Braves 2005 Preview: Pitchers

Blaine Boyer
Blaine is a big guy who can really bring it, but is yet to develop a solid breaking ball. He had never pitched until the state playoffs of his senior year of high school. When his team ran out of pitching, they brought their centerfielder with the cannon for an arm in to try pitching. Well, Blaine came in and was consistently throwing mid-90s, and there happened to be several scouts in the stands. Less than a month later he was a 3rd round pick by the Braves, turned down a scholarship to play outfield at Auburn, and was pitching in rookie ball.

He has been very good each of the last two years, 12-8 in Rome and 12-12 with a 2.98 ERA in Myrtle Beach. He threw 154 innings last year, tops in the organization. He was knocked around a bit in his first time pitching against big leaguers, surrendering five runs in 1 1/3 innings of work. This spring will be a good test for Blaine against good hitters, and will prepare him well for a full season in AA. If he improves his off-speed stuff and pitches well in Mississippi this year, he should have a chance to come out the Atlanta pen in 2006.

Roman Colon
Colon was called up at the end of last season, and looked very good in his appearances. He only gave up seven ER in 19 innings, striking out 15 while walking just eight. He throws in the mid-90’s and has an excellent splitter to compliment the fastball. Before being called up he was 4-1, and only allowed four homeruns in 74 innings pitched; he was also 11-3 in 2003.

Colon possesses many of the qualities desired in a reliever. He has a plus fastball, a nasty second pitch, and keeps the ball in the park (didn’t allow a HR in his 19 MLB innings). He has good enough stuff to close, and if Kolb fails at the job, Colon may find himself this year. In addition, unless Kolb dominates, Colon will likely be his successor when Kolb’s contract expires this off-season.

Kyle Davies
Davies was rated by Baseball America as the best 15 year old in the country when he was a high school freshman, and I have been hearing all about him since then. I actually played against Davies several times in various showcases and tournaments where he played with East Cobb, as we are the same age, and you could just tell he had something that nobody else possessed. It has been fun to see him shoot up the Braves farm system, and if one of the starters doesn’t perform or gets hurt, I would expect to see Davies get the call to fill in this year. He has excellent stuff and command (95 K/32 BB last year), and has the look of a future star.

Kevin Gryboski
Gryboski is the rare situational righty, and he pitched well when called upon last year. Working with a fastball that can reach mid-90s and a nasty sinker, his specialty is coming on to get groundball outs. His groundball to flyball ratio last year was 2.9 to 1, and he induced ten double-play balls in just 50.2 innings pitched. He only allowed two homeruns and had an ERA of 2.48. He was rewarded with a $500,000 raise this off-season, signing a one year, $877,000 contract this winter.

Kevin is an excellent example of how well Cox handles a pitching staff. He doesn’t ask Gryboski to close games, or pitch 2+ innings. He uses Kevin anytime from the 6th inning on when a groundball is needed, and Gryboski usually delivers. I look for more of the same from Gryboski this year.

John Smoltz
This is year is going to be a lot of fun for John Smoltz. Everyone knew that he was growing tired of closing, and this year he will make his glorious return to the starting rotation. All reports indicate that his arm is healthy, and his stuff looks nasty as ever. He should have no problem starting, and will probably have an excellent first half. The real test will lie in his second half performance, whether his arm holds up through the stretch run and postseason.

It has been five years since John has thrown more than 100 innings, and will turn 38 in May. He is such an incredible athlete that I believe he can pull it off, have a great season. He is unlikely to dominate the end of the season, as he probably will at the start, but will gut it out during the stretch and win some key September games.

John Thomson
Thomson was given a reprieve from the horrendous Texas staff last season, and thanked Atlanta with a very good season. He was the Braves most consistent pitcher down the stretch, and his absence against Houston hurt them mightily in the NLDS. He set a career high with 14 wins, going 8-2 after the All-Star break, and 4-0 in September with a 1.36 ERA. He did allow 20 HR last year, but 15 of those occurred before the break when he was having problems with leaving his fastball ball up in the zone. Thomson has three excellent pitches in his 90+ mph fastball, tight curveball, and deceptive change. When his fastball is down it is very accurate and has good life.

