Atlanta Braves: Power Ranking the Entire Projected 2012 Pitching Staff

Jim PrattContributor IIJanuary 13, 2012

Atlanta Braves: Power Ranking the Entire Projected 2012 Pitching Staff

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    While the Atlanta Braves collapse of 2011 was a collective team effort, key injuries to the rotation and an overworked bullpen were major factors.

    The loss of starters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens to injuries forced the hand of manager Fredi Gonzalez to call upon rookies Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran.

    The trickle-down effect of using rookies in the rotation means less innings pitched from the starter, which causes the bullpen to get overworked, as David O’Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests.

    Moving past those late season struggles into what has been a silent off-season to date, the best medicine for a Braves fan base wondering what could have been is to look ahead to the upcoming 2012 season—which brings with it the optimism of a healthy pitching staff.

    To help smooth the transition into 2012, here is a look at the Braves projected pitching staff with a least valuable to most indispensable feel. Included are projections by ZiPS and Bill James (via FanGraphs).

10) Martinez and Medlen in Mop Up Duty

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    The unheralded role of long relief in the MLB is equivalent to the back-up quarterback in college football—lots of action in “mop up” duty.

    Cristhian Martinez was effective overall in long relief, but the Braves will be expecting more consistency this season than he provided in 2011, when he was hot and cold monthly (ERA: April/March 4.50, May 1.38, June 5.19, July 2.61, August 4.50, Sept./Oct. 2.55).

    Given his experience in the bullpen and splits at Turner Field (2.25 ERA, 0.773 WHIP and 38:8 K/BB), Martinez should go into Spring Training fairly secure in his job.

    Finally healthy, Kris Medlen can provide immediate flexibility to the pitching staff. He can be used as an occasional spot starter, in long relief and for one-or-two inning stints, which will help take some strain off the late inning relief core.

    After his Tommy John surgery in August of 2010, Medlen had setbacks in both early June and then again in July. The long road back from elbow reconstructive surgery came to an end when he threw a scoreless inning vs. the Washington Nationals on September 25.  

    Although essential to a bullpen, long relievers are easier to replace, therefore Martinez and Medlen have to be considered the least valuable pieces of the Braves pitching staff.

    ZiPS Projections

    Cristhian Martinez: 3-2 W/L, 49 G, 72.1 IP, 17 BB, 57 K, 3.61 ERA

    Kris Medlen: Not Available

    Bill James 2012

    Cristhian Martinez: 6-4 W/L, 57 G, 86 IP, 6.59 K/9, 1.88 BB/9, 3.14 ERA, 3.52 FIP

    Kris Medlen: 8-5 W/L, 20 GS, 118 IP, 8.47 K/9, 2.14 BB/9, 3.36 ERA, 3.09 FIP

9) Vizcaino/O’Flaherty Could Be Venters/Kimbrell Lite

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    Arodys Vizcaino’s days as a starting pitcher look to be temporarily postponed after Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren announced he would be penciled in as a member of the bullpen to start the season.

    The move not only provides more depth moving forward, but also enhances what is already considered one of the best bullpens in MLB.

    From the bullpen, Vizcaino allows his fastball to “play up” at 95-97 mph and counters that with a hard breaking curveball to keep hitters off-balance. After his promotion to the big leagues in early August, he struck out 17 in 17.1 innings. His 4.67 BB/9 should improve as he builds on his experience from last season.

    Vizcaino will join Eric O’Flaherty as a bridge from the starters to the late inning relief core.

    O’Flaherty answered the bell as the 7th inning compliment to Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. He had his best season to date in 2011, posting career totals across the board—including the major categories of ERA (0.98), WHIP (1.09), K/9 (8.19), and AVG against (.213).

    Along with bullpen members Venters (85) and Kimbrel (79), O’Flaherty appeared in more games last season (78) than future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s career best of 74 in 2004.

    He can be nasty from the left side, with a 91-92 mph sinking fastball and a slider that sits 85 mph. In an expanded role O’Flaherty was effective against both right-handed (.222) and left-handed batters (.193) last year and stranded runners at a 92.3 percent clip, which was third in MLB.

    ZiPS Projections

    Arodys Vizcaino: 8-8 W/L, 22 GS, 105 IP, 33 BB, 79 K, 4.11 ERA

    Eric O’Flaherty: 3-2 W/L, 73 G, 61.1 IP, 20 BB, 54 K, 2.93 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    Arodys Vizcaino: Not Available

    Eric O’Flaherty: 5-3 W/L, 72 G, 73 IP, 7.52 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, 3.08 ERA, 3.09 FIP

8) Jonny Venters Has Become Elite

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    Jonny Venters broke onto the scene in a big way as a rookie in 2010, and then only continued to solidify himself as one of the premier set-up men in MLB during the 2011 season.

    He throws a 95 mph hard-sinking fastball that at times is virtually unhittable. When contact was made, it led to a major league leading 72.5 percent groundball rate.

