In the matter of 48 hours, the Braves may have lost 40% of their rotation in several meaningless games. Sunday afternoon, Kris Medlen galloped off the mound during his start against the Mets, clutching his right forearm.
The injury was preliminarily diagnosed as a strained right forearm. But of course, when an injury is first diagnosed as a forearm strain, it can often be an injury to the UCL. With Medlen’s injury history — he tore his UCL in 2010 — Tommy John surgery seems inevitable.
Then today, pitcher Brandon Beachy, who also had Tommy John surgery in 2012, was removed after the second inning, complaining of bicep discomfort. The Braves neglected to re-sign Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm this offseason, and their biggest offseason acquisition, righthander Gavin Floyd, is coming off a Tommy John surgery of his own and won’t be ready until at least May. With Mike Minor suffering from damage to his shoulder and “groin,” making him questionable for Opening Day, the Braves pitching staff seems in dire straits.
Oddly, this late in the offseason, here is still a quality arm to be had through free agency in Ervin Santana. Unfortunately for the Braves, Santana doesn’t look like a possibility.
With Medlen, Beachy, and Minor sidelined for extended periods of time, the Braves go from having one of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball to one that is stretched thin. Behind Medlen, Teheran, Beachy and Minor, here’a what the depth chart looks like: Alex Wood, who made 31 appearances and 11 starts in his rookie year, posting a 3.13 ERA. David Hale, a talented arm with only two games of major league experience. And veteran journyman Freddy Garcia, whose fastball no longer sniffs 90 MPH who put up a 5.77 ERA in 11 appearances with Baltimore last year before a borderline miraculous 20 inning stint with the Braves. In terms of prospects, their best arm, Lucas Sims, made it only as far as the South Atlantic League last year. J.R. Graham and Cody Martin are options, but Graham has suffered arm injuries and Martin likely lacks the pure stuff to be successful in the major leagues.
EDIT: A previous version of this piece referred to Sean Gilmartin as an option for the Braves. Gilmartin was traded to Minnesota for Ryan Doumit this past offseason.
So with no money and limited in-house talent, what can the Braves do?
They could pursue some lesser options than Ervin Santana on the free agent market. Except that at this stage of the offseason, there are few lesser options available. Here is a list of the available free agent starters with major league experience, per MLBTradeRumors:
Jon Garland (hasn’t been a useful major leaguer since 2010)
Jair Jurrjens (hasn’t been successful at any level since 2011)
Jeff Karstens (coming off major shoulder surgery, won’t be ready until second half)
Jason Marquis (had Tommy John surgery in July, won’t be ready until second half)
Jeff Niemann (coming off major shoulder surgery, won’t be ready until second half)
Clayton Richard (followed up three decent years with an atrocious one)
Ervin Santana (too expensive)
Barry Zito (taking the year off)
I suppose Richard is an option, but the Braves are looking to contend, and signing him would be scraping the very bottom of the barrel. If the Braves want a quality starter, they’ll have to acquire one via trade. Earlier this offseason, the Braves had reported interest in Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. However, those talks simmered after the Cubs made demands the Braves considered unrealistic:
The Braves were genuinely interested in finding out what it would take to bring Samardzija to Atlanta. That interest quickly died when the Cubs indicated they would be looking for a return package that included either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton.
And three months ago, the Braves weren’t in the dire pitching situation they find themselves in today. Now, three weeks out from Opening Day, the Cubs have all the leverage — they might ask for even more than the aforementioned ludicrous package. This deal, frankly, is a non-starter. The Braves are not going to break up the core of a team that won 96 games last year for a pitcher with two years left of team control and a career 4.19 ERA — that wouldn’t make the team stronger either in the present or in the long run. And the price for the other big name starting pitcher rumored to be on the market this offseason, David Price, would be impossible to meet. The Braves simply don’t have the prospects, nor do they have the resources to pay Price, who is due over $10 million this year alone.
So what options do the Braves have? Realistically, only one — they have to stick with what they’ve got. Despite the barrage of bad news, this team is still in pretty good shape. Their position players are healthy, the core of their team is young and talented, and their bullpen is among the best in the league. If Medlen is indeed lost for the season, and Beachy’s injury is more serious than he let on (he doesn’t appear to be concerned), the best course of action would be to enter the start of the season utilizing the options they have. Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution details the Braves’ likely strategy:
What they wouldn’t do, I was and still am fairly confident of, is give up their top young prospects now in a panic move to replace Medlen, if Medlen must be replaced. The Braves have more major league starting-pitch depth than many teams, and a better bullpen than most. They are probably going to need to need both of those components to get through this in playoff contention, but that’s certainly doable.
And as O’Brien notes in the piece, if they find the pieces they have aren’t enough to contend, the Braves could always make a move at the trade deadline. The timing of the injury and the Braves’ financial situation have forced the Braves into a corner. But that corner is far from the worst place to be.