Recalling a lost generation of Braves starting pitchers

Two things happened Wednesday. Julio Teheran worked his third quality start in four turns — after a rough patch in June, he has steadied, which is the story of latter-day Teheran — and yours truly spent several hundred words pondering what the Braves will do, if anything, regarding starting pitching ahead of the trade deadline. Which got me to thinking, always a scary proposition.

Among Braves pitchers of the post-Schuerholz, pre-Hart/Coppolella eras, Teheran stands alone. He’s the one the club, mostly but not entirely meaning Frank Wren, didn’t punt away. Teheran mightn’t be considered a top-of-the-rotation guy anymore, but he has, with the exception the 2018 NLDS, held a starting spot here since 2013. Nobody else of that vintage has done the same.

Check the American League ERA leaders. You’ll find two ex-Braves among the top five. Charlie Morton, who was drafted under John Schuerholz but who made his Braves debut in 2008 under Wren, is No. 1; Mike Minor, drafted No. 7 overall in 2009 under Wren, is No. 5. Minor, a Texas Ranger, leads big-league pitchers in WAR; Morton, a Tampa Bay Ray, is ninth.

We recall other young starters of that non-halcyon era. Jair Jurrjens was the plum in Wren’s first big trade, acquired from Detroit in return for the aging Edgar Renteria; Jurrjens made the All-Star team in 2011 but was allowed to leave a year later, having made only 10 big-league starts in 2012. Tommy Hanson, drafted under Schuerholz, finished third in the 2009 rookie of the year voting and was nearly an All-Star in 2010; in November 2012 he was traded to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden.

Randall Delgado, signed under Schuerholz, was among Baseball America's top 50 prospects in 2011 and 2012; he was sent to Arizona in January 2013 in the Justin Upton deal. Arodys Vizcaino was landed by Wren in the Javier Vazquez trade of December 2009; he was shipped to the Cubs for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson at the 2012 deadline. (Vizcaino, by then a certified reliever, was re-acquired by Hart/Coppolella in November 2014 and, after undergoing shoulder surgery, offloaded by Alex Anthopoulos for Anthony Swarzak in May.)

Alex Wood, drafted under Wren in 2012, was excellent for the Braves in 2013 and pretty good in 2014; after Wren's termination, he was traded by Hart/Coppolella to the Dodgers in the star-crossed Hector Olivera swap at the 2015 deadline. Brandon Beachy, signed under Wren as an amateur free agent, made his big-league debut in 2010 and was leading the National League in ERA when he underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2012; he required a second round of TJ in March 2014 and left as a free agent at season's end.

And let’s not forget Kris Medlen. Drafted under Schuerholz, he helped lift the Braves to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, being named the National League’s pitcher of the month three times. He required TJ surgery — his second bout — in March 2014. (Medlen and Beachy broke down in spring training on consecutive days.) Medlen signed with the Royals in November 2014.

Hanson died at 29 on Nov. 9, 2015. Medlen announced his retirement last fall at 33, having started 15 big-league games since 2013. Delgado, who's 29, started 29 games over six seasons with the Diamondbacks; he's on the injured list as a Yankees minor-leaguer. Jurrjens, now 33, last pitched in the majors in 2014. Wood, who's 28, made the All-Star team as a Dodger in 2017; he was traded to the Reds last winter and hasn't pitched in the majors this year because of back spasms. Beachy, who's 32, is a minor-leaguer with the Giants. Vizcaino, who's 28, won't pitch again this season and will be a free agent come November.

If you’re wondering why Schuerholz fired Wren and charged Hart/Coppolella with rebuilding around young pitching, there’s your answer. Apart from Teheran and Wood, the Wren-era Braves couldn’t produce a single starting pitcher whose rotational time could be sustained. Injuries played a part in nearly all cases; the fear of injury led Wren’s successors to dispense with Wood. Impatience played a part, too. When the Wren administration soured on a guy, there was almost no way back for him. (Wren, whose Braves made the playoffs three times in four seasons, has many strengths. Patience is not among them.)

To wit: Morton. The Braves cultivated him and brought him to the bigs, whereupon they dumped him for outfielder Nate McLouth, known to some Braves fans as Nate McLousy. (McLouth's WAR over three Braves seasons was minus-0.6.) There was no injury with Morton; the Braves just didn't think he could cut it. And, to be fair, for the longest time he didn't. Over seven seasons as a bottom-of-the-rotation starter in Pittsburgh, his aggregate WAR was 0.2. But he finally found himself at 33 with Houston, where he began throwing harder. Today he's 35 and hitting 95 mph.

Should the Braves have waited a decade for this Morton to arise? Heck, no. His is among the latest-blooming stories in baseball annals. Could they have granted Minor a longer leash? How could they? Hart/Coppolella were the ones who let him leave, and that came after a 2015 season in which he didn’t pitch due to shoulder pain and subsequent surgery. Minor went from Sept. 20, 2014, to April 1, 2018, between big-league starts. Nobody could have foreseen that, on the high side of 30, these ex-Braves would become All-Stars.

This, though, is baseball. Weird stuff happens. The Mets of the ’90s were hyped to the heavens about Generation K — Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. All hurt their arms. The only real success any of them had was when, years later, Isringhausen became a closer elsewhere. It’s possible that the Braves just got similarly unlucky. It’s also possible they weren’t the best shepherds. With the arms of pitchers, who knows anything for sure?

This much, however, is certain. The Braves, as noted yesterday, still wonder if they’ll need another starting pitcher to get them to/through October. (Their division lead over Washington is down to four games.) If they had the Minor or Morton of today, they wouldn’t be wondering.