The Atlanta Braves have a history of quality starting pitching, and that success has extended into recent years. By earned run average, their rotation has ranked among the top ten in baseball in each of the last four years, including a 3.75 ERA last season.
This spring, the starting rotation is already set with the only caveat being Brandon Beachy‘s expected midseason return from Tommy John surgery.
Right-hander Tim Hudson will headline the Braves’ rotation in his fifteenth big-league season. Though he remains effective at age 37, his fantasy relevancy is slipping. He should still post a solid ERA and limit his WHIP, but he’s not a top-tier starting option. His 5.13 K/9 strikeout rate was his worst performance since 2004 with the Oakland Athletics. The velocity on his fastball also slipped 1.5 mph from an average of 90.5 mph in 2011 to just 89.0 mph in 2012. Atlanta should be a good ballclub — so he will likely have an opportunity to accumulate 15+ wins again this season — but any owner who drafts Hudson will have to make up for the lack of strikeouts elsewhere in their rotation.
Perhaps the biggest fantasy surprise down the stretch was the unbelievable performance by 27-year-old Kris Medlen. He dominated the National League with a 1.57 ERA and 2.42 FIP on the year, but as a starter, those numbers were even more ridiculous. In the rotation, Medlen posted a 0.97 ERA with a 2.22 FIP and struck out more than a batter per inning. Sure, he benefited from a .261 BABIP and stranded 85% of his baserunners, but normal regression would still make him a very valuable fantasy starter.
For Medlen, the real question is whether the uptick in strikeouts is for real. He only has a career 7.90 K/9 strikeout rate. Should owners draft Medlen, expecting the right-hander to whiff roughly a batter per inning yet again?
His swinging strike rate jumped to 10.1% last season, and his O-Swing% was a career-high 33.8%. Medlen has always had a good changeup. His career swinging-strike rate on his changeup is 26.0%, which happened to be his exact swinging-strike rate on his changeup in 2012. The jump in strikeouts appears to lie in the effectiveness of his curveball. Opposing hitters swung and missed 13.2% of the time on Medlen’s curveballs last year, and his previous career high was 10.9% in 2009. His O-Swing% on his curveballs last season increased to 45.5% (previous career high: 34.0%, 2009). If his curveball is that effective once again in 2013, he should be able to sustain the increased strikeout rate.
Mike Minor may not be on too many owners’ radars due to his 4.12 ERA, but he dominated once the summer months rolled around. From the beginning of June to the end of the season, Minor compiled a 2.74 ERA and was one of the better starters in the National League. His strikeout rate did drop, though, and his velocity did decrease from an average of 91.2 mph on his fastball in 2011 to 90.3 mph in 2012. If he can rediscover that velocity and continue his improvement in walk rate into the upcoming season, he’s a viable mid-round pick in most fantasy formats.
Right-hander Julio Teheran may have seen his stock fall last year amongst reports of diminishing velocity, but he’s still the 44th-ranked prospect in the game according to Baseball America and has thrown the ball well this spring. The 22-year-old hurler should be available late in drafts and is one of the more obvious buy-low candidates this year because he has the potential to help in all major categories for starting pitchers. Then again, if he struggles for the first two or three months of the season and Brandon Beachy’s rehab moves along as expected, he could be bounced out of the rotation and owners could be carrying dead weight on the bench.
Paul Maholm is currently expected to break camp in the starting rotation. He enjoyed what was arguably his best stretch on the mound after being traded to Atlanta with a 3.54 ERA, as well as a career-best 3.76 FIP and 7.73 K/9 strikeout rate. The uptick in strikeout rate extended to his time with Chicago last year, too, and that can perhaps be explained by his abandonment of his fastball. He threw his fastball only 41.4% of the time last season, which was the lowest percentage of his career by a significant margin.
It remains to be seen whether Maholm will be able to maintain that increased strikeout rate. If he does, the southpaw could prove to have sneaky value late in drafts or on the waiver wire. If he reverts back to his career norms, though, Maholm could be the leading candidate to be ousted from the rotation once right-hander Brandon Beachy returns from Tommy John surgery he underwent last summer.
Beachy cruised through the National League to begin the season in 2012, only to see his impressive campaign cut short due to an elbow injury. Though, fantasy owners shouldn’t expect his 2.00 ERA to be repeated because he benefited from a .200 BABIP and also saw his strikeout rate drop from 10.74 K/9 to 7.56 K/9. His velocity dropped a mile per hour, and his swinging-strike rate also dropped significantly. Perhaps that can be attributed to his injured elbow, but it seems wrong to expect Beachy to bounce back across the board after returning from serious elbow surgery. Of course, he can still reasonably be expected to provide above-average production once he returns, which may be sometime in June. He recently threw his third bullpen session of the spring and is considered on schedule for his rehab.
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