Starting pitching is the horse that will carry the Braves towards the playoffs. Atlanta is one of the few teams in baseball that has both quantity and quality in their rotation and it's that rotation that has fueled the raised expectations that surround the 2010 Atlanta Braves. Gone is Javier Vazquez and his 238 strikeouts - he was lights out last year and his durability and consistency will be missed. The Braves do return young guns Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson and veterans Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami.
Sinkerballer Derek Lowe will be the opening day starter, but he is probably the fourth best pitcher on staff. The following are my player previews for each starters, the pitchers are listed in an order that I believe best represents their ability.
Number One Starter - Jair Jurrjens
Key 2009 Stats - 14-10, 2.60 ERA, 215 IP, 1.214 WHIP, 2.03 SO/BB
Jurrjens has emerged as one of the best, and unheralded, young pitchers in baseball. He showed the ability to pitch deep into games last season, and his consistency for such a young player is very impressive. Jurrjens pounds the strike zone with a fastball in the low 90s, a slider and a very good changeup. He's has a veteran-like ability to add and subtract velocity from his fastball to keep hitters off-balance, and when needed he can pump his fastball up into the mid 90s. Barring injury, Jurrjens is a rotation mainstay and will help anchor the Atlanta staff for years to come.
Number Two Starter - Tommy Hanson
Key 2009 Stats - 11-4, 2.89 ERA, 127.2 IP, 1.183 WHIP, 2.52 SO/BB
Some rookies ease their way into the big leagues, and some......well......some announce their arrival with all the subtlety of one of Keyshawn Johnson's business suits. Tommy Hanson went with the latter - he didn't just look like he belonged at the highest level; there were times he looked like he should be at a higher level. There are only a few pitchers in either league with the combination of raw stuff, command and makeup that the lanky right-hander hurler possesses. He attacks hitters with a four-pitch revolver that is almost impossible to solve. He has a plus curveball, a plus slider, a plus fastball and an above-average changeup. He's the most complete and talented pitcher on the staff and with a little more experience he will develop into the staff ace for the next decade.
Number Three Starter - Tim Hudson
Key 2009 Stats - 2-1, 3.61 ERA, 42.1 IP, 1.465 WHIP, 2.31 SO/BB
Hudson looked good in limited innings last season, the veteran will be counted on to fill a much larger role in 2010. Hudson has pitched great this spring, and although that can be misleading, it's still nice to see an ERA of 1.80 through 20 innings for Huddy. He hasn't been the same pitcher that he was during his dominate run with Oakland, but he remains a solid starter that slots in nicely in the middle of the Atlanta rotation.
Number Four Starter - Derek Lowe
Key 2009 Stats - 15-10, 4.67 EA, 194.2 IP, 1.515 WHIP, 1.76 SO/BB
It was a lost season for Lowe who swung madly between very good and horrifically bad. There were some great outings, the season opener for example, and some outings that were almost too bad to put into textual form. To say the least, the Braves expected more from their $60 million dollar pitcher - still there are reasons for optimism. Lowe isn't expected to lead the rotation, so any improvement from him would simply be gravy for Bobby Cox and he's still a durable workhorse that will throw around 200 innings. Lowe has had mixed results this spring - and I wouldn't expect a huge rebound season from him.
Number Five Starter - Kenshin Kawakami
Key 2009 Stats - 7-12, 3.86 ERA, 156.1 IP, 1.343 WHIP, 1.84 SO/BB
I loved what I saw out of Kawakami last season - fans need to remember that Kenshin was brought over from Japan to provide reliable innings in the back of the rotation, and that is exactly what he did. At times, he did much more than that, his best performance of the season came when he beat Roy Halladay and the Toronto Blue Jays 1-0 by pitching eight shutout innings. When you examine his overall body of work and realize that he had to make significant baseball and cultural adjustments you can really see what he can bring to the Atlanta rotation. It wouldn't surprise me to see an even better season from Kawakami in 2010.
Ranking the NL East Starting Rotations
1. Atlanta Braves
The Braves don't have the best pitcher in the division, but they have the deepest staff by far. They also have star power at the top with Jurrjens and Hanson.
2. Philadelphia Phillies
Halladay and the four guys that work at my local Blockbuster would make a decent rotation - "Doc" is such an amazing pitcher and he seems to be getting better with age. Watch his numbers explode with a full-time move to the National League. The Phils are counting on the continued success of J.A. Happ and a bounce back season from former ace, Cole Hamels. Blanton and Moyer don't do much for me.
3. Florida Marlins
Josh Johnson is a bonafide top-flight pitcher and is coming off another strong season for the Marlins. There is plenty of potential behind him, but there is also some big question marks. Nolasco bottomed out last year and needs to return to the form he displayed in 2008. Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad are young pitchers that struggle with inconsistent performances.
4. New York Mets
They still have Johan Santana at the top, but even the mighty Santana is showing signs of slowing down. His fastball doesn't have the same zip and he only threw 166 innings last year as he was shut down early to get some bone chips removed from his left elbow. After Johan, the rotation is filled with problems, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey were bad last season and have looked lost this spring. John Maine is probably their #2 starter, which just about sums up the staff.
5. Washington Nationals
Any rotation with Jason Marquis as the staff ace is going to struggle, and I like Marquis, but he shouldn't ever be starting an opening game at the major league level. This staff has the potential to improve quickly if Jordan Zimmerman gets healthy, Stephen Strasburg gets promoted and Chien-Ming Wang is able to bounce back.
Next up will be a preview of the Braves bullpen.