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Saturday, August 3, 2013
Braves turn to Beachy to plug rotation

By Chad Dotson

Someone named Brandon Beachy made his season debut for the Braves earlier this week. This guy started the game, but lasted only 3 2/3 innings, permitting a career-high seven earned runs on eight hits. This can't be the same Brandon Beachy who pitched so well for Atlanta last year, could it?

Given recent injuries to the pitching staff, the Braves had better hope not.

Atlanta has led the NL East for the entire season, and no first-place club has a bigger margin over the rest of the division, as its eight-game winning streak has given it an 11.5-game lead over the Nationals. The rotation, however, has taken a hit with injuries to starters Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm. Into that void stepped young Mr. Beachy.

Beachy last pitched for the Braves a little more than 13 months ago, before undergoing surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow or, in more familiar terms: Tommy John surgery.

Before the elbow injury, Beachy had been one of the most dominant starters in the National League, with a 2.00 ERA (200 ERA+, 1.3 fWAR) that led the National League over 13 starts. According to most advanced metrics, Beachy had actually been even better in 2011, when he struck out nearly 11 batters a game in 25 starts.

Beachy is now 26 years old, and his return could not come at a better time for Atlanta. He took Maholm's spot on the roster (after Maholm was placed on the 15-day DL with a bruised left wrist), but the Braves hope Beachy can fill the hole in the rotation opened up when a freak injury to Hudson prematurely ended his season.

Hudson had not been having his best year (8-7, 3.97 ERA) but, in many ways, was still the anchor of the Atlanta staff. He was second on the club in innings pitched and third in strikeouts, even at age 37 (and had been pitching better of late). In theory, Beachy should easily be able to match those numbers or, more likely, exceed them.

Right? Not so fast.

That will depend on how quickly Beachy is able to bounce back from the surgery; of course, that's the $100,000 question for every pitcher who undergoes the Tommy John procedure. Early returns, frankly, are not encouraging. Even if we discount his poor performance in his first start against the Rockies on Monday, Beachy's performance during his minor league rehab stint provided some cause for concern.

In seven games for Triple-A Gwinnett, Beachy walked 5.4 batters per nine innings. That's a rate nearly twice what we saw from him in 2011, and far above anything Beachy had posted in his professional career. It is certainly not uncommon for a pitcher to struggle with command initially after returning from Tommy John -- and it is a small sample size -- but Atlanta will need Beachy to right the ship.

On the other hand, there are reasons to be optimistic. Beachy's velocity against Colorado was good; he averaged 91.9 mph on his fastball, which is almost identical to his pre-injury velocity. Further, Beachy induced 11 swinging strikes, which was on par with what we saw last year, and he walked only one hitter in his debut (although that was mostly because everyone was hitting line drives). His breaking balls weren't very sharp, but Beachy felt good physically.

Some of these questions about the young right-hander will be answered Saturday when Beachy makes his second start, against a struggling Philadelphia offense. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of Beachy's disappointing debut, the biggest question was whether the Braves would continue to dip their toes into the trade deadline waters in search of a starter. According to reports, Atlanta had kicked the tires on Bud Norris, Jake Peavy and Ervin Santana but, ultimately, Braves GM Frank Wren was hesitant to break the bank (or deplete the farm system) for a rotation upgrade.

That was probably a wise course of action. Beachy might not be the same pitcher we've seen the past two years, but there's no reason to believe he can't match the production Hudson had been providing. Maholm will return in a couple of weeks, but, even if he and Kris Medlen continue their recent struggles (although Maholm hasn't pitched as poorly as his numbers indicate), 22-year-old Alex Wood (a 2012
second-rounder) is an adequate replacement for either. In fact, don't be surprised if Beachy and Wood remain in the rotation for the rest of the season; those two could be an upgrade over Hudson and Maholm/Medlen.

With an abundance of depth -- and that double-digit lead over Washington -- Atlanta could afford to be cautious at the trade deadline. Despite the injuries, with the return of last year's ace and the emergence of a hotshot rookie (Julio Teheran), the Braves might actually have improved their rotation. That should scare the rest of the National League East.

Chad Dotson usually writes about the Reds at Redleg Nation.