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Braves have an ace in Kris Medlen

2/27/2014

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves have spent all spring hearing about how they don’t have an “ace” anymore, now that their old friend Tim Hudson is no longer among them.

Oh, really?

Well, here’s trivia question No. 1 for you: Since the 2012 All-Star break, Clayton Kershaw has the best ERA in baseball (1.92) among pitchers who have worked at least 250 innings. But guess who’s second (at 2.40)?

And while you ponder that one …

Here’s trivia question No. 2: Over the last eight full months of baseball (dating back to August 2012), name the only pitcher in either league who has won three pitcher-of-the-month awards?

OK, ready for those answers? They happen to be the same guy. And it wouldn’t be a guy named Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Kershaw, Zack Greinke or, well, anyone you’d think of off the top of your head.

The correct answer is Kris Medlen, of those very same “ace-less” Atlanta Braves.

And here’s our advice: Remember the name.

The Braves haven’t announced anything. But Medlen appears on track to be the Braves’ Opening Day starter. There’s a reason for that.

It’s the same reason he started their first game of the postseason in each of the last two Octobers. It’s the same reason they’ve found a way to go 30-14 in his regular-season starts over the last two years.

And the reason is: Kris Medlen is on the road to being something special, one of those rare pitchers who is more than the sum of his radar-gun readings.

“He’s been great,” said Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella on Thursday, after Medlen had spun two innings of two-hit, one-run baseball in his spring debut against Detroit. “I don’t know where we would have been without him the past two years.

“Look, the fact that he’s not 6 feet tall and that fact that he doesn't throw 95 [miles per hour] makes it seem like he’s not a power guy,” Coppopella said. “But he’s very good with what he does. He plays to his strengths. And he does pretty much everything that he can to help himself. He’s a huge part of our staff. And we hope he will be for a long time.”

Well, however big a part of the Braves’ staff Medlen has been until now, here’s a bulletin for you: He’s about to become an even bigger part.

By his own admission, he’s “the old guy” in this Atlanta rotation these days. At age 28. And without Hudson setting the tone for this group for the first time in a decade, Medlen has emerged as the most likely member of this rotation to take on at least a semblance of that responsibility.

“It’s a huge hole that he leaves,” Medlen said of Hudson on Thursday -- but he also reminded us of something, that it’s not a hole the Braves only began coping with two weeks ago.

After all, they also spent the final two months of last season without him, after Hudson fractured his ankle covering first base and never returned. So while “there’s no way we wanted his Braves career to go out like that,” Medlen said, “I think it led us into this year, where [the question is] can we do it without Huddy. But I don’t even know if that’s a question anymore because we did it for two months.”

Without Hudson around to liven up this show, though, it’s caused everyone to reflect on the impact he made on everyone. And that includes Kris Medlen.

“Huddy was so big in my development as a person on the field, but also off the field,” Medlen said. “I remember being in his hotel room in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and I was in the bullpen at the time. And he said, `Dude, you’re going to be one of our starters. You’re going to start for us for a long time.’ And when a guy like that says it and you’re in the bullpen, being a long guy, you’re like, `Yeah, whatever.’

“But hopefully, I’m going to be here long enough to prove him right. He always had my back. He was always on my side. And I have a lot of gratitude for having that kind of guy around me.”

Medlen may never be viewed as a classic “ace” just because of his fastball velocity (89-91 mph). But if you look beyond that, here’s what you find:

• He’s a strike-thrower whose 3.59-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the seventh best among all active starters with at least 500 career innings. “I always trust myself, and the guys behind me,” he said. “Of course, it’s easy when you have Andrelton Simmons behind you and Jason Heyward. They’ll run some balls down for you.”

• He’s the proud owner of one of the best changeups in the game. “Guys can know that that changeup’s coming,” Coppollela said, “and they still can’t hit it.”

• He’s developed a rapidly improving curve ball. “When he was out [in 2011] and had Tommy John surgery,” Coppolella said, “he worked on his curve ball, which has now turned into a very good pitch for him.”

• He’s such a good athlete, his manager Fredi Gonzalez says that “if you take Simmons out of the equation, he might be the best athlete on the field, or at least the best infielder on the field.”

• He’s a former college shortstop who thinks the game like an every-day player, even though he only gets to play every five games. “I just always understood the game,” Medlen said, “and understood the little things it takes -- the preparation and instincts. So it’s the game that’s exactly what I love. And it’s helped me, I think, as a pitcher, too.”

• And he’s one of the Braves’ most lovable personalities, a guy who Gonzalez quips “should be left-handed, some of the stuff he does. … It wouldn’t surprise me if he popped into the clubhouse one day on a skateboard. He’s just one of those guys. There are no 'big games’ for him. He’s like he goes out and plays like he’s in the back yard, like he’s having fun pitching, and having fun swinging the bat.”

So the questions will no doubt continue -- this month, next month and over the long season to come. There will be doubts about whether the Braves have That Guy in their rotation. And there will be doubts about whether Kris Medlen can turn into That Guy.

But the skeptics should know they’ll be aiming those doubts at a man who isn’t listening.

“I honestly don’t think I need to prove anybody wrong,” said Medlen. “For me, I’m kind of a positive thinker. So I’ve always tried to prove myself to people who believed in me -- rather than try to prove people wrong.”