Here's the perfect way to describe the ups and downs of baseball: Fewer than 10 months ago, there was a vocal minority of Atlanta Braves fans on Twitter who were furious -- furious! -- that Roy Halladay was elected to start the All-Star Game over Jair Jurrjens. Now Jurrjens is in the minors, hoping he can figure out what's wrong.
That All-Star decision was really a thing last year. Halladay or Jurrjens? Just a year later it reads like a spirited Beach Boys vs. Moby Grape debate. But Jurrjens was 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA in the first half last year. He wasn't the prototypical ace, relying more on his defense than strikeouts, but he was certainly pitching like one for the first 16 starts in 2011.
And then … sproing. Actually, it was a knee problem. Knees don't go sproing. More of a crinkly, grinding sound, I'd imagine. Whatever the sound, Jurrjens hurt his knee, and he hasn't been the same since. After throwing a complete-game shutout against the Orioles on July 1, 2011, he allowed nine homers and 21 walks in 47 innings. He went on the disabled list in August for the knee, and then again in September.
Jurrjens had a miserable start to the 2012 season, too, giving up 40 runners and five home runs in his first 16 innings. With the Braves expecting Tim Hudson back soon, they optioned Jurrjens to triple-A, about 300 days after people were engaging in serious conversations about him starting the All-Star Game for the National League.
Ben Duronio of FanGraphs notes that Jurrjens' velocity has been on a slow decline, which could explain the bulk of his problems. Toward the end of his piece, Duronio suggested that the Braves will likely lament their decision to keep Jurrjens instead of trade him this offseason:
The biggest reason for not wanting to send Jurrjens down at this point was to potentially hold onto some semblance of his trade value. The Braves were actively shopping him this winter, but the knee injury which forced him to miss much of the second half made other teams weary. There were talks of Jurrjens being shipped to Baltimore in a package that included Martin Prado for Adam Jones. The Braves thought it to be too steep a price and avoided the deal.
Now, the Braves are left with a $5.5 million pitcher in triple-A who is more-or-less completely immovable. It is easy to see why, despite the price and destruction of his trade value, that Jurrjens needed to be sent down.
If there was really a chance that Jurrjens plus Prado could have brought back Adam Jones, the Braves probably are kicking themselves right now -- Jones is off to a hot start, albeit with a lone walk against 11 strikeouts to start off the year. But what the rise and fall of Jurrjens shows is that the Braves might have been wise not to deal any of their young pitching, even if they had a surplus.
At the All-Star Break last year, the Braves had the following young arms in the organization: Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, and Julio Teheran. That was on top of the established pitchers like Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Derek Lowe. That was nine pitchers for five spots -- an embarrassment of riches. Frank Wren started his day by diving into a vault of pitching prospects, Scrooge McDuck-style, giggling all the while.
- Tommy Hanson had a shoulder impingement
- Tim Hudson underwent back surgery for a herniated disc
- Derek Lowe had a talentectomy and was traded to the Indians, who are trying to reattach the talent in an experimental procedure
- Arodys Vizcaino was shut down after Tommy John Surgery
Hanson is back and pitching relatively well. Hudson is coming back soon. But you can see how depth can evaporate. Where once the Braves had depth, now they have a single pitcher in triple-A -- Teheran -- as their majors-ready rotation option. He's the last line of defense for a rotation featuring pitchers coming off shoulder impingements and back surgeries.
So while it's easy for pundits -- myself included -- to argue that a team like the Braves (or the Tampa Bay Rays) should trade away one or two or five of the young pitchers they're carrying around in their pocket, like so many nickels and dimes, it's also easy to forget that depth isn't always an expiring commodity that needs to be cashed in right away. Sometimes, a team is awfully glad they have it.
Right now, that team is the Braves. They can afford to let Jurrjens take his time in the minors because they have Hudson coming back and Teheran in the wings. But they shouldn't be upset that they didn't trade Jurrjens -- they didn't know which pitcher was going to implode. They just had a good idea that one of them would, though, because pitching is a harsh mistress. Trading pitchers is often something that looks really, really good, but usually in hindsight.