To kick off the Braves’ offseason and hold you over as the playoffs and the dark period without baseball unfold, we are going to be reviewing the 2017 performance of the Atlanta Braves. Instead of a purely positional review, this will be done by rough categories (starting pitching, bullpen, catchers, infield, and outfield). The goal here is to be able to parse the team’s performance (which, in general, can be considered as “not great”) and make sense of it all.
In addition to reviewing 2017 performance or lack thereof, we will also be looking ahead to 2018 in terms of what we can expect the club to do in the offseason and coming out of spring training. Without further delay, let’s talk starting pitching.
2017 Starting Pitching Review - The Good
The pitching staff was in a tough position for much of the season, but not all of the news was bad. The Braves’ starting pitching staff ranked 18th in baseball in fWAR with 8.6 which certainly isn’t great but is a marked improvement over 2016 where the team finished second to last (4.8 fWAR) in the league. Braves starters collectively put up a 4.80 ERA and 4.58 FIP which was, again, not great but a slight improvement over 2016 so you know....small victories. Also, Braves starters were among the best in the league in terms of walk rate as they ranked sixth with a 3.53 BB/9.
There were also success stories on the season. The Braves traded for Jaime Garcia and he gave them exactly the quality innings they wanted from him before he was traded. Despite only making 18 starts for the Braves, he still ranks third amongst their starters with a 1.5 fWAR.
Another guy that the Braves acquired before the season, R.A. Dickey, proved to be a source of steady if unspectacular innings for the Braves. While there were certainly games where the knuckleball didn’t knuckle and he got knocked around, he had more good starts than bad and he led the team with 190 innings this season. Dickey is currently contemplating retirement but if he decides to pitch again it seems possible if not probable that the Braves will pick up his option for next year.
It is also worth mentioning that Sean Newcomb was nearly as valuable and put up nearly identical numbers as Jaime Garcia during his 18 starts this season as he put up a 1.3 fWAR while striking out batters at a good clip with a 9.72 K/9. His walk rate (5.13 BB/9) is unsustainable, but if he can cut his walks down he certainly showed glimpses of being a quality major league starter.
2017 Starting Pitching Review - The Bad
Well, the rest of the picture was certainly not as rosy. After a strong start to the season, Mike Foltynewicz took a step back this season. While he led the starting staff in fWAR this season (1.8), he also got put up appreciably worse numbers than last season in terms of ERA, walk rate, and WHIP. His performance in the second half of the season was particularly rough as he posted a 6.34 ERA after the All-Star break.
The highest profile failure in the starting rotation for the Braves has to be Bartolo Colon. Signed in the offseason to be a reliable source of innings for the club, he was anything but that. His 8.14 ERA and 6.00 K/9 in his 13 starts with the Braves both ranked last among Braves starters and the eye test seemed to confirm that he wasn’t fooling anyone in his time with Atlanta.
Lucas Sims has shown some flashes but has largely struggled in the first ten starts of his career and Julio Teheran, normally a solid source of production in the rotation, struggled mightily at SunTrust Park and with the long ball in route to putting up some of the worst numbers of his career up until now.
As a whole, the staff ranked in the bottom half of the league or worse in most statistical categories and while there were certainly teams that were worse off, when you also consider that the Braves had one of the worst bullpens in baseball...well, you can understand why the team struggled this season.
What can we expect for 2018?
There is certainly a lot to look forward to in 2018 from the starting pitching staff. One can assume, at least for the moment, that Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb, and Mike Foltynewicz will all be in the rotation to start 2018 assuming no trades with Newcomb looking to build on his success this season and Teheran and Folty looking to have bounce back years. Luiz Gohara appears to have also locked down a spot in the rotation as his fastball/slider combo is tantalizing. Gohara has gotten a bit unlucky on balls in play in his short stint in the majors, but his stuff and peripherals give the Braves reasons to at least see how he does as a starter with a full offseason Spring Training camp to hone his craft.
After that it gets tricky as Lucas Sims has not lit the world on fire in his debut season so his spot isn’t a sure thing. Same goes for Max Fried although he has had stretches during starts (most notably his last one) where he has been absolutely dominant. RA Dickey could also nab a spot in the rotation if he decides to play another year AND the Braves exercise his option. Neither are sure things and Dickey could very easily decide to hang it up or the Braves could decide to give their impressive crop of young arms down on the farm a chance and allow Dickey to move on to a different team even if he decides to come back.
The Braves have an impressive stable of arms down on the farm that are going to be pushing for major league roster spots soon. Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard both dominated in Double-A despite just turning 20 and will both be lurking at Triple-A to start the season. Either of them could easily push for that last rotation spot in Spring Training depending on how the rest of the offseason goes. Touki Toussaint likely needs some more seasoning in the minors, but he has among the highest upside in the Braves minor league system. With a strong start to the season, Touki could easily make it to the big leagues in 2018 where his curveball will quickly make him one of the most fun Braves to watch. Don’t sleep on guys like Matt Withrow or Patrick Weigel either. Both dealt with injuries this season and Weigel in particular will not be ready to start the season, but if both come back strong in 2018 they could see time in the majors as well.
Finally, while the Braves have made it clear that they have no real interest in participating in the pitching free agent market (especially for high end free agents), that does not mean that they will be quiet in the offseason. The Braves will likely be checking in frequently on potential trade targets to bolster the rotation such as Michael Fulmer and Chris Archer. That said, the Braves could get priced out again on such trades especially given how much pitching talent they have close to majors.