Braves Bullpen Building Blocks: Using Starters

Today I continue my look at the relievers who could make up the Atlanta Braves 2014 bullpen. Yesterday I examined the core relievers, today I’m going to examine five guys who are starting pitchers, but could be used in the bullpen.

awoodAlex Wood: Woody rocketed through the Braves system; making it to the Majors less than a year after he was drafted in the second round. He was used by Atlanta first as a reliever, and then as a starter, and then again as a reliever. He was also used in the postseason as a reliever. Most prospect evaluators thought Wood would be a reliever when he was drafted, and that seemed like his trajectory, but then he learned a new pitch. Last spring Wood picked up some tips from Kimbrel and Venters on how to throw a better curve ball. He added that to his arsenal and dominated minor league batters before he was called up to Atlanta mid-season.

Wood had success as both a starter and a reliever. Once he was moved into the starting rotation he put together a string of six great starts after a rocky first start, including five starts in August in which he posted a 0.90 ERA. The wheels fell off just a bit in September as he seemed to tire, and the team moved him back to the bullpen. As a reliever earlier in the season he was used primarily in low leverage situations — many of the games he appeared in were blowouts or losses. But after moving back to the bullpen in September he pitched important innings for the team, spanning five shutout appearances in either the seventh or eighth innings. During this time he was also used to get out tough lefties. This is where the Braves will likely start him out in 2014 — as a lefty reliever who can also get out righties. He only threw 143 innings last year, and by the rule of only adding 50 innings a year he could get close to 200 inning as a starting pitcher if needed.

fgarciaFreddy Garcia: The Chief is still a Brave. I feel weirdly good about Garcia being a part of the team this year. With Hudson and Maholm having moved on there’s this old school part of me that says you need a veteran on a pitching staff. A lot will depend on how Garcia’s spring goes as to whether or not he makes the team. Last spring training did not go so well for Garcia; he gave up 20 earned runs in 20.2 innings with San Diego. He was released, signed with Baltimore, pitched mainly in the minors for them, and was then purchased by Atlanta late in the year. His contract this year allows him to become a free agent if he does not make the team out of spring training.

The one thing we don’t want with Garcia is a repeat of the failed Livan Hernandez experiment of 2012. Garcia has primarily been a starting pitcher throughout his career, and certainly seems more comfortable starting. But if he is used out of the bullpen a long reliever like Garcia would be could be very useful early in the season when starters aren’t yet going deep into games. The way the early season schedule works out the Braves can also go through their rotation once without the need for a fifth starter. But after that they have a string of 16 straight games without an off-day, and a long reliever might come in pretty handy during that stretch.

dhaleDavid Hale: I’ve been a champion of Hale’s for a while. Drafted in the same year as Mike Minor, Hale took a bit longer to reach the Majors. He had less experience as a pitcher in college, and then the Braves yo-yo’ed him between the starting rotation and the bullpen nearly every year he was in the minors, trying to find the right spot for him. The benefit now of that uncertainty then is that Hale is accustomed to either role, and is clearly used to moving back and forth between roles mid-season.

It’s weird when a player discovers something new about their game as soon as they break into the Majors, but that’s what happened to Hale when he made his first Major League start. Brian McCann kept calling changups, a pitch Hale had only recently gained regular command of, and he used it to dominate hitters in his only two starts. Hale’s back and forth minor league role and sudden ascendance to success in the Majors reminds me of Brandon Beachy. Beach was very successful in a starting role, and if Hale can follow in those footsteps, then the Braves will likely allow him to succeed there. But Hale could also be a valuable reliever and setup man. The emergence of Hale as a pitcher who could be used in multiple roles is huge for the Braves.

kmedlenKris Medlen: What the what! Medlen! In the PEN! Yep, I’m adding him here, because like the post says, these are the starting pitchers who could also be used in the bullpen. Interestingly, this set of five guys would be a pretty decent starting rotation. Obviously Medlen seems to have solidified himself in the starting rotation, but for some reason I always have this feeling that his spot ever so tenuous. He’s listed here because he’s a guy who could start or relieve, and sometimes necessity forces a pitcher one way or the other. It doesn’t seem like he will be needed in the bullpen, so he’s a long shot to move out of the rotation, but the possibility remains.

bbeachyBrandon Beachy: What the what the what! Yep, I went there with Medlen, and I’m listing Beachy here too. Actually, listing Medlen might have just been a prelude to listing Beachy here. Brandon had a rough road back from Tommy John surgery last year and was never able to regain full strength in his arm — at least not enough strength to last him two or three times through a batting order. With so few innings the last two years the Braves may want to limit Beachy’s innings to start this season in the same way that they limited Medlen’s inning in 2012 when he started the season in the bullpen.

Beachy threw 70 innings between the Majors and minors last season, and just 81 innings the previous year before he went under the knife. It would not be prudent to try and get more than 150 innings out of Beachy this year. The Braves were applauded for the way they handled Medlen in 2012, and this is the same approach they should use this year with Beachy. He’s a guy we will need in the rotation at the end of the year and in any possible postseason games, and as a power pitcher he’ll be much more effective if he has less mileage on his arm come October.

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These five guys give the Braves A LOT of flexibility between the bullpen and the rotation. This is an important factor for the 2014 Braves, who have Gavin Floyd (rotation) and Jonny Venters (bullpen) returning from Tommy John in the middle of the year. The odds are that all five of these guys will make the opening day roster as starters or relievers, and their ability to work between those roles will help the team slot in players returning from injury while keeping inning counts low.

Next up I’ll examine the seven other pitchers on the 40-man roster, several of whom have a good chance to push for a spot this spring.

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