02
Feb
10

Can Braves rotation withstand the loss of Vazquez?

It’s day two of the Braves’ voluntary two-week, pre-spring training pitching camp at Turner Field, a program created and designed by former pitching coach Leo Mazzone to help the team’s pitchers get back on the mound early to alleviate the off-season rust.

The program, which was formerly known as “Camp Leo”, is now run by Roger McDowell but still preaches the same formula for success that has helped the Atlanta Braves build a pitching dynasty over the years.

This year’s camp opened yesterday with the club’s starting staff already facing a bounty of questions about how they plan to duplicate last season’s numbers.

Braves starters led the majors with a 3.52 ERA while compiling the second most innings (986), proving to be a steady and durable force in 2009.

Entering Spring Training this year, Atlanta is trying to maintain that level of excellence minus one very critical piece — their workhorse ace Javier Vazquez.

Vazquez (15-10, 2.87 ERA) was traded to the Yankees in December after the Braves found themselves with one starter too many.

Many baseball pundits question whether this year’s staff can withstand the loss of Vazquez?

If the Braves rotation hopes to replicate last season’s success, the majority of the load that was carried by Vazquez now shifts to 34-year-old Tim Hudson.

The Braves opted to re-sign Hudson to a three-year, $28-million dollar extension in November after the former 20-game winner made a successful return from Tommy John surgery late last year.

In seven starts after re-joining the Braves rotation, Hudson went 2-1 with a solid 3.61 ERA.

Hudson joins a staff comprised of Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Kenshin Kawakami.

Jurrjens and Hanson are the team’s rising young stars and should serve as the backbone of this rotation for the foreseeable future.

Atlanta should also benefit from getting a full season out of Tommy Hanson, who finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting this winter.

The Braves called up their rookie sensation in June and watched Hanson soar to an 11-4 record with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts.

Atlanta is hoping Lowe bounces back and enjoys a resurgent season after the veteran righty struggled in his first year with the Braves.

While still netting 15 wins for the club, Lowe also posted a 4.67 ERA, second-highest of his career.

Kawakami is expected to improve in his second season in the U.S.

The Japanese standout was a 33-year-old rookie last season and ended the year with an impressive 3.86 ERA despite a 7-12 record.

Despite losing Vazquez, Atlanta’s rotation is still stacked with a plethora of talent and a good mix of youth and experience.

Whether the talent on paper translates to wins on the field rests largely on not just the starters but the entire staff’s ability to stay healthy.

Atlanta’s additions of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito at the back end of their bullpen should benefit the rotation by giving the team security late in games.

But, with Wagner’s history of injuries and the age of these hurlers, it is critical that both relievers don’t get overworked in an effort to preserve them for the duration of the season.

The good news is the always pitching rich Braves have the pieces in place yet again to put up impressive numbers while contending for a playoff spot.

It is not often a team could lose a Cy Young candidate, like the Braves did in Vazquez, and still have a chance to have arguably one of the deepest rotations in baseball.

All these years later, the importance of a pre-spring training pitching camp is not lost on the Braves or the pitchers who jump at the opportunity to participate in it.

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