He has fully recovered from the oblique strain that ended his season prematurely, and is primed to have a fabulous 2005 season. Based on the way he threw the ball at the end of last year, and the reports of him dazzling this spring, I would look for 15-17 wins and an ERA between 3 and 3.50. At age 31, John is right at the peak of his physical prime, and there is nothing stopping him from dominating this year.

Horacio Ramirez
There are many question marks surrounding the future of Horacio. He was excellent in 2003, going 12-4 in 29 starts. However, his 2004 season was basically a wash, as he went on the DL in May and never returned. He has thrown 242 innings in his major league career, going 14-8 with a 3.60 ERA. He is also a left-handed starting pitcher, which is a rare commodity. Normally these stats would rank him as one of the better young starters in the league. However, his peripheral numbers have not been good enough for me to have much faith in him this year. His BB/K numbers have been poor (131 K and 102 BB), and he has allowed almost a hit per inning pitched. As we all know, pitchers have little control over the outcome of the play once it leaves their hands, and it looks like Horacio has been pretty lucky the last two years.

On the other hand, Bobby has always liked Ramirez, and he certainly knows a lot more about baseball than I do. After a recent spring outing, Cox said, “The doctors said Ramirez would be ready for us and he has been. He’s hitting 90 miles per hour on his pitches and he’s locating everything the way we want him to do.” It is very difficult to predict what Horacio will do this year. Pitchers are far less predictable than hitters are when it comes to returning from injuries, and Horacio’s stats make it even harder to predict his season. He could win 15 games being lucky again or win 15 games by pitching really well. Conversely, he could be hit hard while pitching well as his luck evens out, or just have hitters hit him the way they could have in 2003 and 2004. I secretly think Horacio will it together and has another winning season, but I’m not confident enough to boldly make any sort of statistical predictions.

Mike Hampton
Hampton struggled for the last three years, but looked to have regained his old form since joining the Braves. He was 14-8 in 2003 and 13-9 with a 4.27 ERA last year, and ranked among the National League leaders in percentage of groundballs induced, with 66.8% of his outs coming on the ground. He pitched a great game in game two of the NLDS allowing just 2 runs in 7 innings, while keeping the Braves in the game until LaRoche and Furcal could work their magic. All reports indicate that his knee is healthy again, and he has been looking very good this spring.

Hampton struggled in the first half going 4-8, but recovered after the break going 9-1. He looked very confident every time out, which is important for a pitcher. Hampton has the stuff to once again win 20 games, and if he just trusts his stuff, he might well do that. He will be the fourth starter behind Smoltzie, Hudson and Thomson, and is one of the best fourth starters in all of baseball. Atlanta’s rotation is so good this year, that Hampton should win 15+ games as the fourth starter.

Tim Hudson
By far the biggest off-season acquisition, the Braves are looking for big things out of Hudson this year. The fact that he just signed a four-year, $47 million contract extension does not lower the pressure either. Tim was bothered by a strained oblique muscle last year, and only pitched 188 innings. However, he still managed to win 15 games, while only surrendering eight HR in those 188 innings.

As Hudson has gotten older, his strikeout rates have declined, a potential cause for concern considering he just signed a four-year deal. However, I think this is attributed more to him realizing his job is not to strike the hitters out, rather to simply get them out any way possible. His ground ball to fly ball ratio has improved significantly over this time as well. I think the return home, coupled with the tutelage of Leo Mazzone should have Tim primed for a big season this year. It is very possible that he could win 20 games and post a sub-3.00 ERA. I’m not sure if he will dominate to that extent this year, but for $47 million we should certainly be able to expect something around 17 wins and an ERA between 3.00 and 3.50.

Tom Martin
I think Houston is still getting hits off Tom Martin…he gave up four hits and a walk against them in the NLDS, while only getting one out. He was supposed to shore up the bullpen, but actually made the team worse. In just 17 innings of work with Atlanta, he gave up 17 hits, 7 runs, and 4 homeruns- these are just unacceptable stats for a reliever, especially a specialist. He supposedly was going through mechanical problems last year. If so, then why did they acquire him? Furthermore, when they saw he was no good, why did Bobby pitch him in games? I hope that Tom gets it together and pitches will this year, but I don’t see it happening.

