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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Starting Rotation

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Will the Braves have another young pitcher take a step forward in 2020?

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For each of the past several offseasons, we have heard a stated goal by the Atlanta Braves’ front office to add a top of the rotation arm. That happens to be a stated goal by many teams and isn’t an easy task to check off the to-do list. The Braves were never going to be an option for Gerrit Cole and fallback options like Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler and others did well in a surprisingly robust market. Atlanta’s lone rotation addition was veteran Cole Hamels, who was looking for an opportunity with a contender and signed on for a one-year deal worth $18 million. The Braves will be hoping that he can provide some veteran leadership for many of their young arms while eating innings as a mid-rotation piece. Atlanta lost two members of its 2019 rotation as Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran departed. Keuchel found a multi-year deal with the White Sox while the Braves declined Teheran’s $12 million option for the 2020 season.

The biggest question mark entering the spring centers on who will win the final spot in the rotation. Alex Anthopoulos confirmed earlier this offseason that the team would allow Sean Newcomb to compete for a starting spot after spending most of last season working out of the bullpen. Atlanta also agreed to a minor-league deal with veteran right-hander Felix Hernandez, who is coming off of a disastrous 2019 season with the Mariners. The Braves also have young arms in Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson who don’t have much left to prove at Triple-A but have had limited opportunities and limited success at the major league level. It appears that Atlanta will try to fill out its rotation with internal options but if they struggle, this will be an area that Anthopoulos may have to shore up in-season.

(Note: Several of the pitchers listed below could also figure into the bullpen picture. There are other guys such as Jeremy Walker, Patrick Weigel or Touki Toussaint that could get an opportunity to start at some point in 2019. For this exercise I tried to split the group up as best I could between the starters preview and the bullpen.)

Rotation Locks

Mike Soroka (2019: 29 GS, 174.2 IP, 20.3 K%, 5.9 BB%, 2.68 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 3.85 xFIP, 4.0 fWAR)

The Braves may not have a bonafide ace but Mike Soroka certainly pitched like one for most of 2019. He put aside some concerns about his shoulder early on, making a career-best 29 starts while posting a 2.68 ERA and 3.45 FIP. Soroka has long been lauded for his poise and that was on display in 2019 as he posted a 1.55 ERA in 98 2/3 innings on the road. He may have some trouble duplicating a minuscule home run rate but he looks like he could be a top of the rotation arm for Atlanta going forward. With Teheran gone, Soroka looks like the odds-on favorite to be the Braves’ Opening Day starter for 2020.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Max Fried (2019: 33 G, 30 GS, 165.2 IP, 24.6 K%, 6.7 BB%, 4.02 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, 3.0 fWAR)

One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season was the emergence of Max Fried as a starter. Coming into the season, the thought was that Fried could be a multi-inning relief option, and he had bounced around from starting to relieving in prior years. However, he got an early opportunity in the rotation and never let go. He posted a 2.30 ERA over the first month, struggled intermittently during the summer, but finished the season strong. The Braves did elect to use him in a relief role during the Division Series but he will enter Spring Training with his role as a starter secure.

Mike Foltynewicz (2019: 21 GS, 117.0 IP, 21.4 K%, 7.5 BB%, 4.54 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 4.73 xFIP, 0.8 fWAR)

If Fried was the biggest surprise, then Mike Foltynewicz’s 2019 had to be the biggest disappointment. Foltynewicz flashed top of the rotation potential with a breakout 2018 but he stumbled out of the blocks last season. A bone spur in his elbow limited him to just one appearance during Spring Training. He finally returned to the rotation on April 27 but struggled, posting a 6.37 ERA (6.15 FIP) while allowing 16 home runs in just 59 1/3 innings. That led to a demotion to Gwinnett where he would spend about a month trying to rediscover his slider. He returned to the majors on August 6 and looked more like his old self posting a 2.65 ERA (3.77 FIP) over his final 10 starts, with a slider that had form and function as opposed to shapeless ineptitude.

Foltynewicz allowed just three hits over seven shutout innings in a dominant Game 2 performance but his season finished on a sour note as he allowed seven runs (six earned) in just a third of an inning in Atlanta’s Game 5 disaster.

Foltynewicz and the Braves avoided arbitration with a one-year deal worth $6.425 million. He has one more year of team control beyond this one remaining before he is eligible for free agency in 2022. Atlanta will be hoping that a full Spring Training and a cleaner bill of health will allow him to look more like the 2018 version than what they saw early on in 2019.

Cole Hamels (2019: 27 GS, 141.2 IP, 23.2 K%, 9.1 BB%, 3.81 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.38 xFIP, 2.5 fWAR)

While Foltynewicz’s season was split into essentially two halves, the same was true for Cole Hamels. Hamels got off to a great start with the Cubs posting a 2.98 ERA (3.59 FIP) over his first 17 starts. An oblique injury caused him to miss all of July and he struggled upon his return with a 5.79 ERA (5.29 FIP) over his final 10 starts.

