KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When Fredi Gonzalez heard that Philadelphia had signed a fourth ace, he couldn’t resist having a little fun.
The new manager of the Atlanta Braves called up his pitching coach, Roger McDowell, to deliver a good-natured edict.
“You better get your pitchers going,” Gonzalez told him.
Indeed, the Phillies assembled one of the greatest rotations in baseball history during the offseason, adding Cliff Lee to a lineup that already included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They were quickly dubbed “The Four Aces,” a hand that everyone assumes will carry Philadelphia to a fifth straight NL East title.
Not so fast, say the Braves.
“We’re not chopped liver,” Gonzalez pointed out.
Yes, the Phillies have an imposing group of starters. But the Braves feel very good about their own rotation, too. Tim Hudson was a 17-game winner last season. Derek Lowe added 16 wins. Tommy Hanson is one of baseball’s most promising pitchers. Ditto for Jair Jurrjens, who’s looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued season.
“We feel like our rotation is right there with them,” Hanson said. “We’re going to go out there, compete every night and do well.”
They better, if the Braves are going to have any chance of winning the division — or at least getting back to the playoffs for the second year in a row. The division rivals will face each other 18 times during the regular season, games that figure to be low scoring all the way.
“It’s impressive what they have. On paper, it’s really, really good,” Hudson said. “But you’ve still got to go out there and play. I know a lot of teams around the league will feel like they don’t have a chance when the Phillies come to town.
We’re not going to be one of those teams. We feel like we match up pretty well against those guys.”
A look at the Braves’ Big Four:
Hudson, 35, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career (17-9, 2.83 ERA) and seems rejuvenated after undergoing major elbow surgery in 2008. The right-hander is not overpowering and, at just 175 pounds, hardly intimidating. But the surgery gave him the range of motion he needed to throw his devastating sinker effectively, producing ground ball after ground ball.
Lowe, 37, persevered through a sore right elbow in 2010 (16-12, 4.00), an injury that was so painful he couldn’t wash his hair or brush his teeth without assistance. He missed a scheduled start for the first time in his career but returned with some dominating performances down the stretch, going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in September as the Braves claimed the wild card. This could be the year he truly lives up to his $15-million-a-year contract.
Hanson, 24, is Atlanta’s most promising pitcher, a right-hander who’s been compared to John Smoltz and certainly has the look of a future ace. He slid off a bit last season (10-11, 3.33) after a dynamic rookie season, but could be poised for a breakout year. He can throw four pitches for strikes (fastball, changeup, curve, slider) and gives off the quiet confidence of someone who’s been around for a decade.
Jurrjens, 25, might be the most overlooked of the Atlanta starters after a miserable 2010 season (7-6, 4.64 in only 20 starts). But the right-hander was Atlanta’s top pitcher the year before, going 14-10 with a brilliant 2.60 ERA, and might’ve won 20 with a little run support. Last year, Jurrjens missed two months with a hamstring injury, then couldn’t pitch in the playoffs because of a knee injury that required surgery.
After a strict training regiment over the winter dropped Jurrjens’ weight from 210 to 198 pounds, he is healthy and looking forward to going against the Phillies.
“Definitely!” he said. “It’s always exciting when you face a good team, when you face one of the best pitchers in the game. It puts you on your game. It makes you concentrate every pitch. It’s a chance to show everybody you’re one of the best pitchers in the league.”
Gonzalez took over this season after longtime manager Bobby Cox retired. If the new manager is worried about the Phillies’ impressive rotation, he’s sure not letting on.
“You know what? That’s fine and dandy,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve still got to play 162 games and you’ve still got to stay healthy. That’s the biggest things. Nobody knows whether it’s going to be us or the Phillies. Who knows? There’s going to be some injuries. The team that gets through those injuries, they’re going to be the team that’s there at the end.”
Besides, he knows there’s plenty of teams that would love to have the Braves’ rotation.
“About 28 other teams,” Gonzalez said confidently.