- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
On the surface, it appears that the Atlanta Braves have been blessed with much luck concerning the health of their starting pitchers this season. But that the luck is changing. They entered Thursday having used a mere six starting pitchers all season, tied with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics for fewest this season, and one of those fellows has started only once. But things have changed recently, of course, as underrated lefty Paul Maholm hit the disabled list with a left wrist contusion and veteran right-hander Tim Hudson saw his season end prematurely in a fluke incident Wednesday with New York Mets speedster Eric Young Jr.
From a fantasy and even real-life perspective, though, I don’t think the Braves are going to be worse off when Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy join the rotation permanently. And both are really, really good. Wood has made one start this season and had been scheduled to pitch Thursday before the Hudson injury. I’ve been touting him as a fantasy addition for 12-team leagues and deeper ones for a while, waiting for his eventual promotion. A few weeks ago, the Braves sent the left-hander to Triple-A Gwinnett to get stretched out -- he’s been a long reliever for the Braves after starting throughout the minors -- and word is that he’ll be capped at 90 pitches against the New York Mets. No matter, he’s sticking around.
Beachy, of course, is a bit more accomplished at the big league level, having struck out 169 hitters in a mere 141 2/3 innings in his breakout 2011 season and then posting a league-leading 2.00 ERA over 13 starts in 2012 before his elbow blew out. Beachy’s WHIP was 0.963 in that injury-shortened season, and his strikeout rate remained strong. He’s been close to returning to the Braves from Tommy John surgery for a month now, and the unfortunate Hudson injury clears room for him. Nothing against Maholm and Hudson, but Wood and Beachy can certainly be upgrades, and fantasy owners should get interested quickly.
Hudson was owned in more than 70 percent of ESPN standard leagues entering his Wednesday start at Citi Field, which he won with 7 2/3 strong innings. Then Young awkwardly and unintentionally stepped on and broke Hudson’s ankle on a play at first base. Hudson had won four consecutive outings, always helps fantasy owners with WHIP and has been durable for more than a decade, and we should thank him for that, but now he must be dropped in all formats. His season is over and, at 38, he’s a poor keeper candidate. Plus, he might be on another team, and in this case, it would likely adversely affect his projection.
Here’s what I see happening with the Braves rotation from here on out: Wood, 22, has made an impressive and quick run through the Braves system after being a second-round choice in the 2012 draft. He will strike hitters out, and after he pitches well Thursday, he’ll be a top-50 mixed league starter the rest of this season. I have trusted Atlanta starters for two decades as the coaches rarely make poor decisions about who should be in the rotation. I would take Wood over a few names among the top 50 starting pitchers on the Player Rater, including Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, A.J. Griffin, Jorge De La Rosa, Kyle Lohse, Scott Feldman, Eric Stults, Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman.
Beachy returns for a pair of enticing starts next week, at home against the Colorado Rockies and at Philadelphia against an underachieving team that thought it was wise to hit Delmon Young cleanup Wednesday. I like Beachy, due to the strikeout potential, more than Wood, and more than what Hudson would have done, and what Maholm will do. With underrated lefty Mike Minor -- tops among Braves starters this season on the Player Rater -- and young, improving right-hander Julio Teheran locked in place, that leaves three rotation spots. Wood and Beachy take two of them. I think Maholm’s health situation is minor. In fact, if the Braves didn’t have incredible depth, he probably would have avoided a DL stint in the first place. I think the Braves will promote Maholm back to the rotation next week, and Kris Medlen, the darling of 2012 but who has been merely average in 2013, will assume a bullpen role, perhaps a prominent one setting up.
Medlen has not looked like the same guy from last season, with an inflated hit rate, depressed strikeout mark and a lot more walks. His strand rate from 2012 has dropped quite a bit, and his .261 BABIP has risen, not surprisingly. He’s still useful, but I have to admit his fall from grace isn’t a surprise. I didn’t draft him anywhere. I didn’t expect him in a bullpen, but still, that’s the Braves. They develop great arms all the time. If only they could help the underwhelming offense. Medlen is scheduled to start this weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals, but based on a 5.45 ERA and 1.56 WHIP over the past month, I don’t know why you’d want to use him in that matchup regardless.
On the surface, it appears that the Atlanta Braves have been blessed with much luck concerning the health of their starting pitchers this season. But that the luck is changing.