Tommy Hanson is scheduled to make his return from the disabled list on Friday, and Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez marked the occasion by announcing that he would go with a six-man rotation through the end of August. With no off-days scheduled between now and Aug. 30, Gonzalez is purportedly trying to keep his pitchers fresh in order to avoid a repeat of last year's epic late-season collapse.
It's an unorthodox decision, although it's becoming more orthodox by the day, as the Mets and Pirates have also utilized six-man rotations this season. More than anything, however, this appears to be a case of Gonzalez being unwilling or unable to make any decision at all. At the very least, with Hanson returning, Gonzalez is delaying a difficult choice that has to be made.
Once August is over, Gonzalez says that he's going to choose the best five pitchers, period. As it stands now, he will be choosing from among Hanson, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, and the newly acquired duo of Paul Maholm and Ben Sheets. The easy choice would be to send Medlen back to the bullpen, where he started the season. Of course, Medlen has been awfully good in his three outings as a starter, allowing just a single earned run in each start.
If not Medlen, then who will be the odd man out? It won't be Hudson, obviously, and it's unlikely to be Sheets. Although he was roughed up a bit in his last outing, Sheets has been mostly brilliant since joining the Braves in mid-July, after two years away from the major leagues. In six starts, Sheets is 4-2 with a 2.13 ERA and his velocity is nearly as good as it was pre-injury. Let's not discount the fact that Sheets has a reputation as an ace, and that seems like the sort of thing that would turn Gonzalez’s eye.
Okay, it won't be Hudson or Sheets. Paul Maholm, the other new guy in Hotlanta? Acquired from the Cubs in a deadline deal, Maholm has pitched at least seven innings in each of his three starts for the Braves, and he's given up a total of four runs in those three games. Barring something unexpected, I'd be surprised if Maholm is banished to the bullpen.
That leaves Hanson and the much-maligned Mike Minor. Minor has the worst ERA of any Atlanta starter this year, if we don't include the injured Jair Jurrjens (and please, don't make me include Jurrjens; he's been awful). Minor certainly had a miserable first couple of months, but since July 1, the 24-year old lefty has looked like the guy Atlanta expected when they drafted him in the first round in 2009, posting a 2.45 ERA with much improved peripheral numbers across the board.
Whither Tommy Hanson? This has not been the same guy who was a revelation as a 22-year old rookie (11-4, 2.89 ERA), and followed that up with solid campaigns each of the past two seasons. This year, Hanson's numbers have taken a nosedive, with an ERA of 4.29, an ERA+ of 94, and a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 4.63. On the other hand, Hanson has won a career-high 12 games. While that's yet another argument for the proposition that pitcher wins are the worst way to evaluate starters, I don't expect Gonzalez to ignore it.
Hanson, of course, will have two or three starts to make his case, but at this point, he has clearly been the most ineffective starter of the group. If Medlen and Minor continue to impress, Gonzalez will have a dilemma on his hands. Will he actually send Hanson, a 25-year old who has been considered a potential No. 1 or No. 2 starter, to the bullpen for the remainder of the regular season?
I don't think so. My guess is Minor or Medlen will be the odd man out unless both happen to dazzle over the next two weeks.
Fredi Gonzalez has an embarrassment of riches, even without injured ace Brandon Beachy. At some point, he's just going to have to make a decision, and I'm not sure he can go wrong, whatever he chooses.
Unless he picks Jurrjens, of course.