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With one move, Braves reverse 2014 fortunes

Santana signing allays fears raised by rash of injuries to starting pitchers @RichardJustice

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If you care about the Atlanta Braves, you can allow yourself a deep breath. Go right ahead. You've earned this one. Things didn't look so good for a while there, did they?

Signing free-agent right-hander Ervin Santana changes plenty. Three days after losing No. 1 starter Kris Medlen, the Braves have added a guy who probably will be among the National League's top 10 in innings, quality starts and a whole bunch of other categories.

Check the numbers. Santana has pitched 200-plus innings in three of the past four seasons, and only James Shields, Max Scherzer and C.J. Wilson had more quality starts among American Leaguers in 2013. Santana is a low-key, professional guy who will fit well in the Atlanta culture.

That Santana was still on the free-agent market halfway through Spring Training could turn into a godsend for baseball fans in Atlanta. If the Braves allow themselves to look down the road a few weeks, it's reasonable to see their rotation as Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Santana, Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy or Freddy Garcia.

Doctors have told Beachy that his surgically repaired right elbow is sound and that his spring problems are common issues for pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery. If Beachy can get back to the place he expects to be, and if Gavin Floyd continues a nice recovery from his own Tommy John surgery, the Braves might just have the kind of rotation depth and quality they envisioned all along.

Let's not oversell it. Medlen's loss is huge. His ERA over the past two seasons is 2.47. Only Clayton Kershaw (2.17) has a lower one among NL starters.

But the Braves just might end up with one of the NL's best rotations after all. There are no guarantees. That said, adding Santana is a big deal.

It's funny how these things work. Medlen's injury felt like some kind of tipping point. Even before that, the Braves weren't completely confident about their rotation because they didn't know when Beachy and Minor would be healthy.

But Medlen's injury felt like a killer. He was lined up to start Opening Day, and when he grabbed his right elbow on Sunday and headed for the dugout, he took close to 200 quality innings with him.

The Braves are one of baseball's best organizations, smart and efficient and with a long history of winning and doing things right. They've had one of the great runs ever over the past two decades, making the postseason 17 times in the past 22 completed seasons.

Atlanta's players come through the system knowing they'll be part of winning teams, and when they get to the big leagues, they're surrounded by players who have won. Somewhere along the way, a winning culture was born.

So when right-hander Tim Hudson went down late last season, the Braves gave the ball to the 22-year-old lefty Wood and continued sailing toward the postseason. Players change. Expectations don't.

This Spring Training began with the usual blueprint. General manager Frank Wren lost Hudson and catcher Brian McCann to free agency, but he had enough depth at both spots to keep the train rolling.

But then things started to get ridiculous. Minor's training was delayed by urinary tract surgery, and then a sore shoulder. Beachy exited after two innings in a start against the Phillies on Monday having thrown fastballs that topped out at 88 mph.

Wren had prepared for trouble by signing Floyd and re-signing Garcia. He had young David Hale waiting in the wings.

Those three guys were his depth, and Floyd, who might not be available until June or later, amounted to what Earl Weaver referred to as "deep depth." He was going to be Atlanta's Trade Deadline pickup.

By Monday afternoon, the Braves were without three of their top four starters, and in a division with the pitching-rich Washington Nationals, in a Senior Circuit with impressive top-to-bottom parity, things got real sobering.

Wren compared it to someone pulling a trapdoor out from beneath the organization. Santana's $14 million salary wasn't in the budget, and the Braves do stick to budgets. Teams that do that have to be prepared to make difficult decisions. If that means walking away from a player they love -- Tim Hudson, for instance -- they do it.

But the Braves are in win-now mode. As Wren has locked up core players like Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, he has also kept Atlanta positioned to win in 2014.

Santana's signing keeps them right there. They're not a slam dunk, but there aren't any of those in baseball anymore. Still, as Spring Training days go, Wednesday qualified as a good one for the Braves.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Atlanta Braves, Ervin Santana