Full house: Atlanta Braves pitchers fight for five

Paul Maholm aims to secure a spot in the Atlanta Braves’ rotation. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Braves are in the midst of a division race for the NL East. At the same time, their starting pitchers are in the midst of their own race for a rotation spot that leads this team into the postseason.

At first, Frank Wren’s decision to pass on Ryan Dempster looked like “the one that got away,” but following Dempster’s last two starts for the Rangers, the non-trade has Wren looking like he “dodged a bullet.” In Dempster’s place is Paul Maholm, a fellow Cub who has shown some brilliance since donning a Braves uniform. Not to mention that the Braves can hang on to Randall Delgado, one of their prized pitching prospects. Wren’s choice to go out and find Ben Sheets, a pitcher who’s career was all but over, looked like a flash of clairvoyance through his first three starts. The initial poise and control that Sheets showed has dimmed somewhat, but the Braves remain hopeful that the spark becomes a flame. Kris Medlen has finally reclaimed his spot in the rotation and hasn’t wasted any time showing his grit and determination, tying John Smoltz‘s historic 15-win streak for the Braves.

But every game these starters make, from a week ago through the end of the month, is a tryout for who will represent the five-man rotation heading into October. And right now, no one wants to give any ground. Some people might think this kind of inter-team competition isn’t good for the club as a whole, but the Braves’ pitching woes throughout this season have made it necessary to make some hard decisions about who will be best suited to lead the team down the stretch.

Medlen seems to be the piece that made this competition come to life. Before coming out of the bullpen to make a start in place of an ailing Tommy Hanson, he seemed like the best fit for short and long relief. Even though many fans certainly remember how strong he came out the first time during the 2010 season, using him in combination with a strong starting staff, allowing him to pitch multiple days in a row was a one-two punch that couldn’t be ignored. However, his first start this season was so strong, it was an easy decision to give him a shot to do it again. Fortunately for the Braves, it came during a time when they needed some strength from their starting pitchers that seemed hard to find.

Earlier in the season, Mike Minor was definitely the weak link, posting a 7+ ERA through his first eight starts. There was a stretch where Braves fans cringed every time he made a start. However, through his last eight games, he’s given up thirteen earned runs, lowering his ERA to 4.74 and struck out 37. Certainly not the same pitcher he was two months ago, although the Braves have only won three of those eight starts. He hasn’t had much run support of late, but has been making a good case to stay in the rotation, even though he isn’t the only lefty available anymore, with the addition of Maholm.

The looming question is who loses their spot in the rotation?

Maholm has been extremely solid during his first three starts as a Brave. He’s pitched 23 innings, given up four runs and struck out 20. One of those games was a complete game shutout. Needless to say, at this pace, he’s guaranteed a spot.

It’s too early to make any hard predictions, with Hanson only throwing one game since coming off the DL. As far as performance is concerned, Hanson and Sheets are likely candidates for moving into the bullpen, which is down by one since Hanson was activated. But if those two perform at a decent clip in their next start or two, Minor is probably the pick.

This decision probably comes down to hierarchy and Minor is fairly low on the totem pole. It’s not an easy pill to swallow having Jair Jurrjens pitching for the Gwinnett Braves under a major league contract. So rather than have a high-paid starter in the bullpen, it makes more sense to have a younger pitcher there, much like Medlen has been, filling in gaps even if he has the ability to start games. That said, payroll-wise, Sheets is in the same position. He’s pitching on a minor league contract and having a veteran in the bullpen might not be such a bad thing.

No matter how it shakes out, the Braves pitching staff will be very strong coming in to September. Jonny Venters has regained most of the stuff he had last season, and continues to improve every outing. There’s nothing else I can say about Craig Kimbrel that isn’t obvious by now, and the rest of the bullpen is pulling its weight recently.

Pitching is going to carry the Braves as they hunt for their first NL East title in years, and they are lucky to be able to choose from the cream of their own crop.

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