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2019 Braves free agency preview: Starting pitchers

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The free agent class of starting pitchers is deep, which is good news for the Braves, as they will probably need to sign at least one.

Los Angeles Dodgers v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Braves’ rotation is arguably the team’s biggest area of need this offseason. After losing Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran to free agency, the Braves will undoubtedly be scouring the free agent market for starting pitchers. The good news is that this year’s free agent class is very deep. Fifteen pitchers with at least two fWAR in 2019 are now available to the highest bidder.

The Braves organization is beaming with young pitching talent. The Braves will return two young starters who figure to be entrenched in the rotation for years to come in Mike Soroka and Max Fried. Mike Foltynewicz, who was both great and dreadful at various times in 2019, will also return as the eldest starter currently on the roster at age 28. Young pitchers like Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Wright will get a look at Spring Training to see if can be relied upon as a major league starter. Prospects Ian Anderson and Kyle Muller are exceptionally talented, but their estimated time of arrival in the majors is yet to be determined. Additionally, the Braves will give Sean Newcomb another chance as a starter after performing well in relief this past season.

However, the Braves’ rotation could certainly benefit from the presence of a veteran or two. Keuchel, who was signed midseason in 2019, and Teheran filled this role in 2019, but both are now free agents and unlikely to return, in my opinion. (Keuchel was a bit of a disappointment for the Braves last season, and Teheran could be back at a lower price than his $12 million option, but the Braves will certainly look to upgrade after not trusting Teheran enough to start in either of the past two postseasons.) The type of veteran pitcher that the Braves would ideally add is one who is an inning-eater capable of missing bats to complement the other starters who are more prone to pitching to contact.

Many of the top free agent starters have been tagged with a qualifying offer, meaning that any team that signs them (unless re-signing with their old team) would forfeit a second-round draft pick. The Braves have been reluctant to sign such players, most notably waiting until the draft pick compensation expired before signing Keuchel midseason. However, if the team feels confident in a deal, they might be willing to forfeit the pick, especially if Josh Donaldson signs elsewhere and the Braves receive a compensatory pick after they extended him a qualifying offer.

Below are some of the top free agent starters on the market. The contract projections are courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors.

Gerrit Cole

Age on Opening Day: 29

Pitches: R

Received Qualifying Offer: Yes

2019 stats: 212.1 IP, 326 K, 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 7.4 fWAR

Projected contract: 8 years, $256 million

Cole is the top free agent this offseason, and he will get stupid money. Cole and his family will never have to fly commercially if they don’t want. Any thought that Cole would sign a contract for any less than the biggest deal he can get was put to rest in the first few minutes after the World Series when Cole donned a Boras Corp. hat in postgame interviews. He will get top-dollar, and good for him.

For this reason, there is next to no chance that the Braves seriously pursue him. Without a significant increase in payroll, the Braves likely have about $40-$45 million to spend before Opening Day and have clear needs at third base, catcher, and still in the rotation. Therefore, it makes little sense to spend over $30 million to fill a single void. Don’t get your hopes up, Braves fans.

Stephen Strasburg

Age on Opening Day: 31

Pitches: R

Received Qualifying Offer: Yes

2019 stats: 209 IP, 251 K, 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 5.7 fWAR

Projected contract: 6 years, $180 million

Strasburg opted out of the remaining four years, $100 million on his contract with the Nationals. This means that he will be signing a contract significantly larger than that. For the same reason that Cole will not be in a Braves uniform next year, nor will Strasburg.

Zack Wheeler

Age on Opening Day: 29

Pitches: R

Received Qualifying Offer: Yes

2019 stats: 195.1 IP, 195 K, 3.96 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 4.7 fWAR

Projected contract: 5 years, $100 million

Wheeler represents the top end of free agent starters that are within the realm of possibility for the Braves. Over the last two seasons, he has been the type of starting pitcher that the Braves covet – a front-end starter who is capable of eating innings and missing bats. He is still just 29 years old, and his projected contract length wouldn’t take him past the age of 35. An average annual value of around $20 million would also allow the Braves to still bolster their lineup within their perceived Opening Day budget.

Health had been a concern for Wheeler after he missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to Tommy John surgery. However, Wheeler has put many of those concerns to bed by pitching over 180 innings each of the last two seasons and accumulating 8.9 fWAR over that span. While signing Wheeler would require giving up a second-round draft pick, he is worth it and should be a starting point of serious discussions regarding free agent pitchers that the Braves could sign.

