It’s fairly safe to assume that four spots in the Atlanta starting pitching rotation are locked in, barring injury, with Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz, and Cole Hamels. As things currently stand, there will be a number of young arms competing for the final spot this season.
Alex Anthopoulos has stated several times this off-season that Sean Newcomb will be given the opportunity, at his request, to compete for a rotation spot. Given the available options, the 26-year old lefty has to be considered the favorite to win the job at this point. Newcomb has been frustrating in his career as a starter, struggling with inconsistent performance and high walk rates, but he’s maintained around a 4.15 FIP throughout his major league career as a starter. He is the only candidate for the final rotation spot with anything resembling a track record of decent performance at the major league level. His career average performance would be perfectly acceptable for a back of the rotation starter, and his velocity, stuff, and improvements this past season out of the bullpen leave room for potential improvements from Newcomb.
Wright was in this same position at this time a year ago. The Vanderbilt product had a phenomenal spring training and emerged with a rotation spot. Unfortunately, he would not carry that success into the regular season, putting up an ugly ERA of 9.72 and a FIP of 7.17 as a starter in Atlanta, and quickly found himself back at Gwinnett. Wright continued to struggle for much of the first half of his season, but settled down and had a much better end to his season in the minors. He has the stuff to win this job, but he’ll have to get better at maintaining his velocity and mental approach later into games if he wants to take the next step in his development.
Bryse Wilson probably has the lowest upside of the three favorites for the job, but he had a good season for the Gwinnett Stripers and has had a few nice starts for the major league club. The righty’s biggest problem is that he relies heavily on his fastball, throwing it nearly 70% of the time. Still very young at only 22, if Wilson can show improvement on his secondary offerings, he can be a middle or back of the rotation starter in Atlanta or another major league club. At this point, he doesn’t have much left to prove at Triple-A.
Spring Training Dark Horses
As the top pitching prospect in the Braves organization, Ian Anderson has to be considered in the conversation for the final rotation spot. The third overall pick in 2016, Anderson has pitched well throughout his professional career, and was fantastic in Double-A last season, with a 2.68 ERA and striking out nearly 12 batters per 9 innings. The 6’3” righty is a consensus Top 50 prospect in baseball and has a very promising future. That being said, Anderson faces an uphill battle to join the Braves rotation on opening day. Aside from being behind more experienced pitchers in the pecking order, Anderson struggled with the major league “juiced” ball in his short stint with Gwinnett last season. Anderson has the talent to win the job, but his lack of Triple-A experience and somewhat high walk rates make him unlikely to be a part of the Braves’ rotation at the beginning of the season.
Touki Toussaint entered last season as a projected member of the major league rotation. After a rough spring training, he began the season in Gwinnett, and spent most of the season being shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and the majors. As hard as it is to believe, Toussaint is still younger than Kyle Wright. The 23-year old has some of the best pure stuff in the Braves organization with a nasty curveball and a mid to high 90s fastball. If the lovable pitcher can figure out his command, he still has the potential to be a top of the rotation arm. Toussaint has been good at times in Atlanta, so despite his struggles last season, he is a real contender to make the opening day roster either as a starter or as a long relief option out of the bullpen.
Possible Mid-Season Call-Ups
Kyle Muller is one the top pitching prospects in the Braves farm system. Spending all of 2019 in Double-A, Muller struck out 9.67 batters per 9 innings, but struggled some with walks. the 6’6” lefty is a really good prospect and should start the season in Gwinnett. If he can reign in his control, it isn’t hard to envision him getting an opportunity to start in Atlanta this season.
Tucker Davidson had somewhat of a breakout season at Mississippi in 2019, putting up a 2.03 ERA and with nearly 10K/9. Davidson is already on the 40-man, making it logistically easier for him to be called up. The big lefty struggled a bit in Triple-A, but with a strong showing in 2020, could be called up in the middle of the season.
Jasseel De La Cruz
Jasseel De La Cruz is not a name many Braves fans are familiar with, and he wasn’t spectacular in Double-A last season. What puts him on this list is that he has a good fastball/slider combination, and he is already on the 40-man roster, easing the logistical aspect of calling him up. De La Cruz needs to add a viable third pitch to reach his potential, but he is a good prospect that could possibly reach Atlanta as soon as 2020, if only as a reliever.
What I’m hoping for
Personally, I think that the ideal scenario is that one of the high upside young guys like Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, or Touki Toussaint break through and grab the job out of spring training. I think this option provides the best chance for getting above average production from the final rotation spot. Another factor that leads me to hope for someone not named Sean Newcomb to win the spot is that Newcomb can then move back to the bullpen and be a formidable piece in a bullpen that is already really good, but a bit thin on lefties.