ATLANTA -- With their projected top two setup men -- Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty -- missing all or most of this past season, the Braves set a franchise record with a Major League-best 2.46 bullpen ERA. They also managed to claim 96 victories, despite the fact that Jason Heyward endured two separate one-month stints on the disabled list.
But once his club was eliminated by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, Braves general manager Frank Wren concluded that the Braves were never able to fully recover from the season-ending injuries that two of his top starting pitchers -- Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy -- suffered during the regular season's second half.
"The disappointment with the way the season ended really started with Tim Hudson's injury," Wren said. "Tim Hudson was starting to throw the ball really well. Our team was starting to play really well. He was just kind of an irreplaceable piece at that point, because there was not starting pitching available at the [non-waiver Trade Deadline] that could make a significant difference."
Wren expressed concern as he spoke on the morning of July 25, less than 12 hours after Hudson fractured his right ankle when the Mets' Eric Young accidentally stepped on it in a bang-bang play at first base. Just five days earlier, Paul Maholm had suffered a left wrist injury that would sideline him for a month.
The non-waiver Trade Deadline just one week away, the Braves suddenly found themselves with a rotation that did not include a single member who had made more than 75 career starts at the Major League level.
Thoughts of acquiring Jake Peavy quickly died when it became apparent that the Braves did not have what the White Sox were seeking. When evaluating some of the other starters who were available, Wren and his staff determined that two internal candidates, Beachy and Alex Wood, were better options.
Wood lived up to expectations, posting a 0.90 ERA in five August starts. But as he neared the end of his first full professional season, the 22-year-old left-hander showed signs of fatigue. He did not last five innings in any of his three September starts and ended the year in the bullpen.
Beachy struggled when he made his highly anticipated return from Tommy John surgery on July 29, and then he showed promise during each of his next four outings. But the elbow discomfort that plagued him near the end of his Aug. 20 start at Citi Field forced the Braves to shut him down for the remainder of the season.
"That's two significant pieces that -- in today's world and with this [year's] Trade Deadline -- were somewhat irreplaceable," Wren said. "From that point on, we were searching for starting pitching. We went on and played well. But that didn't mask our feeling about starting pitching. We still felt, as the season wore on and September rolled around, we were going to need that veteran experience and that ability."
When the Braves acquired Freddy Garcia from the Orioles on Aug. 22, they viewed him as a veteran who could provide depth in the rotation or bullpen down the stretch. They certainly did not envision that he would end up opposing Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the NLDS.
With Wood pushed to a bullpen role and Maholm weakened by the elbow discomfort that sidelined him over the summer, Garcia became the best option to serve as a fourth starter during the postseason. There isn't any reason to believe that any of the other options would have proven more effective than Garcia, who exited his matchup against Kershaw with the game tied at 2 after six innings. In fact, he was in line for the win after the Braves scored in the seventh, before Juan Uribe hit his two-run homer off David Carpenter in the eighth.
But if Hudson and Beachy had not suffered season-ending injuries, there is at least reason to wonder if the Braves would have recorded that one extra win that would have spared them from having to face the Dodgers and endure two matchups against Kershaw in the best-of-five NLDS.
Atlanta's starting pitchers compiled a respectable 3.31 ERA while the club went 13-14 during September and lost the opportunity to face the NL Wild Card winner in the NLDS. Mike Minor went winless while posting a 3.94 ERA in five starts, and Julio Teheran's 4.44 ERA in September foreshadowed the struggles he endured during his forgettable Game 3 start against the Dodgers.
If Beachy or Hudson had remained healthy, there is a good chance the Braves would have never made the surprising decision to allow Kameron Loe to start their Sept. 4 loss to the Mets. The result of this game also could have been different if the Braves had handed the ball to David Hale, who earned a spot on the NLDS roster despite being a late addition to the expanded September roster.
As the Braves look toward the 2014 season, they will attempt to acquire David Price or another front-line starting pitcher who might become available on the trade market. At the same time, Wren has already said he would like to re-sign Hudson, who will enter the free-agent market after the World Series concludes.
With Minor, Kris Medlen, Teheran, Wood and Beachy, who is expected to be at full strength at the start of Spring Training, the Braves already have a strong base for a solid rotation. But it would be one filled with inexperience.
Minor has started 85 games during his Major League career. None of these other candidates have made more than 61 career starts.
"There are a lot of ups and downs with young pitchers trying to get over the hump at the big league level," Wren said. "Having the depth and wisdom of a veteran pitcher like Huddy helps that process."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.