Commentary

Atlanta reinvests in starting pitching

Updated: February 23, 2009, 1:27 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For nearly two decades, it has been about the most famous brand on any team in any sport:

Starting rotation, Atlanta Braves.

So let's spin back the clock, not to a time when nearly every living American could spit out the names, Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine. Nope, let's spin it back to last August, when the names in the Braves' starting rotation looked like this:

Jorge CampilloCharlie MortonJo-Jo ReyesJair Jurrjens … and somebody claiming to be the ghost of Mike Hampton.

Not to suggest that none of those men deserved to be pitching in the big leagues. Far from it. Just …

Who the heck were they?

If they sat next to you at dinner, would you have known them from, say, Chuck James? Or Jeff Bennett? Or James Parr?

Those would be the names of three other guys who also started a bunch of games for the Braves last year -- after prominent orthopedists had determined that Smoltz, Glavine and Tim Hudson wouldn't be able to do that anymore.

It was no way to run a baseball team. It was no way to make it through a baseball season. And it was no way to piece together what was left of the most famous rotation of modern times.

"That turned out to be our biggest Achilles' heel," says Chipper Jones, one spring training later. "We just didn't have enough starting pitchers who gave us enough quality innings to compete."

Turns out that Chipper -- and 2.8 million talk-show callers -- weren't the only citizens of Georgia who noticed that. Good thing.

GM Frank Wren and all those folks he hangs out with up there in the club box had to watch every one of those games last year, and every one of those non-quality starts. And whaddaya know. Apparently, they were paying attention.

So here in spring training, 2009 -- as Braves fans everywhere seem fixated on all the stuff this team didn't get done over the winter (Jake Peavy, Rafael Furcal, Junior Griffey, A.J. Burnett and J.A. Smoltz, to name five) -- we're here to look at what this outfit did do:

Namely, spiff up that broken-down starting rotation of theirs.

[+] EnlargeJavier Vazquez
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJavier Vazquez, acquired from the White Sox in December, has reached 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in each of the past two seasons.
They dumped $60 million into the money-market account of Derek Lowe. They traded for an innings machine they've had their eye on for years, Javy Vazquez. And they signed their first-ever Sawamura Award winner, Kenshin Kawakami, for a mere 2.16 billion yen (or $23 million, if you forgot your currency-conversion chart).

Now, do any of those guys have the dominating upside of Peavy, Burnett and a healthy Smoltz? 'Fraid not. But …

Lowe did finish ninth in the National League in ERA last year. And Vazquez did rank fourth in the American League in strikeouts. And Kawakami -- who has won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young, MVP and rookie of the year in his day -- did have a 2.30 ERA for those Chunichi Dragons last year.

So after a summer of spinning the rotation-roulette wheel, manager Bobby Cox is now saying, "Our rotation has a chance to be really good." And this just in: He's right.

The Braves also brought back Glavine to be the fifth starter. They've got ace-of-the-future Tommy Hanson popping eyeballs with every pitch he unfurls. And there's a chance they could get Hudson back from Tommy John surgery late in the season.

So while this rotation may not be the Cy Youngs 'R Us All-Stars of 1995 anymore, it sure isn't the rag-tag outfit of last year, either.

"When you come to this organization," Lowe says, "you know the standard that's been set. For 20 years, they've been pretty much either No. 1 or No. 2 in ERA, and that's a high standard. So even those guys may not be here anymore, they've set the bar so high, it's a great goal to try to achieve."

You probably don't need us to recap how high that bar still hangs. But what the heck. It's our column, so we'll do it anyway.

In 14 of the 15 seasons, from 1991 through 2005, the Braves ranked in the top three in the major leagues in starting-pitching ERA.

In 11 of those seasons, from 1992 through 2002, they finished first in the big leagues every single season.

They had a top-three finisher in the Cy Young balloting in every season but one between 1991 and 2002.

And, thanks to the brilliance of Maddux, Glavine or Smoltz, some Brave or other won the Cy in seven of the eight seasons between 1991 and 1998.

"It's impossible for us to live up to that era or what they've done," Lowe says. "That was a special era. Those were three Hall of Fame guys in one rotation, and I'm not sure that's ever happened. So to say that we're here to do what they did, I mean, you're going to fall short no matter what you do."

