

But as Atlanta looks toward the next three years and beyond from a starting pitching perspective, the club knows it could possess even greater rotations.

"I like my team, because I like the pitching," manager Fredi Gonzalez said during the Winter Meetings.

When the Braves began building their unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles in 1991, their starting rotation included 25-year-old Tom Glavine, 24-year-old Smoltz and 21-year-old Steve Avery. The addition of a 27-year-old Greg Maddux two years later completed the base the club built around for another decade.

There is little chance the game will see another organization annually fashion similar rotations for this length of time.

But two decades after the baseball world started taking notice of Smoltz and Glavine, the Braves certainly once again have reason to be excited about the kind of influence their heralded young pitching prospects might have on the club's future.

"The Atlanta Braves have a knack of plugging one guy in that rotation and it kind of keeps flourishing," Gonzalez said. "I would feel comfortable using any of those guys."

Gonzalez was referring to Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor, three of the club's best pitching prospects. Each made multiple starts for Atlanta during the 2011 regular season, and each should provide some kind of impact at the Major League level again this year.

But with Hudson anchoring a rotation that is projected to include four pitchers younger than 26 years old -- Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Minor -- a couple of these young prospects might have to wait a little longer before landing a permanent spot in the Atlanta rotation.

The rotation's makeup at the beginning of the season could be influenced by a potential trade and the health of both Hudson and Hanson.

Jurrjens' name has been linked to trade rumors throughout the offseason, and there is still a chance Atlanta could move the talented right-hander before the start of the regular season. But if the Braves are not blown away by a great offer, they will continue to approach the season with the hope that Jurrjens regains the form that allowed him to enter the 2011 All-Star break with a National League-best 1.87 ERA.

Jurrjens and Hanson entered the break with two of the NL's top four ERAs, and then battled destructive ailments that provided them nothing but misery in the second half.

Jurrjens believes a brace will provide the stability his troublesome right knee needs, and Hanson is approaching the season confident that he has strengthened his back muscles enough to avoid the right shoulder discomfort that plagued him most of last year and sidelined him for the final two months.

"I don't think it will be a problem," Hanson said. "I think the biggest thing for me was the rest. Then once I started strengthening it, it felt a lot better."

Hudson entered this offseason hoping his workouts would allow him to avoid back surgery. But the 36-year-old veteran was forced to undergo surgery in late November to repair a herniated disc. While he is hoping he will be ready to return by the start of the regular season, he can pace himself through Spring Training with the comfort of knowing the club has some quality young pitchers who could make a start or two for him during the early portion of the regular season.

Before setting a modern-day franchise rookie record with 169 strikeouts last year, Beachy went to Spring Training and won the battle against Minor for the fifth spot in the rotation. The impressive right-hander will return this year with the confidence that he can be even better than he was while going 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA this past summer.

As things stand, Minor will come to camp this year ready to battle Teheran, Delgado and Kris Medlen for the fifth spot. But while going 4-1 with a 3.50 ERA in his final eight starts with Atlanta last year, the 24-year-old left-hander positioned himself to be the favorite entering camp.

Teheran was recognized as the game's top pitching prospect last year, and then spent the summer legitimizing this honor while dominating International League opponents at the ripe age of 20. He went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA for Triple-A Gwinnett, and had the opportunity to make three Major League starts.

Delgado actually proved more impressive at the Major League level, posting a 2.83 ERA in seven starts for Atlanta. The 21-year-old right-hander could prove even more effective when he develops a breaking ball to complement his already-effective changeup.

The Braves believe Delgado, Minor and Teheran will benefit from the experience they gained while pitching amid the pressure that existed during September's playoff push.

"They pitched some great ballgames coming down the stretch, and they held their own," Gonzalez said. "I think those games that they pitched, it has to help them."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.