Kris Medlen was scheduled to start on Opening Day 2014, which only made sense, given that he started Game 1 of the 2013 Division Series and the lamentable 2012 wild card game. By strict definition, he’d become the Atlanta Braves’ No. 1 starter. That he has been diagnosed with an injury that showed “some involvement in the (elbow) ligament” — Frank Wren’s chilling words of Tuesday morning — and will seek a second opinion does nothing to allay any Braves fan’s fears.
A team that didn’t really have a true No. 1 starter is, for the moment and quite possibly for a long time, without the man who had, over the past two years, done the best impersonation of one. There’s a chance 200 quality innings just went missing.
This, duh, is not a good thing. At no time could it ever be a good thing. But given the spring issues also confronting Mike Minor, the No. 2 starter, and Brandon Beachy, the No. 4 man, the Braves’ starting rotation, once a bright and shiny thing, is looking downright shabby.
This isn’t to say that conditions can’t and won’t improve. Medlen hasn’t been scheduled for a second round of Tommy John surgery. Minor should be OK. Beachy is another story, seeing as how his return from TJ keeps getting slowed, but there’s a difference between tightness in the biceps and a twinge in, say, the elbow. But the uncertainty regarding Medlen puts a heavier load on the remaining starters, and it means someone — or several someones — must be found to work his innings.
Gavin Floyd, signed as a free agent over the winter, is expected to be available in May. (He’s coming off elbow surgery.) Ever-ready Freddy Garcia, who’s 37 and was re-signed by the Braves as cheap insurance, figures to become a key man, but the recent history of Freddy Garcia is that he can look pretty good until he no longer does, which is why he has worked for four different organizations in the past two years.
It’s not just that some if not all of Medlen’s 200 innings will have to be worked by someone else. It’s that the Braves, who won 96 games last season and led the majors in team ERA, have come to expect Medlen’s innings to be good ones, and they’re running low on manpower. Alex Wood is 22 and has started 11 big-league games. David Hale is 26 and has started two. Lucas Sims, the No. 1 prospect, wasn’t expected to be ready this soon.
When Medlen was injured, speculation immediately turned to Ervin Santana, the best free-agent pitcher available. But Santana is believed to be seeking $50 million over four seasons and just balked at Toronto’s offer of $14 million for one. Would Liberty Media, which just spent nearly $300 million on extensions for five key members of the Braves’ prized young core, be interested in doubling down so soon? (Probably not.) Would the Braves be willing to revisit the Jeff Samardzija talks that led to nothing over the winter? (Probably, but they’d surely have to give up more in prospects now.)
And to think: The Braves allowed two starting pitchers — Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm — to leave as free agents. Those were reasonable moves at the time, but the fragile nature of pitcher’s arms can make the soundest decisions seem, in the cold light of hindsight, silly. There was no way for the Braves to see all these infirmities coming, but here they are. If this isn’t a worst-case scenario, it’ll do until something more dire comes along.