Good point. But luckily for them, nobody has asked these guys to win seven of the next eight Cy Youngs. This is now a team with slightly more modest goals. Such as: Just be better than last season. Please.

Well, it wouldn't be hard. It's almost incomprehensible that a Braves rotation could possibly have racked up a 4.60 ERA. But last year's staff did -- the second-worst ERA by any Atlanta rotation since 1987.

And it's even more incomprehensible for a Braves team to finish 20th in the big leagues in starting-pitching ERA. But that's where last year's group landed -- the lowest rank for any Braves rotation since 1990.

That kind of pitching would be tough on the old digestive system for any team. But when it's this team, you could understand why the men in charge felt a profound responsibility to restore some semblance of what Atlanta Braves rotations used to be all about.

"I don't know that it was necessarily a responsibility," says Wren, now in his second season since replacing the legendary John Schuerholz as GM. "I just think we understand how John built this team in the '90s, and it was through quality pitching. So that part hasn't changed. There's a pretty good road map here to follow."

So when the offseason arrived, Wren hauled out his Schuerholzian GPS and got moving. Four days after the World Series, Wren was at the GM meetings, looking into dealing for both Peavy and Vazquez, while letting Burnett's agent know he was at the top of the Braves' free-agent shopping list.

As you may have heard someplace, the Peavy deal eventually fell apart (although there are still doubts about whether Peavy would have waived his no-trade to go to Atlanta, anyway). And the Yankees stacked more dollar bills in front of Burnett.

But there was always Plan C, D and E. So Wren finished off the Vazquez trade just before the winter meetings, then outbid the Orioles, Twins, Red Sox, Cardinals and Pirates for Kawakami a few weeks later. Two days later, though, came the Braves' most stunning move of the winter -- the big-buck signing of Lowe.

For weeks, the Braves had seemed thoroughly uninterested, and Lowe seemed headed for the Mets. But Lowe kept telling his buddies in Atlanta that he wanted to be a Brave. So, as their other options dwindled, the Braves abruptly reevaluated, swooped in and signed him.

They understood there appeared to be no other team willing to guarantee him four years, or anything close to the $60 million the Braves paid. But he was the last difference-maker left on the board, in their view. So they did what they decided they had no other choice but to do if they were going to fulfill their mission of rebuilding this rotation.

But it wasn't only Lowe who had been telling people he aspired to follow in the steps of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. Vazquez, too, has wanted to pitch in Atlanta "ever since I was a little kid, growing up watching the Braves on TV." And he and Cox had hit it off as far back as 2000, when Cox managed Vazquez on a Japan trip.

[+] EnlargeKenshin Kawakami
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRight-hander Kenshin Kawakami, who signed a three-year deal with the Braves last month, won 112 games in 11 seasons in Japan.
Even Kawakami was steeped enough in Braves knowledge that when he met Cox for the first time, he told the manager: "I know you have the record for getting thrown out of games" -- and meant it as an I-know-you-have-our-backs kind of compliment.

But beyond their feel for recent Braves history, these three have another quality in common: dependability.

Kawakami has been one of the most consistent pitchers in Japan since 2002. And Lowe and Vazquez are the answer to this important trivia question:

Name the only two starting pitchers currently on big league rosters who have spent at least 10 seasons in the big leagues and never gone on the disabled list. (Livan Hernandez would join those two if he makes the Mets' staff.)

Vazquez, Lowe and Jon Garland are also the only active righthanders who have started at least 32 games in every one of the past seven seasons. And let's just say it's no coincidence that the Braves reeled in two of those three -- after a season in which they had no pitcher start 32 games.

"What made Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux so special," Lowe says, "was not just being so good. It was that they were so reliable. You knew, going into the season, you didn't have to worry about any of those guys breaking down."

Heading into a season in which Kawakami turns 34, Lowe turns 36, Vazquez turns 33 and Glavine turns 43, the Braves can't be sure of anything. But if those guys even remotely approach their track records, this could be a team capable of a big turnaround. So as always with this juggernaut, it starts with the rotation.

"Hopefully," Lowe says, "when the Atlanta Braves come to town, people will know it's going to be five quality guys every single day. And that's what put this franchise on the map."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com