ATLANTA — Frank Wren is facing a dilemma that general managers covet but also dread.
The Atlanta Braves must make room in an already deep pitching rotation as Brandon Beachy is almost set to return from elbow surgery. Beachy was perhaps Atlanta's top starter when his 2012 season ended as he led the National League with a 2.00 ERA.
Wren said Thursday the difficult part of the decision is moving a starter -- Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Paul Maholm or Julio Teheran -- to the bullpen. The bullpen needs help after losing left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty to season-ending elbow injuries.
"The good news is our starters are all throwing the ball well," Wren told The Associated Press. "Fortunately for us to this point we've been healthy and our guys have been able to make their starts. In that regard it's a good problem to have, but you also are always mindful of there's going to be somebody that comes out of this probably in a role they'd like not to be in. That's the difficult portion of it."
Beachy was to make what is expected to be his final rehabilitation start for Triple-A Gwinnett at Rochester on Thursday night. Wren said Beachy could join the Braves' rotation as early as Tuesday's doubleheader against the Mets.
"We're real happy to get Beachy back and get him healthy and see where he is in the process of helping our club," Wren said. "At the end of the day, the decision is going to be based on what's best for our team. That's really the only factor."
The Braves, off Thursday, open a home series against San Francisco tonight. Entering Thursday's games, the Braves led the National League East by six games despite being swept in a three-game series at San Diego.
Braves starting pitchers rank third in the majors with their 3.40 ERA, according to STATS LLC. They've also been durable, ranking fourth in the majors with their 410 innings.
Minor is a lock to remain in the rotation. The left-hander is 8-2 with a 2.44 ERA.
Even so, there have been some struggles. Hudson, the veteran of the staff, has lost five straight decisions to fall to 4-6 with a 4.41 ERA. Teheran, only 22, gave up only hit in eight innings of a 5-0 win over Pittsburgh on June 5 but showed inconsistency by allowing five runs in six innings of a 7-6 loss to the Padres on Monday.
Maholm has been strong at Turner Field, where he is 4-1 with a strong 1.64 ERA. But the left-hander is 3-4 with a 4.89 ERA away from Atlanta.
Maholm can become a free agent after the season, making him perhaps the most probable trade candidate in the rotation. Wren said he's not expecting a trade so early in the season.
"I think it's a little early for the trade market," Wren said. "There's just not a lot going on there just yet. I think this is going to be one of those decisions that's made primarily with the players we have on hand."
Medlen has experience as a reliever. He had success in a setup role early in the 2012 season as he made his return from Tommy John surgery, but he was even more dominant last season when he moved into the rotation and has said he doesn't want to return to the bullpen. He is only 3-6 but has a strong 2.87 ERA, the second-best on the staff behind Minor, entering his start tonight.
Beachy was 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA in four rehab starts with Class A Rome, Double-A Mississippi and Gwinnett before Thursday night. Beachy said a key was returning to a normal routine of pitching every five days.
"I can tell the difference," he said recently. "It feels good. I've been throwing all my pitches."
Beachy could return almost exactly one year after suffering the injury. Beachy's ligament-replacement surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews on June 21, 2012.
"Fortunately for him and for us he's had a fairly uneventful rehab through the whole process for nearly a year," Wren said. "He's had some starts where he was pretty sharp, and he's had other starts where he would tell you he didn't feel quite himself. That's the up-and-down cycle you have coming back from a major surgery like this. That's why we have to just continue to monitor and watch what happens."