NL East Report: Atlanta Hopes Its Pitching Can Hold Up

The Atlanta Braves have started the season well, with a 16-11 record coming into Saturday’s games, putting them in second place in the NL East and just 1.5 games back of Washington. The Braves have answered concerns about whether they had put last September’s collapse behind them, but as we evaluate their ability to keep this going for the year, we need to ask if the pitching is really good enough.

Atlanta is scoring runs—in fact they’re tied with St. Louis’ more heralded offense for most runs in the National League as of this morning. But the pitching is on the reverse end of the spectrum, at 12th in the NL. There’s no way any team competes over the long haul with that kind of pitching, so let’s move to the next level and see if there’s any possibility for the pitchers on hand to turn things around. Here’s the rundown on the Brave rotation…

*Brandon Beachy is the pride of the staff right now, with a dazzling 1.38 ERA in five starts.
*Tommy Hanson has been steady, at 3.74 over six starts.
*Tim Hudson is back from the neck injury that kept him out most of April. His two-start ERA of 6.55 is misleading, as he had a bad inning last night against Colorado, but otherwise has been fairly respectable. On the flip side, he’s only being kept out there for 5-6 innings.
*Randall Delgado has been hit hard over the past week and his ERA is on 5.13
*Mike Minor, a young arm of whom a lot is being asked, at 4.68 over five starts.
*Jair Jurrjens got off to a hideous start, at 9.37 in his four outings and he’s now on the DL for the rest of the year.

The concern TheSportsNotebook had about this rotation at the start of the year was that there was no clear ace, given Hudson’s injury and the fact he’s 36. The vet isn’t going to chew up the kind of innings you need from a #1 guy, although I think the fact that 10 of his 11 innings since the comeback have been effective has to be seen in a positive light. Delgado is a definite concern, as is Minor. What this boils down to is that essentially I don’t see anyone who’s a logical candidate to improve, given the inevitable comedown that Beachy has ahead of him. The latter has been an ace for a month and the reason the staff has done well enough to win, but I would see him stabilizing around Hanson’s numbers. Which still leaves the team without a clear #1.

If Delgado and Minor can lift their performance to where Hanson is at, Atlanta could make up for in balance what they lack in a stopper. But the injury to Jurrjens stripped them of depth and I have to think Fred Gonzalez is going to be tempted to give veteran Livan Hernandez, or Kris Medlen, back from reconstructive elbow surgery, a shot at starting before the first half of the year is over—or when the next injury comes.

Around the rest of the NL East…

Washington (17-9): The bats in Washington are cooled down right now, partly due to natural slumps, partly due to the fact that last weekend they were in Los Angeles and this weekend they’re playing Philadelphia. The excitement over Bryce Harper’s excellent start since being called up has temporarily obscured the problems the Nats face with Ryan Zimmerman’s trip to the DL. There’s still a lot to like about this lineup and the pitching is good enough to keep things going but a testing time is ahead.

NY Mets (13-13): Mike Pelfrey is lost for the year, Jason Bay is on the disabled list and the Mets have a key week against the Phillies and Marlins on the road starting on Monday. The good news is that Johan Santana tossed six shutout innings in his last start. One legend starts to make his way back in New York, as another, in Mariano Rivera, faces his own career-threatening injury. But with most of the pitching struggling, David Wright being the only offensive producer, and the schedule ahead, I would expect the Mets to assume their expected place in the cellar.

Philadelphia (13-14): Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence have to carry this offense and both are in a bit of a slump right now, as the Phillies try and bounce back from losing Friday’s opener in Washington and keep themselves close to the first place Nats. As the bats seem to get worse, the pitching seems to get better—Joe Blanton has been dominant for two straight starts, averaging 8 IP/1 ER in both and Vance Worley’s looking as good as any of the Big Three. Even with Cliff Lee on the disabled list, this team can still shut people down.

Miami (12-14): A nice sweep of San Francisco on the road earlier in the week have gotten the Marlins back on the board after a slow start, and the big thanks has to go with rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who found his form from last season and ripped four home runs in the past week. Anibal Sanchez is dominating in the mound…but Josh Johnson’s struggles continue, so while a return to .500 level is natural, the Marlins won’t make it much further past that without a return to form by their ace.