By Marc Normandin
The Athletics and Braves were both supposed to have quality rotations in 2014. That was before the injuries happened, anyway, with Tommy John surgeries claiming Jarrod Parker & A.J. Griffin in Oakland and Brandon Beachy & Kris Medlen in Atlanta, who also had Mike Minor dealing with his own short-term pains. Rather than see this devastate either rotation, though, they have both thrived during the first month of the season, and enter May as the leaders in their respective divisions because of it.
The Braves still had the possibility of a quality rotation, but the odds were stacked against them in many ways. Not only did they lose Medlen and Beachy, but Minor was set to miss the first month of the season, rotation fixture Tim Hudson had departed as a free agent, and the two replacement arms -- Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd -- would not be ready to pitch at the start of the season. Floyd was recovering from flexor tendon and Tommy John surgery of his own, while Santana sat on the free agent market and missed a significant chunk of spring training, so his late start was more about making up for lost preparation time.
Atlanta still had a talented pair of 23-year-olds in Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, however, as well as minor-league arm David Hale and veteran journeyman Aaron Harang, who inked a deal days before the end of spring training. Those four, along with Santana, who pitched his first game of the season on April 9, combined for a 2.32 ERA in their 26 April starts. There is no way that even a talent like Teheran is going to keep that pace for the season, never mind Harang -- who allowed nine runs in 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday to raise his ERA by over two full points -- or Hale, who is a potentially useful big-league arm, but not a world-beater as he's looked like in his four starts. They don't have to, though, as the hard part is over for the Braves: Minor returns on Friday, and Floyd is not far behind.
The Braves have announced that Hale heads to the bullpen with Minor back, while Harang is the next likely candidate to lose innings or a roster spot when Floyd is ready. That would give the Braves a rotation with Teheran, Wood, Santana, Minor and Floyd, one that has the ability to perform as well as any other in the league. Santana has had his ups and downs, but he's looked great while in the National League for the first time. Teheran is one of the game's better young arms, with a 3.02 ERA in his 40 career starts. Wood hasn't been around as long, but has done nothing but succeed in both the minors and the majors, and will get every opportunity to keep doing just that.
Minor has been about average in his career, with a 100 ERA+ overall, but he was far better than that in 2013, his first season over the 200-inning mark. Even if he's "just" average, if he can rack up innings the rest of the way, he'll be an upgrade on the full-season version of Hale. If he's as good as he was last summer, then the pitcher who is essentially the Braves' fourth starter will be the kind who could lead many of the league's rotations.
While Floyd isn't quite that good, the healthy version of him is overqualified for a fifth starter role, even on a team with World Series aspirations. From 2008 through 2012 -- with 2008 being the first year he put things together on the mound -- Floyd produced a 108 ERA+ and averaged 190 innings per season. He won't get the innings, and he might be a bit shaky at first as he's just 12 months removed from surgery, but if he can be anywhere close to those numbers, then the Braves are likely all set from top to bottom. And even if he isn't, remember that, for as good as Harang's first month was, he's still been well below-average overall over the six years.
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The Athletics don't have the cavalry on the way to support their efforts out west like the Braves do, but their first month has gone splendidly just the same, in terms of results, anyway -- the A's have had three of their five arms carry almost all of the slack themselves, rather than the collective effort Atlanta managed. Sonny Gray picked up where he left off in his short rookie season, and has dominated opposing lineups in a believable fashion the first month of the season. Scott Kazmir has looked brilliant on the mound even further removed from the injuries that plagued what was originally believed to be the end of his major-league career. Jesse Chavez moved from the bullpen to the rotation when Parker and Griffin went down, and has been far better than either of those two would have been, averaging almost 6 1/3 innings per start while posting a 168 ERA+ and striking out 4.7 times as many batters as he's walked.
Things have not gone as well for Dan Straily and Tommy Milone. That's expected from Milone, who is a below-average, back-end arm at times like this when his presence is necessary. Straily has been surprisingly hittable, though, allowing more homers than he's made starts in the young season. They didn't just come in one terrible performance, either: he's had two starts with a pair of homers allowed, and each of his three others featured a dinger. He had issues with this when he was initially called up in 2012 as well, but seemed to be over his long ball problems a year ago. It's too early to say he's broken, but the A's chances will be much better if he's fixed.
That's because Chavez and Kazmir aren't going to do this forever, and as good as Gray is, expecting him to pitch like a Cy Young-caliber arm throughout his first full big-league season is likely an easy route to disappointment. If Straily can get back to what he's shown he can do, that will help offset at least some of the eventual slide of this trio. They needed Griffin to come back healthy in addition to that, though, to avoid any other situations in which Milone gets significant innings in the rotation. Now Griffin won't be back, further emphasizing the need for Straily to get back to the league-average performance he's capable of.
The A's problem with the Parker and Griffin injuries wasn't so much that they were going to field a poor rotation without them. It was that they were starting the year off using up their top depth, and if anything else were to go awry, they would be in a difficult situation. They managed to navigate the first month of the season without Kazmir breaking or Chavez failing in his move to the rotation, and have just one start made by a pitcher other than these five: like the Braves, the A's are off to a good start. Unlike Atlanta, though, the A's aren't getting reinforcements. Josh Lindblom, who made the one random start, is likely next in line, unless the A's plan on making a trade. That's certainly an option, and if someone else gets hurt, it's going to be one they need to explore to keep up this pace they've set.
Luckily for the Athletics, they can straight-up mash, so an elite, top-to-bottom rotation isn't a necessity for a chance at the postseason. They're inarguably worse off than they were before Griffin needed a second opinion, though, and now need the offense to carry them for when the pitching no longer can. That story is no different than it's been the last two years, though, so we already know that this is a starting nine that's up to that task.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin