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Demoting Kawakami A Sign Of The Braves' Desperation

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The Braves have a long history under Bobby Cox and company of being extremely patient with their personnel decisions. I could give you dozens of examples of the Braves sticking with a player through terrible struggles. And they were often rewarded for their patience. Which makes the Braves' recent decision to demote Kenshin Kawakami and promote Mike Minor all the more puzzling. Not so much because of Minor--he's undoubtedly a promising young player who may well be ready--but because of Kawakami.

Kawakami has pitched well for the Braves since signing here before the start of the 2009 season. According to ERA and more advanced metrics, he has been around a league-average starter (maybe a bit better). His peripherals back up this assessment as well. His strikeout rate and walk rate as a starter are right around league average, and his home run rate is a bit better than league average. For a fifth starter, those kinds of average statistics are a huge asset.

But now Bobby Cox, Frank Wren, and the Braves have thrown this asset down the drain, ruining any chance that they could get value from him (either from his pitching or in a trade). This is a self-inflicted wound, and it's a damaging one. The question is: Why did they do it?

I refuse to believe that the Braves found some fault in Kawakami's performance; if that were true, they'd be sending Derek Lowe down to AAA, not Kawakami, because Lowe has been slightly worse than Kawakami by just about any metric. Surely they are smart enough to look beyond win-loss record, which is probably the second-least-useful pitching statistic (behind only saves). At least I hope they are smart enough.

What does that leave? The only other possibility I can see is desperation. Braves management sees how the Phillies have gone on a tear the past two weeks to close within two games in the division. And rather than make the sensible move, which is to put Kawakami back into the rotation, they have panicked. Presumably they think that Minor will inject new life into the team and save the Braves' season.

But here's the thing: the Braves' season doesn't need saving. They are in first place. They have a home-heavy schedule for the rest of the season. They have a solid team that even without any more moves has a great chance of making the post-season. To make an unnecessary gamble like calling up Minor when they already have a good starter ready to step in is a sign that the Braves are not thinking rationally. That is never a good sign.

This decision could turn out well. If Minor pitches at a significantly better-than-average clip for the rest of the season, he may make the difference between the Braves making and missing the playoffs. If that happens, it may be worth sacrificing Kawakami. I sincerely hope Minor does pitch very well, but very few midseason call-ups are able to achieve that. If Minor does not come through, the Braves may well look back on this decision as the one that kept them from making the playoffs.

Oh, and they will have thrown away a perfectly good pitcher for absolutely nothing, too.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.