First off, I feel pretty confident that John Smoltz will be the Braves’ opening day starter. The injury (reports of which may be exaggerated) is not to a tendon but to muscle, and should be long healed by spring. He’s not going to go back into the bullpen, either. It would be preferable if John wasn’t asked to pitch so much early next season, but circumstances forced it. Tim Hudson will be the #2 starter. That’s what he was last year, a #2, and people were expecting an ace and didn’t get one. He will probably miss time with muscle strains again, since he has three years in a row. If he really did find his split-finger pitch again late in the year, he could be better.
Behind that… Well, it’s interesting. Jorge Sosa was a clear #3 at the end of the year, but still has a lot of doubters. His ERA is a lot better than his peripherals, to be sure. Some of that is simply that he bore down with runners on base. Late in the year (unfortunately, not in the playoffs) he cut way down on his home runs allowed. I’m cautiously optimistic, and he should be in the rotation to start the season. On the other hand, the Braves might think that he’s at the peak of his value and shop him. Who knows?
Horacio Ramirez isn’t the same pitcher he was before his mysterious, and still not explained to my satisfaction, injury. His peripherals never were as good as his ERAs — and he didn’t have a strikeout pitch like Sosa to explain part of that — but he would still have been a valuable contributor. Last year, he became a home run machine, and he allows too many baserunners to get away with that. I’m convinced that his value will only go lower and that the Braves should deal him before it’s too late. He’s going to get a pretty good arbitration award, as will Sosa.
The Braves have an option on John Thomson, and they should pick it up. Now, that might only be to trade him. Middle-of-the-rotation pitchers with one year left on their contracts for $4.5 million don’t grow on trees, and if the Braves were willing to trade a veteran for prospects (something they have rarely done) he’d bring a good return. If he’s in the rotation, expect good pitching interrupted by a bizarre injury.
With Hudson and Thomson likely to miss time, you need a sixth starter available. That will probably be Kyle Davies. Kyle needs another year of polish and should at least start the season at AAA, unless someone gets hurt or traded. Long-term, Davies projects as a starter. I don’t know about Anthony Lerew and Chuck James. Lerew might be a closer candidate eventually. There’s a lot of doubt if James’ style of pitching will succeed in a major league rotation, but if not he should have a long career as a reliever.
Hey, it would be nice if the Braves traded for another elite starter, but I don’t see it happening. There’s too much of a problem on the other side of the bullpen wall.