Handing a rookie a starting job before Spring Training is usually not in a team's best interests. Expectations run higher due to the player being seemingly on an island, and the player pushes himself to reach expectations that are usually unreasonable if it is a highly ranked prospect. Having competition, no matter how competitive it may be, is important to keep the rookie's outlook in perspective.
The Braves are likely doing this with Mike Minor. The lefty is the clear cut favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation out of spring camp, but the Braves are not handing it to him. Brandon Beachy will be getting plenty of innings, and Rodrigo Lopez was signed to provide a veteran presence. While Beachy is a step below Minor, and Lopez is best suited as AAA filler, they at least give Minor something to think about as he prepares in Florida.
Minor's 2010 season turned a lot of heads and added a large number to his bandwagon. He was considered by many to be the safe pick by the Braves in the 2009 draft, not providing a big ceiling as a mid-to-end of the rotation type talent. However, added velocity and good strikeout rates changed opinions quickly.
Minor's scouting report from the draft had his fastball velocity in the high 80s to low 90s, with a good changeup and decent curve. In 2010, he ranged from low-to-mid 90s with the fastball and had his changeup rated as a plus pitch. The results are in the numbers.
At AA, Minor posted a 3.84 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 82 innings, including a 3.51 BB/9 and 11.3 K/9. A relatively low left-on-base percentage of 63.9% helped cause a slight uptick in ERA, but he kept the ball in the park and opened a lot of eyes with the tremendous K-rate in AA. He threw 33.1 innings for AAA in 2010, posting a 1.89 ERA and 2.45 FIP, including a 3.24 BB/9 and 9.99 K/9. He also allowed just one home run over the 33.1 innings. He seemed to get better as he progressed through the minors, and the Braves were ecstatic by Minor's performance, giving him a late promotion to the majors.
Minor saw 40.2 innings for Atlanta, recording a 5.98 ERA, 3.77 FIP and 3.86 xFIP. He had a 2.43 BB/9 and 9.52 K/9. Minor continued his solid rates despite the high ERA, but he allowed six home runs in the short amount of time. I feel much of that is due to the fact that he ran out of gas by the end of the season, which is something the Braves must consider if he pitches an entire season in Atlanta. Minor has seen just one full season as a pro, and the effects were evident after his promotion to the Braves.
This is where Beachy comes into play. Like Minor, Beachy opened a lot of eyes with his 2010 season, shooting up the ladder from an unknown reliever at AA to a starter throwing big innings for the Braves down the stretch. He posted insane numbers at AA and AAA, including ERA's of 1.45 and 2.17. Beachy also flashed big strikeout ability, recording marks of 12.11 K/9 at AA and 9.46 at AAA, while posting walk rates of 2.66 and 1.18. His strikeout ability continued in the majors over 15 innings, striking out 15. However, Beachy gave up a lot of line drives in the small sample, and his ability to stick in a major league rotation over a full season remains in question.
Beachy proved his worth as the Braves' first option in AAA should a starting pitcher go down with injury, or to spell Minor down the stretch. He is not on the same level as Minor, but he is better than Lopez, and he can give the Braves 50-100 dependable innings, at the very least. Because his talent level is not the same as Minor, he should not be in a battle with Minor for the fifth spot, but he does give the Braves a backup option that they aren't afraid to use over long periods of time.
Lopez is not on the same level as Minor or Beachy, but he also provides a backup option with major league experience, should disaster occur in the rotation. His 2010 season with Arizona is a great indicator of his true talent, recording a 5.00 ERA, 5.21 FIP and 4.70 xFIP in 200 innings. He recorded a 2.52 BB/9 and 5.22 K/9, including a 1.67 HR/9 and 13.3% HR/FB. Lopez gives up a ton of fly balls and does not have strikeout ability, which is a lethal combination. He will give you innings (hopefully, considering he had Tommy John Surgery) when you are in a squeeze, but he is not worthy of over 50 innings in the majors.
Lopez is third in line behind Minor and Beachy, and there is a good chance he does not see the majors in 2011, but at least his veteran presence is there during camp, and starting pitching depth is never a bad thing if used correctly.
Minor's rearview mirror has a good backup plan and AAA filler in it, so you can't really consider this a three-way race for the fifth spot. But you can consider it a good idea by the Braves to give Minor at least something in the mirror.