Braves’ patchwork rotation a far cry from team’s heyday

 

Here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a major league rotation and probably won’t see again. With prospect Rob Whalen set to make his major league debut tonight for the Braves in a start against Pittsburgh, Atlanta’s current rotation will have three rookies with less than than five starts apiece: Tyrell Jenkins (4), Joel De La Cruz (3) and Whalen.

Tyrell Jenkins' four major league starts are the second-most in the Braves' current patchwork rotation. (AP photo)

Tyrell Jenkins’ four major league starts are the second-most in the Braves’ current patchwork rotation. (AP photo)

Relatively speaking, starter Mike Foltynewicz, who made his 28th major league start last night, is a seasoned veteran. And he’d be the first to tell you he still has so much to learn including trying to figure out how to get through the sixth inning.

Assuming the Braves bring back Aaron Blair from Triple-A on Saturday to fill in for the DL’d Julio Teheran, four members of the patchwork rotation would have a combined 20 starts at that point (including Whalen’s tonight and Jenkins’ start Thursday).

Blair is 0-5 with a 7.99 ERA in 11 major league starts and the Braves would prefer he stay in Triple-A longer after being sent down twice this season, but I don’t see where they have any other reasonable options except bringing him back, now that Teheran is out and Lucas Harrell was traded last week.

Tonight, Whalen will become 13th Braves pitcher to make a start this season, which includes 11 guys who’ve made have made multiple starts. This really is pretty amazing, considering the season is just two-thirds complete, with 56 games to play.

Since the Braves’ worst-to-first turnaround season in 1991, the only other times they’ve used more than 10 starters in a quarter-century was 2008, when they used 11, and 2006, when they used 12.

Which brings me to something that Brian Snitker has said a couple of times since he took over as interim Braves manager after the firing of Fredi Gonzalez in mid-May.

After his first couple of weeks on the job as interim manager, and again a couple of weeks ago, Snitker commented about how amazed he was, looking back to his years as a coach on Bobby Cox’s staff, by how easy that Hall of Famer made it look managing the team. How Cox seemed to take it all in stride.

When I mentioned this to Bobby on Saturday during Braves alumni weekend, the Skipper smiled and tried to play it off. “I had some better players in those days (than) right now,” he said. “But our minor league system’s filled up, and it really looks good. And I know we’re going to be pursuing trades and maybe free agents and things like that for 2017, and see what we can put together. I think we’re going to have a good team.”

Cox had a point about better players. Certainly far, far more established players, at least a handful of them star-caliber players on most of those Cox teams.

He was being typically modest about his accomplishments as manager, but it’s certainly true that managing the team these past several seasons, and even during Cox’s final seasons at the helm – he retired after the 2010 season – presents a whole different set of challenges than during their run of 14 consecutive division titles through 2005, and especially during the heyday decade of the 1990s when they were fixtures in the NLCS and played in five World Series.

The Braves ranked among the biggest spenders in baseball in the ‘90s, supplementing a rich farm system by signing free agents and trading for high-salaried players to add the missing pieces needed in playoff runs.

Their lineup was obviously far more deep and potent in those days than it has been lately. But for today let’s focus strictly on the starting pitching and show how different it was managing the Braves in that aspect of the game during the ‘90s and into the 2000s, compared to what it’s been most of the past decade and especially right now in the midst of their rebuilding project.

Snitker is faced with constant roster churn as the Braves move players back and forth from Triple-A, scramble to release traded or demoted players, and deal with more pitching injuries than Cox ever faced in a season back in the day when he and pitching coach Leo Mazzone had not only the best but the most durable rotation in baseball.

When most of those rotations were built around at least two Hall of Famers and some of them featured three – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz – well, it eliminated a lot of the headaches that Snitker and Braves player-personnel people face trying to maintain a rotation these days during the rebuild. Not to mention, most of those guys pitched at least seven innings and often eight or nine innings; there was no regular bullpen matchups-fest with multiple pitching changes for the last three or four innings night after night.

It should come as no big surprise that Braves starters’ 83 home runs allowed is third-most in the NL, behind the Diamondbacks (85) and ballpark-challenged Reds (102). This despite fact that Braves starters rank ninth in the NL in innings pitched, and the Braves play home games a ballpark that, with its deep power alleys, favors pitchers more than it does hitters.

Because the Braves have so many guys just getting their feet wet, trying to figure things out.

Consider just how dramatically different things are now than in the ‘90s for the Braves. Because not only are they young and trying to establish themselves now, but they’re also pitching in an era when workhorses like Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw stand out because there are so relatively few in the game any longer.

The Braves used to have at least three and usually four or even five such reliable innings-eaters in their rotations.

For example: The ’93 Braves used a total of six starters, with Maddux, Glavine Smoltz and Steve Avery all making 35-36 starts and pitching more than 220 innings, topped by Maddux’s 267 innings and eight complete games (he was 20-10 with a 2.36 ERA).

The ’94 Braves only had two starts – two — made by someone outside their regular five-man rotation of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Avery and Kent Mercker, and the ’95 Braves had three starts made by someone outside that same five-man rotation.

The ’97 Braves had four starters make at least 232 innings topped by Smoltz, who had 241 strikeouts in 256 innings. Think about that for a moment. Four starters with 232 or more innings. Julio Teheran’s career high is 221 innings, and that’s a hell of a lot these days.

The Braves aren’t lkely to have a starter with 200 innings this season now that Teheran is on the DL.

The ’98 Braves only had nine starts made by anyone outside the regular rotation, and the 2000 Braves only used six starters all season.

Even as recently as 2003, the Braves only used seven starters in the entire season – and that was a rotation that had injury-prone Mike Hampton and a 37-year-old Maddux, who still led the team with 36 starts.

Oh, my, how things have changed.

• I’ll close with this one from Robert Ellis, the title cut off his great album The Lights from the Chemical Plant.

“THE LIGHTS FROM THE CHEMICAL PLANT” by Robert Ellis

In a small town down on the highway to coast

Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

Factories and churches laid on dusty gravel roads
This is where they first met
Such a long time ago

Young lovers, wet behind the ears
Foolish and unguarded, falling blindly without fear
Skipping school and hopping fences
Making love down by the pier

Love like elements react
Constellations in the black

The lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
From a car parked by the ocean
What a vision to behold
The lights from the chemical plant

She says my heart is like an orphan
And your words are like home
I do not deserve such kindness
Keeps me warm down to my bones
You bear some strange familiar likeness
To a man I feel I know

As if to keep each other safe, they spent the night locked in embrace

And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all else seemed unstable
Like a watchtower, they were there
The lights from the chemical plant

All the years passed by them both not so unkindly
And whenever things got rough, the pain they’d share
But no matter when death comes it is untimely
As she sat next to him, and she tried hard to prepare

Hoping you still see them
Through the window, if you look they are still there
Open up your eyes just once more, darling
‘Cause without you I know I just can’t bear

The lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
I was sure they’d always be there
And then one day they were gone
The lights from the chemical plant


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