Bernie Pleskoff

Braves' pitching staff will take them deep

Pleskoff: Braves' pitching staff will take them deep

Braves' pitching staff will take them deep
A roster of outstanding starting pitching should allow the Atlanta Braves to be well positioned for a run at the National League East title. They will have tremendous competition from a division that has become more competitive and balanced, but Atlanta's array of talented starters should keep the club in every game.

The division is loaded. Sporting a pitching deck stacked with aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies have one of baseball's great starting staffs. Washington boasts flame-throwing Stephen Strasburg to anchor their improving rotation. Miami added Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano and closer Heath Bell. The Marlins also could have stellar starter Josh Johnson healthy once again. The Mets have work to do, but they too may be improved. Every game could be a pitching gem whenever NL East teams face one another.

Considering the depth of their rotation and their combination of youth and experience, the Braves could be at or near the top of the heap when champagne is popped in the championship clubhouse at the end of the regular season. The addition of another playoff qualifier may also help Atlanta.

While the outlook is very bright, much depends upon the health of some recently injured Braves pitchers.

Returning from November surgery for a herniated disk in his back, right-handed veteran starter Tim Hudson could provide the unshakable bulldog type mound demeanor that creates a winning attitude. When healthy, few pitchers bring Hudson's mound presence and true grit.

Hudson was once part of the Oakland Athletics highly acclaimed trio of starting pitchers that included lefties Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

Hudson has an array of pitches that all seem to move. Late life on his pitches makes him a very tough pitcher to hit. One of baseball's finest sinkerball pitchers, Hudson induces a great number of ground balls. He pitches to contact and doesn't rely on strikeouts to dispatch hitters. He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, along with outstanding breaking balls. Changing speeds and moving the eye levels of hitters help classify Hudson as a true ace. He can be counted upon to keep his team in the game.

Last season, Hudson threw 215 innings for Atlanta, ending the season at 16-10 with a fine 3.22 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. A three-time All Star, the 36-year-old Hudson has pitched in the Major Leagues for 13 seasons.

Hudson had Tommy John surgery back in 2008. He missed most of 2009 and won the NL Comeback Player Of The Year Award in 2010.

Hudson may not be able to pitch until late Spring Training or until after the season starts. When he does return, he'll be a welcome top-of-the-rotation starter for the Braves.

Jair Jurrjens is a right-handed starter from Santa Maria, Curacao. Like Hudson, Jurrjens will be returning from a season ending injury.

In October 2010, Jurrjens underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. However, he had a great first half in 2011, even making the NL All Star team. Jurrjens pitched in the game, but he was shut down shortly thereafter with complications of the previous knee injury. He made only four second-half starts.

Jurrjens' outstanding 2011 first half can be attributed to improved command and movement on his pitches. He throws a cut fastball that generally sits in the low 90s. He also began to pitch "backwards" in counts. Jurrjens didn't hesitate to start hitters off with a changeup or breaking ball and then bust a cut fastball or slider to the hitter that dives beyond his plate coverage.

Right-hander Tommy Hanson is another starter returning from injury. In the past, Hanson, 25, has raised concerns about mechanical issues in his delivery. At 6-feet-6 inches tall, Hanson has not always had a clean, smooth motion. Some say his shoulder pains last season were a result of poor pitching mechanics. With a barking shoulder, it's very possible Hanson compensated in his delivery, causing a change of his hip rotation and further complicating his release. His most prominent hiccup occurs when following through with his arm and releasing the ball. His command suffers at times when he "short arms" the ball and doesn't use enough of his lower body in his motion, thereby failing to "finish" his extension. Hanson has worked on cleaning up his mechanics this offseason and he's confident of a solid, healthy return by Spring Training.

When healthy, Hanson is a solid starter who can be counted upon to provide a wide arsenal of quality pitches. He throws a moving fastball as a base pitch, but his changeup, slider and a plus, plus curveball makes him special.

Based upon a bias for control pitchers that throw strikes, perhaps this scout's highest praise is reserved for right-handed starter Brandon Beachy.

Beachy has very good command of a low to mid-90s fastball, and a very solid changeup and curve. Beachy's mound presence and calm demeanor are beyond his 25 years. He progressed extremely quickly through the Braves' system based upon his ability to throw strikes and move the ball around the strike zone with precision. Beachy doesn't have the experience of Hudson, Jurrjens or Hanson and he might slot behind those three in the rotation. But Beachy will keep his team in games, keep his pitch count low with good control and be able to log quality innings while giving the Braves a chance to win. Last season, Beachy's second for Atlanta, he had a 7-3 record with an ERA of 3.68 and a 1.207 WHIP. Beachy walked only 46 while striking out 169 in 141 2/3 innings. Beachy's star is rising and he may soon play a more prominent role in the Braves' rotation.

The fifth starter's slot may be a bit of a battle between the young left-handed Mike Minor and righties Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. Minor may have an advantage as a lefty in an otherwise totally right-handed rotation. Highly regarded righty Arodys Vizcaino may be in the mix as well. The prospect pool is extremely deep.

The presence of those promising arms provides the Braves plenty of insurance in the event Hudson's season is delayed -- or if Jurrjens or Hanson have prolonged issues with their injuries. The highly regarded pitching prospects also provide the club the option of trading one of their starters to fill another organizational need. Jurrjens was mentioned in trade talk this winter.

Minor, 24, was the seventh player taken and the Braves' top choice in the 2009 First Year Player Draft. While his fastball is improving in both velocity and movement, his changeup may be his best pitch. Minor also throws quality-breaking balls. Like most young pitchers, he has to continue to prove he can retire Major League hitters.

Ironically, like Hudson, Mulder and Zito formed a dynamic starting pitching trio for Oakland in the early 2000s, Atlanta boasts Minor, Delgado, Teheran and Vizcaino with similar dominant starting pitching potential. Existing depth offers the team the luxury of patience. It appears the Atlanta Braves will be able to mix and match from among a quality stable of starting pitchers in 2012.

Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.