As the Atlanta Braves enter their offseason, question marks surround an area of the roster known for stability and dominance over the years: starting pitching.
When spring training opens up in February of 2014, Mike Minor (25), Julio Teheran (22) and Kris Medlen (27) will headline a young rotation for the defending National League East champions. Beyond that, there will be questions and a combination of concern and hope for the future. Both Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson, proven veterans of the 2013 staff, are impending free agents.
General manager Frank Wren can ease some of those concerns in Atlanta by not making a major mistake this winter in free agency. Despite a gruesome ankle injury that ended Tim Hudson's season in late July, the franchise shouldn't part ways with the 38-year-old right-handed pitcher.
Instead, they should make it an offseason priority to bring him back for stability and insurance on a pitching staff that is young and unproven.
Before going down in a heap at Citi Field on July 24, Hudson was enjoying an solid contract season. Over 131.1 innings, the former ace had pitched to a 3.97 ERA, posted a 2.64 SO/BB and taken the ball 21 times for Fredi Gonzalez's rotation.
While the ERA-plus (97) wasn't close to the level of Hudson's best days (134 from 1999-2005), his peripheral stats showed that there is still life left in his arm. Compared to 2012, Hudson's SO/9 and SO/BB ratio both improved. Per Fangraphs, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) also showed an improvement, profiling as his best mark since the 2007 season.
The following chart shows Hudson's 2012 and 2013 side by side. Despite his ERA rising, there's reason to believe Hudson can continue to be effective if healthy in 2014 and beyond.
Of course, age is a concern for any pitchers, especially one with more than 2,800 big league innings under his belt. Still, Hudson's style leads me to believe he can continue to age gracefully and pitch into his early 40s.
Much like another impending free agent, Hiroki Kuroda, Hudson is a ground-ball machine. Despite never, even in his youth, averaging at least a strikeout per inning, Hudson has thrived for 15 years because of an ability to keep the ball on the ground.
This (via Fangraphs) shows where Hudson ranks among the best ground-ball-inducing pitchers in the sport since arriving in 1999. Using a minimum of 1,000 career innings, you can see how the data highlights Hudson's strength. The aforementioned Kuroda and ageless Andy Pettitte's inclusion on the list give credence to Hudson's ability to perform well over the next few seasons.
Clearly, there's something left in the tank for a pitcher with 205 career wins, but is it enough for Atlanta to carve out a chunk of their budget for him? Considering their rotation without him, it should be.
Atlanta doesn't need Tim Hudson to be an ace anymore. The rising duo of Mike Minor and Julio Teheran should combine to assume that role over the next few seasons. Beyond that pair, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have the potential to be top-tier arms. Alex Wood, a starting pitching prospect turned reliever, made 11 starts for Fredi Gonzalez's staff in 2013 and could garner a bigger role moving forward.
There's enough to win with in 2014 but little margin for error. Without a veteran presence, Atlanta would be exposing themselves to disaster if Beachy's latest elbow surgery (via Hardball Talk) proves to be more debilitating than assumed or if Alex Wood's progression isn't linear.
Late in the summer, during Hudson's absence, the team turned to Orioles castoff Freddy Garcia to provide innings and starts. Despite pitching well (1.65 ERA) and earning a postseason assignment, the process was faulty in Atlanta. Without Tim Hudson, there was a major need for a veteran rock in the rotation when the inevitable injury hit.
If Hudson was on the verge of losing total effectiveness, allocating major dollars, even on a short-term deal, wouldn't make sense for Atlanta. If the team could count on 30-plus starts from all of their young arms, Hudson would be an expensive long man out of the bullpen.
As of now, neither of those scenarios are close to reality. Allowing Tim Hudson to walk away, possibly to a rival contender, would be a mistake for the Braves' front office.
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