    A left-handed reliever, Venters struck out 41.3 percent of the left-handed batters he faced and only allowed an AVG of .122 against.

    Due to the heavy workload, his production did fade from a pre-All-Star break ERA of 1.46 to 5.11 down the stretch in September and October.

    The quality of innings the Braves expect to receive from a full season of Medlen and Vizcaino will be a welcome addition and will help ease the burden on Venters’ shoulders (164 appearances the last 2 seasons).

    ZiPS Projections:

    6-2 W/L, 83 G, 84.1 IP, 41 BB, 94 K, 2.77 ERA

    Bill James 2012:

    5-4 W/L, 3 SV, 79 G, 81 IP, 8.11 K/9, 4.44 BB/9, 3.44 ERA, 3.43 FIP

7) Teheran and Delgado Ready for Extended Time at Turner Field

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    If, or more likely when, the Braves deal Jair Jurrjens, they will have reinforcements waiting in Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. Both prospects got a taste of big league action last year and as Mark Bowman explains in his Braves Inbox column, they might not be interested in going back to the minors.

    Teheran is the most heralded of the two prospects and widely considered the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. He has the ceiling of a frontline starter that could dominate a lineup with his 93-94 mph fastball and plus changeup at 82 mph, although an inconsistent breaking ball will likely cause some command issues early in his career—evident during his brief call-up (8 BB in 19.2 IP).

    The Braves seemed to have a little more faith in Delgado, giving him five of his seven starts during the playoff stretch. He finished the season in Atlanta with an encouraging ERA of 2.83 but an xFIP of 4.97. Command was also an issue, with 3.18 BB/9 and 1.29 HR/9, but the WHIP was a solid 1.23.

    Delgado’s ceiling as a starter in his prime could be a #2, so it should be understood those numbers listed above are using a small sample size of only 35 innings.

    It is rare that any MLB staff is able to have five starting pitchers throw 30+ games in a season. Either through injury or trade, Teheran and Delgado will see more action in Atlanta this year. But some early innings in Gwinnett to refine their “stuff” might be best for the both of them.

    ZiPS Projections

    Julio Teheran: 11-9 W/L, 27 GS, 152 IP, 58 BB, 121 K, 3.85 ERA

    Randall Delgado: 7-9 W/L, 29 GS, 151.1 IP, 69 BB, 121 IP

    Bill James 2012

    Julio Teheran: Not Available

    Randall Delgado: 6-7 W/L, 20 GS, 114 IP, 7.89 K/9, 3.95 BB/9, 4.03 ERA, 4.23 FIP

6) Mike Minor Will Be the Sole Lefty in the Rotation

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    Mike Minor might not project as a top of the rotation starter like Teheran, Delgado or perhaps eventually Vizcaino, but he does represent a much needed left-handed presence for the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

    Minor struggled the first half of last season, shuttled back and forth between Gwinnett and Atlanta for a total of 6 spot starts during the months of April, May and June. He then seemed to settle down on the mound in August, and he became a mainstay in the big leagues.

    His first and second half splits showed improvement in ERA (4.59 to 3.83), WHIP (1.59 to 1.41) and K/BB (1.73 to 3.40). Those numbers went a long way in cementing a spot in the back-end of the starting staff.

    Look for Minor to get 30+ starts, continue to improve on his late season success and be one of the most consistent weekly starters for the Braves.

    ZiPS Projections

    9-8 W/L, 32 GS, 178.1 IP, 62 BB, 168 K, 4.04 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    6-7 W/L, 20 GS, 115 IP, 9.39 K/9, 3.13 BB/9, 3.83 ERA, 3.56 FIP

5) Jair Jurrjens’ Value Comes in Two Forms

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    The hot topic of conversation coming out of Turner Field this off-season has been the trade rumors swirling around Jair Jurrjens and teammate OF/3B Martin Prado. Those rumors make him both valuable and dispensable at the same time.

    To maximize the return Atlanta expects to get for Jurrjens, the front office may want to have him start the season with the team to prove his bad right knee is healthy. This would in turn help Jurrjens regain his value for potential trade partners.

    If GM Frank Wren is willing to deal Jurrjens to acquire a left field power bat, it’s only logical that he finds the young pitcher dispensable. With only 43 games started the past two seasons the Braves have been forced to learn how to live without him already.

    Before the injury, Jurrjens was on his way to a Cy Young caliber season, going 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. After the All-Star break, he went 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA and 1.65 WHIP.

    Again, allowing him to remain on the roster for the first couple months of the season not only increases his trade value if he returns to pre-injury form, but it also allows both Teheran and Delgado to continue refining their “stuff” in the minors. 

    ZiPS Projections

    11-8 W/L, 25 GS, 156 IP, 51 BB, 105 K, 3.81 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    10-10 W/L, 29 GS, 181 IP, 6.22 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 3.68 ERA, 3.88 FIP

4) Craig Kimbrel Is Better Than Good

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    Bent over, right arm dangling, staring toward the catcher waiting for him to flash one finger so he can come set and deliver a fastball upward 100 mph—if such a thing as “closer mentality” exists, Craig Kimbrel has it.

