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Early bout of bad luck to test Braves this season

Medlen, Beachy exit starts early on back-to-back days due to arm issues @RichardJustice

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just when the Atlanta Braves probably thought the news couldn't get worse ...

"Sometimes it feels like a trapdoor has been pulled," general manager Frank Wren said.

Monday was one of those days. Three weeks before Opening Day, three of Wren's top four starters -- Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy -- are dealing with injuries. Stay tuned for further developments.

Until then, the Braves will worry and wait. To say a season hangs in the balance wouldn't be an overstatement.

"I know people get tired of hearing it," Wren said, "but it's why every general manager, when they talk about their team, they always have that disclaimer, 'Assuming health.' We're no different. Assuming health, we like our team. Assuming health, everything could work. We say it because that's the business we're in."

On the other hand, Atlanta has a deep farm system and a history of winning. If Wren needs to acquire a veteran starter, he probably has the depth to do it at some point in the season. But starters are almost impossible to acquire at this time of the year as every team rides optimism toward Opening Day.

Wren could also make a run at free agent Ervin Santana. The Braves would lose their first-round Draft choice -- 26th overall -- but they're in win-now mode.

And Atlanta has some organizational depth, specifically rookie David Hale and veteran Freddy Garcia. (Wren also signed veteran Gavin Floyd, but he's recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be sidelined another three months or so.)

All in all, it's been a stunning turn of events that began Sunday afternoon when Medlen grabbed his right arm after throwing a pitch in the fourth inning of a start against the Mets. He underwent an MRI on Monday, and while the Braves are hoping for the best, they're braced for the worst.

"It takes your breath away," Wren said.

It got worse on Monday. Beachy exited his start against the Phillies after just two innings and having thrown only 14 of his 37 pitches for strikes. His fastball topped out at 88 mph, and on a day when he'd been scheduled to go four innings, Beachy exited after two.

"It just got unproductive out there," he said.

Beachy made five starts last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. He's hoping this is part of the process.

"Let's not count him out just yet," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We'll see here in the next day or two."

Beachy has been assured his surgically repaired right elbow is sound, and until Monday, he'd been able to throw through the tightness. Now there's some inflammation in the elbow, and he'll meet with doctors before deciding on the next step.

"This is something I've been dealing with," Beachy said. "It had been getting a little easier the harder I threw and more I pushed. Today, it just got a little too tight on me."

Those two injuries came at a time when Minor is attempting to catch up after being sidelined by urinary tract surgery and a sore shoulder. He's being targeted for a return in the second week of the season.

The Braves arrived at Spring Training optimistic about winning a second straight National League East title. Even with Tim Hudson and Brian McCann gone via free agency, Atlanta was one of those teams with very few holes.

Suddenly, the Braves may have a couple.

"You just never know," Gonzalez said. "You feel like you have enough [pitching], and the next thing you know, something happens that screws up everything."

And it's not just about a pennant race. People like Wren deal with these guys on a human level, track their progress and their disappointments, get to know them in a way that's not unlike a parent-child relationship.

"Not only what it means to our team," Wren said. "These guys, it's their careers, it's their livelihood. You fight the urge to think the worst. It's sad on a lot of levels."

The Braves went down this road last season when Hudson's season ended on July 24 after he suffered a gruesome right ankle injury while covering first base.

"We were rolling along, playing our best ball of the year," Wren said. "And we lose Tim Hudson on a routine ground ball to first base."

Rookies Alex Wood and Hale stepped up last year. Both may be counted on again.

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

Atlanta Braves, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen