For the majority of the past 25 years, the Atlanta Braves have built their teams around great pitching. The upcoming 2014 was expected to be no different…that was before two of the clubs young starters walked off the mound on consecutive days with possible arm injuries to their respective reconstructed pitching elbows.
On Sunday afternoon, staff ace and longest tenured Braves player Kris Medlen, exited the game early against the Mets, and headed straight for the clubhouse after feeling discomfort in his upper forearm on back-to-back pitches. Having a questionable injury to the leader of your rotation is worrisome enough, but then the Braves had to hold their breath once again when Brandon Beachy left Monday’s game against the Phillies with further discomfort in his own elbow.
According to Braves beat writers and Braves’ general manager Frank Wren himself, Medlen had an MRI on his elbow Monday that came back “inconclusive” at best.
“The MRI does show some involvement with the ligament,” Wren explained to reporters Tuesday morning. “We don’t know to what extent yet, so we’re probably going to have to get a second opinion. For us to put a complete diagnosis on it at this time would be premature.”
Wren stated that MRIs on a player’s elbows after the said player has already had Tommy John Surgery often tend to be harder to read due to the previous surgery.
“Second MRIs are not as clear or precise, so it’s difficult to make a determination,” Wren said. “We’ll let this process work its way through in the next few days.”
Wren went on to indicate that Medlen could possibly get his second opinion from the prominent Dr. James Andrews, who conducted Medlen’s initial Tommy John Surgery in 2010.
The news on Beachy is a little more optimistic following his injury scare, as the team has chalked it up to inflammation, which is a common setback for pitchers on their way back from Tommy John Surgery. Beachy was leading the league in ERA in 2012 before suffering his ligament damage halfway through the season. He returned to make a handful of starts late in 2013, but suffered similar soreness and setbacks.
This week’s pitching scare comes on top of 2013 standout Mike Minor working through shoulder soreness and urinary tract surgery this offseason. Minor is not expected to be ready until a couple of weeks into the regular season, which opens for the Braves in 20 days in Milwaukee.
That being said, now three-fifths of the team’s rotation is on the shelf for an uncertain amount of time.
“It’s worrisome, let’s put it that way,” Wren said. “We still feel like we have the makings of a very good pitching staff, but you need depth at this level, because you just never know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen that over the last two days. Your depth can quickly go to a shortage.”
With long-time ace Tim Hudson leaving for San Francisco via free-agency this offseason, the Braves’ rotation was slated to consist of Medlen, Teheran, Minor, Beachy, with youngsters David Hale and Alex Wood battling veteran Freddy Garcia for the fifth spot. Offseason acquisition Gavin Floyd, who himself is recovering from Tommy John, is slated to be back ready to take the mound possibly in May.
If the injuries turn out to be a more severe than perceived at the moment, or even season-ending, the Braves’ might have to explore the thin starting pitching market via trade or free-agency.
There’s also always the possibility of retracing steps and re-evaluating the trade market for guys such as David Price or Jeff Samardzija. The Braves have plenty of talent in their farm system, the only question is how much are you willing to give up, and how willing are teams to deal their aces this close to the start of the season? It will be interesting to see what the Braves choose to do once a full diagnosis is given regarding their ailing arms.
Medlen’s injury if it is indeed season-ending, would be a giant blow to the team’s chances of again returning to the playoffs in 2014. Since becoming a full-time starter the second half of the 2012 season, Medlen has easily been the clubs best hurler, which was evident when manager Fredi Gonzalez gave him the starting nod over Tim Hudson in the club’s one-game playoff against the St. Louis Cardinals in the infamous “infield fly-rule game.”
Since July of 2012, Medlen has gone 24-12 over 43 starts, and has pitched to a 2.40 ERA since the 2012 All-Star break, which is second best in baseball behind defending NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.