    On his way to unanimously winning the National League ROY award and breaking the rookie saves record with 46, Kimbrel firmly established himself as one of the elite closers in the game.

    His strike out total of 127 dwarfed the second place total put up by Washington Nationals set-up man Tyler Clippard, once you compare that his 104 K’s were done in 88.1 IP compared to Kimbrel’s 77 IP.

    He was also the only reliever in the Top 25 of ERA to have a lower xFIP (1.94) than ERA (2.10). Needless to say, Kimbrel set a standard in 2011 that will be tough to duplicate at any point in the future.

    The workload of 79 games eventually wore on Kimbrel. After allowing zero runs in 25 July and August appearances, he allowed six runs in 12 September games.

    With an ever-improving NL East, the Braves will need Kimbrel and Co. fresh down the stretch this season.

    ZiPS Projections

    6-2 W/L, 73 G, 73.1 IP, 39 BB, 116 K, 2.21 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    6-3 W/L, 44 SV, 74 G, 74 IP, 14.72 K/9, 4.74 BB/9, 1.95 ERA, 2.04 FIP

3) Brandon Beachy Could Be a Breakout Candidate

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    Brandon Beachy’s rookie campaign went somewhat overshadowed with all that surrounded the Braves last season.

    Only 25 years old, he has the mound maturity of a veteran and a work ethic to go with it. Add those intangibles to the command he shows on all three of his pitches and you've got yourself a breakout candidate for 2012.

    If he becomes a 33-start pitcher this year, 180+ innings pitched and 200+ strikeouts are probable. Another encouraging sign for a breakout campaign is the difference in his xFIP (3.16) and ERA (3.68), which is a sign the ERA could be lower next season.

    While breaking an Atlanta rookie record with 169 strikeouts, Beachy led the team with a K/9 of 10.74 and was second to Jair Jurrjens (2.61) with a 2.92 BB/9. His WAR of 2.8 was only second to Tim Hudson’s 3.7 total.

    If Beachy reaches the 33-start goal and his production just levels off without the expected progress a second year starter should make, there is a chance he could be the Braves most valuable starter in 2012.

    ZiPS Projections

    8-5 W/L, 26 GS, 152 IP, 48 BB, 166 K, 3.32 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    11-6 W/L, 27 GS, 155 IP, 10.63 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 3.14 ERA, 2.83 FIP

2) Tim Hudson Is the Rotation’s Rock

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    Tim Hudson has been the pitching staff’s workhorse in recent years, throwing for 215+ innings in each of the past two seasons.

    Age (36) and injury (back) could force pitching coach Roger McDowell to watch those innings this season in an effort to preserve him for September’s playoff push.

    A notorious groundball pitcher, 59 percent GB rate over his career, Hudson will want to lean on that strength in order to keep his pitch count low to add to his durability over the course of a season.

    After the All-Star break, Hudson was the anchor for an ailing rotation posting a 2.83 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 15 starts.

    His veteran leadership goes beyond the example he sets on the mound. A willingness to help a team filled with young arms is invaluable to the Braves organization.

    Hudson is in the last year of his contract, Braves have a team option for 2013, so he hopes those age and injury issues subside for at least one more playoff bound season.

    ZiPS Projections

    11-8 W/L, 26 GS, 162.2 IP, 47 BB, 107 K, 3.60 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    14-11 W/L, 32 GS, 218 IP, 5.7 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 3.43 ERA, 3.80 FIP

1) Tommy Hanson Looks to Regain CY Young Form

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    Tommy Hanson has to sit atop these rankings solely due to his Cy Young caliber potential. One of the few pre-season frontrunners for the award last year, he has said this off-season he expects to be back to full strength by Spring Training.

    Hanson was in Cy Young form before the All-Star break with 10 wins, 2.44 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 109 strikeouts in 103.1 IP. After the shoulder injury he was a shadow of himself, throwing only 26.2 innings with a 8.10 ERA.

    Expect Hanson to bounce back in 2012 with no lingering effects from the shoulder injury, and flash that 91-93 mph fastball in addition to his nasty curveball and change-up on route to re-establishing himself as one to the National League’s top pitchers.

    Could the Atlanta Braves make a run at the playoff without a healthy Tommy Hanson? Probably, but they want more than just a playoff appearance—they want to be a legitimate World Series contender.

    To do that they not only need Hanson to live up to his ace potential, but they also need Teheran and Delgado to step up, to enable the front office to deal Jurrjens for a power bat.

    ZiPS Projections

    13-7 W/L, 29 GS, 171.1 IP, 54 BB, 170 K, 3.20 ERA

    Bill James 2012

    10-7 W/L, 25 GS, 153 IP, 9.00 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 3.18 ERA, 3.39 FIP