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The Atlanta Braves Suddenly Need A Starter

I think it was Earl Wilson who said baseball is a nervous breakdown, divided into nine innings, or something to that effect. I imagine the Atlanta Braves are starting to relate to that sentiment.

On May 20, the Braves beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 in rather classic Braves style — with a win, a hold and a save from Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. They were 25-15 and stood atop the National League East by a game-and-a-half and appeared to be a serious playoff contender — if not the likely NL East champs. Since then, they’ve gone 9-16, they’re 4.5 games back of the Washington Nationals and they’re fighting to stay in contention for a wild card spot.

That they now need pitching is a little ironic, considering it was a position of strength heading into the season. Ligaments, it seems, are fickle things.

The Braves opened the season with Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson as rotation locks. The club was in the enviable position of being able to choose among Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado to round out the staff (well, technically two of them as Hudson returned from back surgery). The team also had Arodys Vizcaino tearing through their minor league system. It was their pitching depth that allowed them to jettison Derek Lowe to save a few bucks in the off-season.

And then the bell rang.

Jurrjens was throwing a change up and a fastball that were practically indistinguishable and earned himself a trip to the minors. Mike Minor has struggled with consistency and command, possessing a 6.04 ERA (5.14 FIP). Brandon Beachy faces the specter of Dr. James Andrews’ scalpel, which was inside the elbow of Arodys Vizcaino only weeks ago.

Atlanta has gotten a respectable performance from Randall Delgado, but his 4.48 walk rate rarely allows him to pitch past the fifth inning — a problem that Minor also shares. This is a big reason why the Braves have one of the hardest-worked bullpens in baseball.

What they’re left with is Hanson, Hudson, two inconsistent starters in Delgado and Minor and what appears to be the Jurrjens reclamation project. And perhaps that could be enough. Delgado and Minor have shown some recent improvement, and reports are that Jurrjens was back to hitting 90 mph to 91 mph with his fastball in recent outings. If one falters, they could turn to Kris Medlen. They also could look to Julio Teheran. But the Braves rotation is no longer ironclad — and with few other holes on the team to fill (a point I’ll address in a moment) — it might be the best possible place to provide an upgrade.

The Braves have a current payroll in excess of $93 million, they’re already paying Derek Lowe $10 million to not pitch for them. And there’s been no indication that the team intends to take on payroll in a rent-a-player scenario. Still, the Braves could target any one of Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon McCarthy, Matt Garza, Shaun Marcum or even Joe Saunders and see a pretty immediate payoff.

The status of the Braves’ position players makes it difficult to see where other improvements could be made. Assuming good health, first base, second base, third base, catcher and all outfield positions are accounted for. If Freddie Freeman or Chipper Jones became seriously injured, there’s potential for making a trade for a guy like Kevin Youkilis. Given the fragility of Jones and the repeated cortisone injections in Freeman’s finger, that might not be a bad idea.

Of course, they didn’t get the kind of offensive or defensive production they expected from Tyler Pastornicky, who recently returned to the minors. On the season, Braves shortstops have combined for a -8.5 UZR and a .247/.284/.340 slash line, good for only a 68 wRC+.

But in his first 15 games, Andrelton Simmons is making them forget all that. He has hit .333/.393/.529 early on and is playing his signature great defense. But even if Simmons lays an egg, there’s not much in the way of shortstop talent on the market — that is, unless you believe the Chicago Cubs would part with Starlin Castro or the Houston Astros would deal Jed Lowrie.

The Braves have the third-highest team batting WAR at 14.5, wrapped up almost entirely in team defense, which UZR says is the best in baseball. Atlanta’s team pitching WAR is 4.7, or 24th overall. They’re losing arguably their best starting pitcher in Brandon Beachy and are replacing him with a guy who gave up 68 hits and 33 earned runs in 56.1 innings at Triple-A this season. He also struck out only 28 batters. Their No. 2 starter has bone spurs in his ankle. They have two starters who average fewer than six innings per start, which has taxed the bullpen.

The addition of a starting pitcher would go a long way towards repressing the nervous breakdown.