Jorge Vasquez
Vasquez was the player to be named later acquired from Kansas City in the Eli Marrero deal. His main were not that impressive last year (4-5, 4.68 ERA in AA with KC), but he did have 71 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 59 innings. He has displayed a power arm from the pen, and his 1.2 K/IP ratio display an ability to pick up a lot of strikeouts. Working under Leo Mazzone should help him harness his potential and really learn how to pitch, instead of just throwing. If everything works out according to plan, he can have a year like that of Juan Cruz last year. Cruz and Vasquez are very similar pitchers- good stuff who the Braves acquired based on the ability of Leo to help them become pitchers instead of just throwers. He is only 24 and has the potential to develop into a quality big league relief pitcher.

Chris Reitsma
Reitsma caught a lot of flack for pitching poorly down the stretch, but I think his poor performance was more from overuse than lack of ability. He has great stuff, featuring a mid-90s fastball with a good slider and change. It is rare to find a reliever with three above average pitches, and Reitsma is one of the few. He pitched OK until September when he allowed 7 ER in just 11 IP. He threw 79 innings last year, which is a pretty heavy workload for a relief pitcher. Reitsma was hurt by the gopher ball more than any pitcher on the Atlanta staff last year, as he surrendered 9 HR, and it seemed like all of them came at critical situations. He is a former first round draft pick who has a chance to really come into his own this year. If he can keep the ball down and trust his stuff, Chris can dominate in short stints out of the pen this year.

Anthony Lerew
Lerew has no shot at making the big club this year, but was added to the 40-man because he would have definitely been picked up by someone in the Rule 5 draft. He is a power righty who has posted excellent numbers thus far in his pro career. He had 125 strikeouts and only 46 walks in 144 innings, for a 3:1 BB/K ratio, and averaged almost a K per inning pitched. He was only 8-9 last year, but W-L record is the least important stat for minor league pitchers. He has shown excellent command and an ability to dominate (367 K, 128 BB, and 420 IP). He will be in AA this year, and with a good year could push for a spot in Atlanta next year. Anthony is undoubtedly a very good prospect.

Macay McBride
McBride is another young pitcher who I played against growing up; in fact, my AAU team even picked him up for one tournament. He is a rare power lefty, who has very good breaking stuff to go along with a 90 mph fastball. He excelled in rookie and A ball, but did not pitch well in AA at all (1-7, 4.44 ERA, 113 H, 49 BB in 107 IP). He still may be a better left-handed option out of the pen than Tom Martin, who has yet to show anything at all in Atlanta. Macay has a chance to make the Atlanta pen with a strong spring, but is more likely to head back down to AA or AAA and continue starting every 5th day.

Dan Kolb
The trade of Jose Cappellan to Milwaukee left many Braves fans asking, “Danny who?” but those of us who follow the majors closely knew exactly who Atlanta had acquired. Kolb took over as the Brewers’ closer mid-way through 2003, and was lights out. In fact, I remember him closing out a game against the Braves that year where he mowed down the Braves in the ninth, and left Skip and Don singing his praises. He picked up right where he left off the following season, saving 39 games last year, and making his first all-star team.

Kolb is not the classic power arm who blows away the opposition. Rather, he has success by hitting spots and having wicked movement on his fastball. If my memory serves correct, the goal of a pitcher is to get outs regardless of style, and I think Dan will be very successful at that in 2005. Kolb is an extreme ground ball pitcher, only allowing ten HR in 177 big league innings. JC and I have spoken at length speculating about his role on this team, and we both feel that he will get first crack at the closer’s job. However, when Roman Colon looks ready for the job, Kolb may have more value to the team as a 7th or 8th inning stopper who can come in and induce the ground ball to get out of a big jam. If Colon can close, Atlanta might be able to maximize the strengths of each pitcher by utilizing Kolb in a situation where the game potentially is on the line, rather than with a safe two or three run lead in the 9th inning. Additionally, he will be a free agent after this season and will likely command a salary above the Braves means on the open market. If Roman Colon or anyone else looks capable of closing, I would imagine Schuerholz would have no problem thanking Danny for his contributions and parting ways with him.

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