Atlanta Braves: 2008's Listless Rotation Has Become a Strength in 2009
In the 1990's the Atlanta Braves easily had the best rotation in baseball. They had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as a dominant 1-2 punch and, at the back end, the Braves had John Smoltz and Steve Avery. The 2007 and 2008 seasons were disappointing for any fan who knew about the Braves back in the mid 90's. In 2007, Atlanta finished 84-78, missing the playoffs for the second time since 1990. The 2007 rotation was led by Tim Hudson, who finished 16-10 with a 3.33 ERA. The rotation was still good, but not anything comparable to the 1995 rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Kent Mercker. Though 2007 was bad, 2008 was an even worse year to be an Atlanta Braves fan. They finished fourth in the NL East at 72-90. Hudson was hurt most of the year, and the rotation was led by Jair Jurrjens, who finished 13-10.
An offseason overhaul on starting pitching changed the Braves' unstable rotation in a flash. The Braves 2009 rotation is amongst the best in baseball. The Braves made three big acquisitions—Derek Lowe, the third best free agent pitcher, Kenshin Kawakami, who posted a 2.30 ERA in Japan in 2008, and Javier Vazquez, who was 15-8 just two seasons ago. On top of that, ace Tim Hudson will be back sometime in 2009. The Braves 2008 rotation consisted of, in respective order, Jurrjens, JoJo Reyes, Glavine, Mike Hampton and Chuck James.
The rotation is now Lowe, Vazquez, Kawakami, Jurrjens and Jorge Campillo. With this lineup, they Braves now have depth as well as talent. Charlie Morton and James Parr could be good backups if someone in the rotation were to suffer an injury.
With a 14-11 record and a 3.24 ERA last season with the Dodgers, Lowe will be the ace of the 2009 pitching staff. He doesn't have any injury history and he is one of only three active players to have played 12 seasons and never appeared on the disabled list. Though poor run-support meant that he didn't record a win, Lowe was even solid in the playoffs for the Dodgers. He won his only start, allowing just two runs in six innings against the Cubs. Having locked him up to four years for $60 million, the Braves look to be solid at the top of the rotation for a few years to come.
The probable second starter is another offseason pick-up, Vazquez. He struggled mightily with the White Sox last year, finishing 12-16 with a 4.67 ERA. He struck out 200 in 208 and a third innings, but allowed 25 home runs and 214 hits. White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen criticized Vazquez' big game ability when he struggled against Tampa Bay in the ALDS, allowing six runs in his only start, a loss. “I just want him to be aggressive, throw the ball over the plate and knock somebody on their [butt]. That's a big three games for us. You have to be mean. Go out there and show them we show up to play, show up to kick your guys' [butts]. And believe me, that will take care of itself.” The White Sox traded Vazquez to the Braves in December in exchange for coveted minor league shortstop Brett Lillibridge and four other minor league players.
Kawakami was little known in the U.S last year, much less Atlanta. This year he's Atlanta's third starter and expected to live up to the hype of a big contract. In January, Kawakami signed a three-year deal with the Braves. His 90 mph fastball is a slow fastball by American standards, but he has a deceptive delivery, a good curve-ball, and a very effective cut-fastball. He comes to the majors after spending 13 years with the Chunichi Dragons of Nippon Professional Baseball League. He finished with a career record of 112-72 and was 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA in 2008 despite missed the last three weeks of the season with an injury.
Last year, Jurrjens was the lone consistent starter for the Braves. He finished 13-10 with a solid 3.68 ERA. Due to the Braves' offseason pitching overhaul, he enters Spring Training as the fourth pitcher in a solid rotation. Depending on Jorge Campillo's success Jurrjens could become fifth in the rotation.
Campillo, 30, was another bright spot for the Braves, but barely got a chance to show his stuff. He was 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA in 25 starts, which is not too shabby considering he was signed and made a non-roster invitee by the Braves prior to the season.
This year, he will be a solid No. 5 pitcher. While Campillo struggled late in the year (2-3, 6.75 ERA in his last ten starts), he's had a whole offseason to regain his May magic, when he was 2-0 with a 1.14 ERA in nine games, three of which he started. He can put up solid numbers for the Braves if his work load isn't abused to much.
While the Braves don't have a rotation including three Hall of Famers like they did in 1995, they have a solid rotation. The rotation which was viewed as a gaping hole going into the offseason can now be viewed as a strength for the Braves. Now, Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer, Chipper Jones, and Yunel Escobar just have to provide offensive spark.
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