The plot thickened for the Atlanta Braves rotation Tuesday, leaving fantasy owners to wonder which members of this pitching-rich organization can really be counted on the final few months. Left-hander Mike Minor seemed ticketed for the minors, but he tossed 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees. Right-hander Kris Medlen threw reasonably well for Triple-A Gwinnett in what is expected to be his final minor league start before promotion. And All-Star Game-bound right-hander Brandon Beachy, who is dealing with elbow soreness, had his start pushed back a few days to Saturday.
Seven different Braves pitchers have started a game this season, and by this time next week, Medlen should be the eighth. I like Medlen's future and can make the case he's the best buy-low option among all the rotation candidates for this season. Now 26 and recovered from Tommy John surgery, Medlen performed well as a starter through the minors and in 2010 with the Braves. Medlen also pitched well as a reliever this season until the Braves sent him down a few weeks ago to stretch out as a starter again. His last start for Gwinnett was supposed to be Tuesday, but Minor complicated matters with his performance.
My guess is Medlen could replace Minor or right-hander Randall Delgado by next week, or get another Triple-A start. On Tuesday, Medlen went six innings at Pawtucket, allowing six hits and four walks over six innings, including a home run to veteran minor league first baseman Mauro Gomez, who is, in fairness, slugging nearly .600. In Medlen's other two starts, he threw 7 1/3 innings, allowing four runs.
Those in NL-only leagues should add Medlen now, though. He's not an ace in the making, but by 2013, I envision him getting 30-plus starts, 150-170 strikeouts and a 3.50 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. If you like those numbers, Medlen is a guy to add for this season as well in deeper formats. Back in 2010, he was viewed as an upside guy, and we should see it soon, at someone's expense.
Minor, meanwhile, thrived Tuesday, but his season ERA is 6.01, his WHIP 1.42. Last week, he allowed only one run to the Miami Marlins, but walked five in five innings and threw only 55 of 103 pitches for strikes. Once a top prospect, himself, Minor looks like an unfinished product. Right-handed hitters entered Tuesday with 12 home runs and a .538 slugging percentage off him. Don't give up on Minor in dynasty formats, but I'd call him free-agent fodder for 2012 and wouldn't be drawn in by his Tuesday performance.
As for the current Braves right-handers in the rotation, it sure looks like they're mainly sell-high options, at least to some degree. We shouldn't shy away from Beachy just because he's dealing with elbow soreness. A month ago, Chicago White Sox left-hander Chris Sale supposedly had a sore elbow as well, and he has been baseball's top pitcher since then. Beachy is, however, a regression candidate. He's been more successful this season because he's going deeper into games, with a reduced but still valuable strikeout rate. He enters Wednesday 11th among starting pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater, leading the NL in ERA and third in WHIP. He won't fall apart, unless an injury ruins things, but he's also unlikely to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA (he's at 1.98 now). Beachy hasn't come close to 200 innings in a season before, either, and even though Sale has looked great, that doesn't mean Beachy will overcome his elbow woes.
Meanwhile, right-hander Tommy Hanson has nice statistics, but last year's rotator cuff tear (no surgery) and this year's reduced velocity still scare me. Like Beachy, that doesn't mean I'd move Hanson at first opportunity, but I worry about his durability. His WHIP is 1.31, and his May numbers weren't good at all (4.65 ERA, 1.61 WHIP). I can't view him as a buy-low option.
As for the accomplished Tim Hudson, who missed a weekend start because of an ankle injury and should face the Yankees on Wednesday (on ESPN), I can't say I'm too concerned. His WHIP is 1.19, and he has been a bit all-or-nothing so far, with five outings of two or fewer runs and three others with five or more. He has allowed a mere one home run in 54 innings, which is obviously excellent, but likely unsustainable, even for an extreme ground ball pitcher. Additionally, the gains he made in strikeout rate last season have gone away. Hudson should keep his WHIP low and win games, but he's not a top-30 starting pitcher anymore.
Add it all up and the best buy-low options among potential Braves starting pitchers really are Medlen and perhaps 21-year-old Julio Teheran, who produced a misleading outing Sunday. He actually pitched well but put a few men on base in the fifth inning, and reliever Livan Hernandez -- who has not started a game -- allowed them to score. Teheran was sent back to Gwinnett but will be back at some point.
At this point, it's easier to expect something from Teheran than 2011 All-Star Jair Jurrjens. I was at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last Friday to see Jurrjens -- as well as Domonic Brown and others -- and while Jurrjens' line seems fine, with two runs and six hits allowed in six innings, his velocity was down and Iron Pigs hitters were having little issue squaring up his fastball and off-speed offerings. Jurrjens had a 2.96 ERA over 23 starts for the Braves last year and was a 22nd-rounder in ESPN average live drafts this year (66th among starting pitchers), but it's hard to envision him helping the Braves anytime soon. His ERA at Triple-A is 5.26 with only 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Ultimately, according to the current Player Rater, the top Braves starting pitchers are Beachy, Hanson, Hudson, Delgado, Medlen (in relief) and then Minor, Teheran and Jurrjens. For the rest of the season, I'd rank this crew Hudson, Beachy, Hanson, Medlen and Teheran.