Madison Bumgarner

Age on Opening Day: 30

Pitches: L

Received Qualifying Offer: Yes

2019 stats: 207.2 IP, 203 K, 3.90 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 3.2 fWAR

Projected contract: 4 years, $72 million

Bumgarner could be a good fit for the Braves as a veteran workhorse and in fact has already reportedly drawn the Braves’ interest this offseason. However, those expecting him to be a frontline starter will likely be disappointed. Although he is coming off a good 2019 season, he projects to be more of a middle rotation piece than a front-end one, as Steamer and Depth Charts project a 2.0 fWAR season for him in 2020.

There are some signs that Bumgarner’s success could be sustainable, though. The average velocity of his fastball in 2019 (91.4) was the highest it’s been since 2015, and he’s getting more movement on it than he ever has, per Statcast. The increased effectiveness of his fastball in 2019 had a ripple effect of making his other pitches, particularly his curveball and changeup, much more effective. Additionally, the fact that his fastball averages in the low 90’s is encouraging for his future, as he will not have to rely on throwing mid-90’s fastballs as he ages to be effective.

Bumgarner’s postseason success will undoubtedly be a draw for the Braves. He boasts three World Series rings and a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings in the postseason. However, Bumgarner has made only made two postseason starts in the last five seasons and none in the past three. Simply put, we have not seen this version of Bumgarner in the playoffs. Keuchel had recent postseason success when the Braves signed him, and yet that didn’t translate to playoff success for the Braves, as Keuchel lasted just eight innings in his two starts, allowing four earned runs and losing both starts. While Keuchel and Bumgarner are different pitchers, the point is that prior postseason success is not always predictive.

However, the Keuchel comparison does not end there and makes me leery of the Braves’ interest in Bumgarner. Keuchel last offseason was much like Bumgarner this offseason – both are/were 30-year-old lefties with similar production the year prior, a history of postseason success, and a qualified offer attached. Yet the Braves did not sign Keuchel until the draft pick compensation came off. While Keuchel came with some issues of declining velocity, is the difference in their respective positions such that the Braves would be willing to forfeit the draft pick and sign Bumgarner to a large multi-year deal?

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Age on Opening Day: 33 (turns 33 the day before Opening Day)

Pitches: L

Received Qualifying Offer: No

2019 stats: 182.2 IP, 163 K, 2.32 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 4.8 fWAR

Projected contract: 3 years, $54 million

Ryu was a frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award for much of the 2019 season before losing steam towards the end of the season. Nonetheless, he was one of the best pitchers of 2019 by having the lowest ERA in MLB among qualified pitchers. Ryu could appeal to the Braves in that he does not come with a qualifying offer and likely will not command a long commitment due to his age.

However, injury will always be a concern for Ryu. From 2015-2018 (4 seasons), Ryu pitched just 213.2 total innings due to injury. He has always had success when on the field but has historically had problems staying on it. Offering Ryu a multi-year deal is a risk, but it could be a boon if he manages to stay healthy.

Cole Hamels

Age on Opening Day: 36

Pitches: L

Received Qualifying Offer: No

2019 stats: 141.2 IP, 143 K, 3.81 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 2.5 fWAR

Projected contract: 2 years, $30 million

Hamels is not the frontline starter that he once was, but he could have value for the Braves on a short-term deal. He has been an effective innings eater consistently throughout his career and would obviously bring a strong veteran presence to the rotation. He’s another option that is probably an upgrade over Teheran but not the front-of-rotation arm that the Braves need.

One major concern with Hamels has been the waning effectiveness of his fastball, which usually does not bode well for aging pitchers. He allowed an xwOBA of .430 and .396 the past two seasons against his fastball and saw a decrease in its average velocity in 2019 to 91.4 MPH (down from 92.3 MPH in 2018). Hamels is best known for his legendary changeup, but that pitch simply isn’t as effective if he cannot establish his fastball.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that the Braves will sign Hamels this offseason. While I would not be surprised if the Braves did, I would hope that it would be for significantly less than the projected $15 million AAV. Hamels should be viewed as a back-of-rotation starter at this point, and the Braves already turned down a back-of-rotation starter for $11 million in Teheran.

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Other free agent pitchers with at least 2 fWAR in 2019: Homer Bailey, Michael Pineda, Kyle Gibson, Tanner Roark, Wade Miley, Brett Anderson, Iván Nova

Bargain bin (pitchers coming off a poor 2019 season but who have had success in past): Rick Porcello, Alex Wood, Jhoulys Chacín, Michael Wacha