- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Fantasy baseball owners already know how good Atlanta Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson is, but many don't have any idea that a minor league teammate of his put up similarly outstanding numbers the past few seasons yet wasn't awarded an opportunity to start with the big club. But now that Jair Jurrjens has been placed on the disabled list because of a strained left hamstring, get to know Kris Medlen, because he will have the chance to start every fifth day for the foreseeable future ... and he might not leave the rotation.
Hanson was an 11-game winner and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting last season. Looking at his minor league numbers, it was easy to see Hanson had promise. Then again, Medlen looked pretty good, too. Check these comparisons.
• Hanson: In 11 starts at Triple-A Gwinnett last season, he fanned 90 hitters and had a 1.49 ERA. A year earlier at Double-A Mississippi, Hanson had a 3.03 ERA in 18 starts.
• Medlen: He went 5-0 in eight games (six starts) with a 1.19 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett in 2009. In 2008 at Double-A Mississippi, he had a 3.52 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings. He wasn't quite Hanson, but he was pretty strong.
I've been eyeing Medlen for a few years in deep fantasy leagues and NL-only formats, in part because we know the Braves have had positive results developing homegrown pitching talent. It was just a matter of waiting for this right-hander to get a rotation opportunity. The Braves couldn't make room in the rotation for him to begin the season, although he did make four starts in 2009, struggling with a 6.38 ERA. Then again, he allowed more runs than innings in just one of those starts, so I'm not reading a ton into those numbers. He did OK as a reliever (3.47 ERA), and he posted a 2.85 ERA after the All-Star break.
The Braves made major offseason news by trading Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees for three players, including outfielder Melky Cabrera, a deal many viewed as lopsided in favor of the Yankees. How does it look now that Vazquez has been awful? Anyway, the Braves justified the move, in effect, because they have rotation depth in Hanson, Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson and Kenshin Kawakami, with Medlen next in line.
Medlen will take Jurrjens' start Saturday on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies, which is hardly a fortuitous matchup. But hey, it's a start (literally). After that, if the schedule holds form, Medlen would likely face the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds at home, then pitch on the road against the Florida Marlins. None of those matchups seem terribly scary.
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I'd call Medlen, who won Wednesday's game with a scoreless relief inning, a must-add for NL-only owners, using the same principle that pretty much anyone with a strong minor league pedigree getting an opportunity is worth a look. For deeper mixed leagues, I like to take chances adding pitchers with upside and see what happens. If Medlen fails to impress, I can always drop him. I just don't see the point in adding Brian Bannister types, since we know they have limited upside. If Medlen turns out to be anything close to Hanson, though, you'll be glad you spent the bench spot on him. I wouldn't bother with Medlen in 10-team leagues yet; even Randy Wolf, a solid pitcher, is barely owned in a third of those shallow leagues.
As for Jurrjens, I'd argue a DL stint isn't such a bad thing, since his season ERA was a miserable 6.38, and it's likely he was still feeling the aftereffects of the sore shoulder that hampered him much of spring training. Jurrjens made it through just one inning in his last outing before being removed, probably more of a case of being cautious because the Braves do have a ready-made replacement. Don't drop Jurrjens in 10-team standard mixed leagues yet, if you can help it. Remember, this guy finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2008, winning 13 games with a 3.68 ERA, and last season he lowered that ERA to 2.60 and won 14 games. Missing three or four starts isn't a big deal in the big picture.
Of course, we could also find in the coming weeks that Jurrjens has a more significant injury and needs to miss more time, which is why I wouldn't avoid adding Medlen in a fantasy league on the premise he'll make only a few starts. He could make a lot of starts. He could also make those starts in place of Kawakami, who has lost all five of his starts this season and sports a 5.47 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and low strikeout rate. He pitched in relief at the end of last season and could get demoted to the bullpen again.