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Starting Nine: Braves’ new-look rotation poised to feast in 2021, but it’s famine for notion of limited spending

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Plus, Freddie Freeman’s bank account and Ian Anderson’s NL Rookie of the Year chances in for big 2021, but those arms of the past (ahem, Sean Newcomb) are another story

2020 World Series Game 3: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays
With new acquisitions Charlie Morton (pictured) and Drew Smyly, the Braves rotation is third in the pitching-rich NL East in Steamer projections at 11.6 fWAR.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In a season that’s defined by traditions, Thanksgiving may look a little bit different this year depending on where you reside … and that’s not all bad.

Hey, turkey’s still turkey, the holiday mainstay Detroit Lions remain a train wreck, and given the election we’re still feeling the aftershocks of, steering clear of those more “outspoken” family members and those awkward conversations at the table may be the salve we’re all pining for.

While we learn to embrace the change the climate of the world has thrust upon us, the Starting Nine is here to continue this writer’s personal Thanksgiving tradition of pinpointing who’s headed for feast and who’s bound for famine among the Braves in the upcoming season.

Grab another helping and let’s dig in, shall we?

1. Feast: Braves new-look rotation

After signing Charlie Morton to a one-year, $15 million contract Tuesday, general manager Alex Anthopoulos mentioned that the Braves had targeted three pitchers on their wish list, and they snagged two of them in Morton and Drew Smyly. Anthopoulos didn’t disclose who the third arm was, letting the mind wander as to whether Atlanta threw its hat into the Trevor Bauer derby or if they were sticking with the seasoned veteran route and eying Adam Wainwright. Regardless, this rotation has a much more formidable look to it compared to last season when the likes of Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone were getting starts. While there has been no timetable set on the return of Mike Soroka – who was recently seen throwing at Truist Park with some fabulous locks – from an Achilles injury, the Braves depth chart for their starting staff now includes Soroka, Max Fried, Morton, Smyly and Ian Anderson. Per Steamer projections, that collective has a 11.6 fWAR for 2021, which is third in the National League East behind the Mets (led by Jacob deGrom at 6.1) and Nationals (topped by Max Scherzer at 4.9) at 13.9 fWAR. To be fair to the Braves, Steamer has Soroka at just 1.9 given that we don’t know how long he’ll be delayed past Opening Day, but his beating that forecast would make Atlanta the only team in the division with starters at 2.0 fWAR or higher. It’s the deepest the Braves have been at the position since 2009, the last time they were top five in starter fWAR behind Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens.

2. Famine: Notion there isn’t money to spend

We all heard the doom and gloom painted by Rob Manfred’s interview during the World Series in which he disclosed that MLB had lost billions – $3.1 billion to be exact – in the pandemic-shortened season. It’s hard to completely buy into the dire forecast the commissioner’s statements set the stage for after the Braves have now signed the two biggest contracts in the early goings of free agency, inking Morton and Smyly to a combined $26 million. Granted, they are both one-year deals, underlying the uncertainty of what’s to come in 2022 if baseball endures another season with no fans or limited attendance, but the Braves have set the market, at least for starting pitching. It remains to be seen whether Morton and Smyly impact whether Atlanta will still be a player to bring back Marcell Ozuna, but last season they had an Opening Day payroll of around $150 million and are currently projected at $123 million. So, they could still resign the NL’s home run and RBI leader, who Spotrac has carrying a market value of $20.1 million. But it is worth noting that during Liberty Media’s third-quarter earnings call earlier this month, the Braves were announced to have brought in $110 million from July-September, down 48 percent from the $212 million they made in the same period last year. While they do benefit from revenues from The Battery, the team’s development arm made just $8 million, one less than the same quarter in 2019.

3. Feast: Freddie Freeman’s bank account

The newly minted NL MVP is entering the last season of the eight-year, $135 million he inked back in February 2014, and it would seem highly unlikely either side wants to go into spring training with Freeman answering questions about his contract year. Expect a deal to get done by the time pitchers and catchers report, if not well before that. As previously discussed, a similar average annual value ($22-$23 million), with a club-friendly signing bonus – think the $65 million the Dodgers signed Mookie Betts to while spreading it out evenly across the 12 years of his contract – is well within reason for a six to seven-year contract that would keep Freeman in Atlanta through at least age 37 if not longer. With the expectation that the designated hitter will be a long-term fixture in the NL, this all but guarantees that Freeman gets his wish and will be able to finish his career with the Braves.

