The old saying "pitching wins championships" is a fairly overused proverb among baseball folk, even if it holds true more often than not. A more accurate maxim, however, would be "experienced pitching wins championships," as few teams in the modern era have been able to go all the way without a stout core of veteran arms.
The Atlanta Braves will certainly have talented pitching in 2014; that cannot be denied. It’s their experience on the mound that will be called into question.
Here’s the reality the Braves face: if they return to the playoffs next fall, they won’t have many (if any) pitchers who have played beyond the League Division Series — and that may be the biggest difference between this group and the ones that won 14 straight division championships.
In a conversation with the Forsyth County News on Thursday, manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell affirmed that, in wake of Tim Hudson’s departure, Atlanta will rely almost exclusively on young, homegrown pitchers this upcoming season.
"When you look at our staff, these are all our kids," said McDowell. "That’s a testament to our scouts, coaches and the people who drafted all these guys. From top to bottom our organization does a tremendous job getting our pitchers ready to compete at the big league level."
With the exception of newly-signed righty Gavin Floyd, every viable candidate for the Braves’ opening day rotation was a member of their farm system not too long ago, as were closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Luis Avilan and Jonny Venters, among others.
Kris Medlen, 28, is now Atlanta’s longest tenured player, yet McDowell still refers to him as a puppy—an ode to not only his physical appearance, but to his lack of MLB service, as well.
Sprinkled throughout the roster are some pitchers who were acquired via free agency or trade, but they are few and far between, none of whom are particularly high on the depth chart.
Undoubtedly, the young arms Atlanta groomed through the minor league ranks are going to have to lead the charge in 2014.
"Last year our offense was middle-of-the-road, and that was OK because we had elite pitching," said Gonzalez. "Obviously we want our hitting to be better this season, but if it’s not we’ll have a way to overcome it."
Since the Braves have one of the youngest staffs in the league, many fans wanted to see general manager Frank Wren add a high-priced, top of the rotation veteran this winter to balance things out. However, given the market and their current budget, that kind of move simply wasn’t in the cards.
"We’re no longer the kind of team that’s going to sign that big free agent," said McDowell. "Ever since I arrived here [10 years ago], we’ve been in a youth movement, and that’s not going to change."
Saying "youth movement" can certainly conjure some negative connotations in the sports world, as it’s typically referenced by teams going through rebuilding processes—teams that don’t plan on winning much in the near future.
But the Braves believe they can be an outlier rather than the norm. Even without Hudson or a comparable veteran, Gonzalez and McDowell are confident their current staff has what it takes to bring a World Series championship to Atlanta—and much of this confidence stems from the experience the Braves receive last season, particularly in the NLDS against the Dodgers.
While Atlanta was eliminated by LA in five games, that series provided a lot of young players who aren’t used to the national stage the chance to perform under the brightest of spotlights.
"You can’t replace or duplicate the playoffs, and to go through it a few times the way we have is huge," said McDowell. "All of our pitchers now, especially in the rotation, have been there, and that’s going to pay off for us."
Perhaps no Brave benefited from the NLDS more than 23-year-old Julio Teheran. Now one of the most valuable and productive players on the team, Teheran crumbled in his one postseason appearance, surrendering six earned runs in just 2.2 innings.
But if he can use that to better himself, he will be far better for it and learn what it takes to compete at the highest level—just like Tom Glavine and Steve Avery did once upon a time.
"It’s something we talk about a lot: when they face adversity, are they able to get through it?" said McDowell. "Julio has had that experience before in the minor leagues and last year in Los Angeles.
"Looking at his playoff start, it was one of those opportunities to gain more experience. I don’t look at those struggles as a detriment; I look at them as a positive."
If Teheran and the rest of Atlanta’s pitchers can learn from past mistakes and start performing at their best when it matters most, there’s good reason to believe the Braves can make a World Series push in 2014. This is especially true of Beachy can return to form, which is likely given the fact that he will be ready for Day 1 of Spring Training, barring a setback.
And of course, Wren could add another arm or two midseason, whether it be a low-budget deal for a Freddy Garcia-esque vet or a more lucrative one if the opportunity presents itself.
Will such a move be necessary?
"Possibly," McDowell said. "But right now we have to take everything day by day.
"We're prepared to make a championship push with the guys we have now, and I'm confident we can do that."