LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Once the Braves lost to the Dodgers in last season's National League Division Series, it was apparent that the most obvious way for them to improve would be to add a legitimate ace to their talented young rotation.
Unfortunately, given what was available on the free-agent market, this was not the time to be in search of one of these rare creatures. Thoughts of trading for David Price or Chris Sale quickly died, when the Rays and White Sox suggested asking prices that exceeded the Braves' comfort level.
Consequently, the Braves are now left to attempt to prove that they are capable of defending their NL East title, while once again utilizing a starting rotation that does not include a legitimate ace.
"I think our guys are as good as any rotation in the game," Braves backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "If you look at the numbers, I'll take them against anybody. We battled against a really good Dodger team with [Clayton] Kershaw and [Zack] Greinke [in the NLDS]. If that couldn't get any respect ... it's not like they waxed us. We had guys competing. I'll take [Kris] Medlen versus Kershaw any day of the week."
Like Laird is obviously in the minority with this Medlen-Kershaw mention, few unbiased observers will give the Braves as much lofty praise as he does. It is not like the Braves' rotation is completely overlooked. MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince recently ranked Atlanta's rotation as the eighth-best in the Majors and fifth-best in the National League, behind the Nationals (first overall), Dodgers (second), Cardinals (fifth) and Reds (sixth).
But there is at least reason to wonder if the Braves ace-less rotation does draw the respect it deserves.
"We don't have the electric arms," Laird said. "We have the guys that can pitch. Medlen is going to sit 88-92 [mph]. We don't have a [Justin] Verlander or a [Max] Scherzer or a [Stephen] Strasburg. We have guys who know how to pitch and get outs."
While Medlen and left-hander Mike Minor do not have the ability to impress with the overpowering stuff possessed by those select few who are considered a "legit ace," both have spent the past season and a half proving they deserve to be considered among the game's top starting pitchers.
Among NL pitchers who have made at least 40 starts since the 2012 All-Star break, Medlen ranks second with a 2.46 ERA (which accounts for only his starts during that span) and Minor ranks fifth.
"I don't think every guy can go 30-plus starts and be lucky," Minor said. "I know guys have good years. We could also have bad years. But it's not about being lucky for a whole year."
Atlanta's rotation will be nearly identical to the one that ranked fifth in the NL last year with a 3.51 ERA. This quintet bid adieu to Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm during the offseason. But it got along just fine down the stretch last year without these two veterans, who combined to make just nine starts after the All-Star break.
There was reason for concern when Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury on July 24 and left Atlanta with a rotation that consisted of Medlen, Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood. But from July 25 through the remainder of the season, Braves starting pitchers ranked third in the Majors with a 3.24 ERA, trailing only the Dodgers (2.61) and Tigers (3.14).
As this season approaches, the Braves are once again set to go with a rotation that includes Medlen, Minor, Teheran and Beachy, who is hoping to distance himself from the frustration he experienced while making just five starts after returning from Tommy John surgery.
A healthy and productive Beachy has the potential to assume the appearance of an ace. Through the 13 starts he made before blowing out his elbow in 2012, he was leading the Majors with a 2.00 ERA. The Braves are also hoping to see a more seasoned and fresher form of Teheran, who has did not pitch this winter after going 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA in the 30 starts that encompassed his first full Major League season.
The fifth spot in Atlanta's rotation will be filled by either 37-year-old veteran Freddy Garcia or Wood, who is less than two years removed from his successful career at the University of Georgia.
Wood displayed his tremendous potential, as he produced a 0.90 ERA in five August starts. As the young left-hander fatigued near the end of his first full professional season, he moved to the bullpen and created a rotation spot for Garcia, who produced three strong September starts and matched Kershaw through six innings of Game 4 of the NLDS.
By placing Garcia in the rotation to begin the season, Wood could begin the year as a reliever and then, like last year, make a mid-season transition to the rotation. This would give the Braves another left-handed option out of the bullpen and also a chance to moderate the workload of Wood, who will be working with an innings limit.
"From the naked eye, [none of the starters] really blows you away with eye-popping stuff," said Braves utility man Ryan Doumit, who recently played for the Twins and Pirates. "But, at the end of the day, you look at the numbers at the end of the season and you know they are guys who know how to pitch. [They're guys who] are comfortable [with] more than two pitches. They've got three or four quality pitches that they can throw in any count."
When the Nationals acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers in December, they fortified their already strong rotation and began being tabbed as the favorites in the NL East.
In other words, the Braves are back where they were at this point last year, before they had some fun exceeding expectations.
"It's just something that drives you. It's nothing personal," Minor said. "I think of it [like] I want to prove myself anyway. But those little things, if you play them in your head, it can make you better, make you more competitive. It makes you want to prove people wrong."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.