4. Famine: Arms of rotations past

When discussing that 2021 rotation depth chart of Soroka, Morton, Fried, Smyly and Anderson it comes with this realization: there’s not a single arm that started more than five game in 2018 that’s on the list. Mike Foltynewicz, who made 31 starts that season, never returned to the 40-man roster after finishing 2020 at the team’s alternate site and is a minor league free agent, but Sean Newcomb does remain in the system. The 27-year-old left-hander never made it back to Atlanta after giving up eight runs in 1 1/3 innings on Aug. 10, and having been bypassed by Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright in the organizational pecking order, it’s difficult to see a path in which Newcomb gets back into the rotation in 2021. We’ve seen Newcomb excel out of the bullpen (.215 batting average against in 53 1/3 innings in 2019) and given the holes free agents have left in the relief corps, there’s hope he can reclaim a spot, though returning Josh Tomlin doesn’t bode well for Newcomb. Clearly, the ascension of young arms and veteran acquisitions leave the days of Newcomb being a factor in the starting staff as the stuff of yesterdays and he’s feeling much closer to Aaron Blair/Matt Wisler territory right now than Fried and Soroka.

5. Feast: Anderson in ROY odds

Anderson was great in the regular season — with a 1.95 ERA in six starts — and historically great in the postseason with a 0.96 ERA and became the first pitcher since Christy Mathewson in 1905 to allow zero earned runs in his first three starts in the playoffs. With just 32 1/3 innings in the regular season, the 22-year-old retained his rookie status for 2021 and will make him one of the early favorites for NL Rookie of the Year. He’ll have plenty of competition with the Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (the NL rookie leader among position players in 2020 with 1.6 fWAR) and Sixto Sanchez, the Marlins righty, who had a 3.46 ERA in 39 innings. No Braves starting pitcher has ever won the award — reliever Craig Kimbrel did claim it in 2011 – but given what Anderson showed in allowing a paltry .164 BAA against in the playoffs, he’s going to have a very good chance as the fourth or fifth starter in a stacked rotation.

6. Famine: Inciarte’s playing time

Whether Ender Inciarte even reports to spring training for the Braves makes for an intriguing storyline. He hit 60 percent below league average in 131 plate appearances in 2020 after sitting no worse than 90 wRC+ in any of his previous four years in Atlanta and this past season represented the lowest Defensive Runs Above Average (-minus-0.8) of his career, a figure that has been declining since 2018. Inciarte didn’t make the postseason roster as Adam Duvall’s oblique injury gave way to Cristian Pache instead of the three-time Gold Glove winner, making Inciarte’s standing in the organization all too clear. If he does stick around, it’s clear he’s the fourth outfielder at best behind Ronald Acuña Jr., Duvall and Pache, and further down the run if the Braves bring back Ozuna in a potentially DH-less 2021 or add another option like Michael Brantley or Joc Pederson. But with a total compensation of $8.7 million in 2021 and holding a $9 million club option for 2022, is Inciarte movable? It would likely take packaging him with an asset that hasn’t lost luster, but with Pache logging those meaningful innings in the postseason, it’s difficult to see a reason why the Braves keep Inciarte around in 2021.

7. Feast: Damage on the basepaths

One season after Acuña led the NL with 37 steals and the Braves finished ninth overall with 89 as a team, they swiped just 23 bags in 2020 (18th), a total that would have paced out at 62 in a typical 162-game season. It didn’t help matters that Ozzie Albies, who had 15 steals in ’19, played in just 29 games and had three SBs in four attempts, and Acuña had just nine tries in 2020. Nor did it help that the Braves just had fewer opportunities, hitting 103 home runs (second in MLB). But Dansby Swanson, who had 10 steals in 2019, was 5-for-5 on attempts in 2019, a healthy season out of Albies and likely much more of Pache, who has stolen 47 bases since 2017 in the minors should help, even if Acuña doesn’t return to the aggressiveness of 2019.

8. Famine: Braves vs. changeups

Last season no team hit the fastball better than the Braves. They led the majors with 55.2 wFB but chased that production by being the worst of any team in the top 10 vs. that pitch when it came to the changeup. Atlanta was at minus-3.5 there, and with the roster as presently constituted, it doesn’t bode well for 2021. Two of the top four players from last season against the changeup include Ozuna (3.5) and Nick Markakis (1.5), who is also a free agent entering his Age-37 season, and the worst was a bat who certainly figures into the team’s 2021 plans in Austin Riley (minus-3.6). Travis d’Arnaud (2.1) and Freeman (2.0) were effective against the pitch, but Acuña (1.0) was the only other Braves player above 0.4.

9. Feast: Tyler Matzek’s role

There weren’t many stories better in baseball in 2020 than Tyler Matzek, the former first-round draft pick, who flamed out and spent five years out of the majors before reemerging with the Braves and tying for eighth in fWAR among all relievers. He struck out 13.34 per nine, had a 2.79 ERA and 1.92 FIP over 29 innings in 21 games and went on to make seven postseason appearances with a 1.04 ERA and a .194 BAA. He’s cheap, under club control until 2025 and is effective against lefties (.190 BAA) and righties (.224) and the left-hander figures to be an even bigger asset in 2021 with the Braves in line to lose both Shane Greene and Mark Melancon. Should they both move on, Matzek figures to be a bullpen anchor along with Chris Martin, Will Smith and the recently resigned Tomlin as the long relief option.