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Atlanta Needs Its Starting Pitching Depth

The Braves made the very first trade of the offseason by sending Derek Lowe — and 2/3 of his $15 million salary — to the Indians. Though the return was nothing to write home about, Lowe represented unnecessary depth. The Braves had plenty of rotation candidates and freeing up $5 million afforded the team more wiggle room to pursue future transactions. But even after dealing from its major strength, the Braves still employ a whopping nine starting pitchers that could conceivably vie for a spot in the rotation.

Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are locks. The latter two spots will feature some combination of Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. The Braves clearly have a number of solid pitchers at their disposal, and have been linked to numerous teams in trade discussions. After all, dealing from a strength to fix a weakness is a solid business practice.

However, in this case, the Braves would be better off recognizing that their depth doesn’t exactly qualify as a surplus. A surplus implies that the Braves don’t have a need for all nine of the aforementioned pitchers. Given the checkered injury histories of some and the likely innings limits imposed on others to avoid falling prey to the Verducci Effect, they probably will need all eight next season.

Teams don’t necessarily plan to use eight pitchers at the season’s outset, but the Braves may find themselves in that very position heading into spring training.

Tim Hudson is 35 years old and two years removed from major surgery. He threw 215 innings last season and 228.2 the year before, but his health and the effects of his age will remain questionable until he retires. Tommy Hanson made just 22 starts last season — none after August 6 — due to shoulder problems. He is still very young but he took a definite step backwards in establishing durability. Jair Jurrjens started 23 games and continued to establish himself as injury-prone; in 2010, he threw 116.1 innings over 20 starts.

Brandon Beachy had a breakout campaign with a gaudy strikeout rate, but he threw just 146 innings across all levels, up slightly from his 135 innings in 2010 and his 76 innings in 2009. Kris Medlen was a year removed from surgery, and he threw a combined 212 innings over 2009-10. Youngsters like Minor, Teheran, Delgado and Vizcaino each carry significant playing time risk as well. None seems suited to throw 165+ innings at the major league level next season, and that’s assuming each remains healthy for the long haul.

In 2013-14, the Braves might get 200+ IP seasons from Hanson, Minor, Teheran and Vizcaino, but in 2012 the closest they have to a lock for chomping down those innings is a pitcher that turns 36 years old during the season.

That doesn’t exactly sound like a team that should look to move one or more of these pitchers to shore up a deficiency elsewhere. It sounds more like a team that will allot 10+ starts to seven or eight pitchers over the course of the season, breaking in the youngsters to build up their major league durability and throwing more into the fire when the inevitable injury bug rears its ugly head.

Then there’s the matter that the Braves likely wouldn’t solve their other pressing issues by trading one or more of these starters. The two major issues in Atlanta seem to be replacing Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and importing a young center fielder in case extending, or re-signing Michael Bourn proves too costly for their liking. These are legitimate issues to ponder, but ones that wouldn’t be properly addressed by dealing more from the starting pitching depth. The Braves could try to acquire Asdrubal Cabrera or Alexei Ramirez, talented shortstops signed to team-friendly contracts, but in the process would have to bank on the health and durability of risky pitchers as the SP pool thins.

Using the newly freed-up money from the Lowe deal to send an offer Rafael Furcal‘s way makes more sense than trying to trade Jurrjens and Minor.

On the other hand, the Braves simply might not be able to acquire the players they desire in these hypothetical trades. Teams aren’t going to part with a Lorenzo Cain-type for Jurrjens, and the Braves would have to include multiple prospects to extract an asset valued as highly as a center field prospect. If they were fine operating in this manner and subsequently loading up on Tim Redding-types on minor league deals in case of an emergency, that’s one thing, but the Braves haven’t shown a knack for that type of activity over the last few seasons.

There is a difference between properly utilizing depth and taking advantage of a surplus. While having nine starting pitchers for five spots might seem like a surplus, the extenuating circumstances here suggest the Braves’ best bet is to hold onto everyone.