Overall, Hamels still put up solid numbers, slightly increasing his strikeouts while limiting the long ball. The Braves are banking that the oblique injury played a part in his second half struggles. Hamels is 36 and has thrown 148 innings or fewer in two of the last three seasons. At this point he is probably more of a replacement for Julio Teheran or the Dallas Keuchel the Braves got rather than Dallas Keuchel they thought they were signing last June, but he should have a lot to offer Atlanta’s young pitchers as a veteran mentor.

Fifth Starter Competition

Sean Newcomb (2019: 55G, 4 GS, 68.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 9.9 BB%, 3.16 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 4.61 xFIP, 0.4 fWAR)

While many cast Fried as a multi-inning relief option at the beginning of last season, it was actually Sean Newcomb that ended up filling the role. Newcomb opened the season in the rotation but made just three starts as he struggled allowing 15 hits, six earned runs and eight walks with just five strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. He was then sent back to Gwinnett and returned in early May where he was utilized primarily as a reliever.

Newcomb saw good results as he took on a more aggressive approach and didn’t exhibit as many of the control issues that had plagued him as a starter. He ended up working 56 innings in relief while posting a 2.89 ERA (4.21 FIP) while striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings. The dip in his strikeout rate was surprising given his new role, but at least it came with a reduction in walk rate. Still, some may have expected to see a bigger overall boost to his numbers from pitching in relief, which never transpired.

Anthopoulos confirmed that Newcomb requested the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot during the spring. He will be the most experienced internal option available. Still it remains to be seen how much of a leash the Braves will give him.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Felix Hernandez (2019 15 GS, 71.2 IP, 17.5 K%, 7.7 BB%, 6.40 ERA, 6.00 FIP, 5.17 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR)

At the end of Spring Training in 2018 the Braves struck gold by signing a pitcher that appeared to be on his last leg. Anibal Sanchez went on to become one of the team’s most reliable starters and earned a spot in the postseason rotation. Atlanta will be hoping that lightning can strike twice with the addition of Felix Hernandez.

For most of the past decade, Hernandez was one of the best pitchers in the game. However, entering his age 34 season and with over 2,700 innings at the major league level under his belt, it is fair to question whether there is anything left in the tank, especially when you consider his struggles in 2019.

Hernandez made just 15 starts for the Mariners in 2019 and was largely ineffective, posting a 6.40 ERA and a 6.00 FIP in 71 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate sunk to a career worst 17.5% while allowing over 2.13 HR per 9.

Hernandez has dealt with diminished velocity and wasn’t able to escape hard contact in 2019. Perhaps a switch to the National League and a healthy spring will afford him an opportunity, but at this point he is very much a tarnished lottery ticket.

Bryse Wilson (2019 Triple-A: 21 GS, 121 IP, 23.4 K%, 5.2 BB%, 3.42 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.13 xFIP)

Bryse Wilson opened the 2019 season in the Braves’ rotation but he went on to make just six appearances (four starts) and threw just 20 innings at the major league level with little success. Wilson again put up good numbers at Gwinnett but has been unable to secure a consistent role for the Braves in the majors. He doesn’t have much left to prove in the minors and at some point he needs a prolonged opportunity, whether that is with Atlanta or another club.

Kyle Wright (2019 Triple-A: 21 GS, 112.1 IP, 24.4 K%, 7.4 BB%, 4.17 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 4.24 xFIP)

Kyle Wright also began the 2019 season in the Braves’ rotation but like Wilson saw limited opportunities and limited success. Wright appeared in seven games total while making four starts, posting an 8.69 ERA in just 19 2/3 innings. Unlike Wilson, Wright may have a bit more to prove at the Triple-A level. He possesses some of the best pure stuff in the system but still has not been able to put it all together into consistent success. He worked on his slider more in 2019 and showed improvement with his changeup. Like Wilson, he could benefit from a consistent role and opportunity.

Others

Tucker Davidson (2019 Double-A: 21 GS, 110.2 IP, 27.2 K%, 10.0 BB%, 2.03 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.13 xFIP)

Tucker Davidson saw his stock on the rise after an excellent showing at Mississippi in 2019 where he posted a 2.03 ERA in 21 starts. He made four starts for Gwinnett where he allowed eight runs over 19 innings. He will likely begin the season back at Triple-A but is already on the 40-man roster and could be an option at some point in 2020 whether for a spot start or as a reliever. He created quite a buzz this offseason with his work at Driveline where he has put up some eye catching velocity numbers. He is a fun prospect and will be one to keep an eye on.

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Ian Anderson (2019 Double-A: 21 GS, 111.0 IP, 31.8 K%, 10.2 BB%, 2.68 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 2.81 xFIP)

The Braves’ top pitching prospect, Ian Anderson dominated the Southern League in 2019 with a 2.68 ERA in 111 innings and an eye-popping 31.8 K% which equated to just under 12 K’s per nine innings. He struggled in a brief cameo appearance at Gwinnett at the end of the season but will be in big league camp during the spring and will open the season at Triple-A.

He has had success despite some reportedly low spin rates. His changeup has developed nicely to the point that he possesses three solid pitches. Anderson isn’t on the 40-man roster yet but he looks like a good option to debut in 2020 provided he can show some consistency at Gwinnett.

Kyle Muller (2019 Double-A: 22 GS, 111.2 IP, 25.6 K%, 14.5 BB%, 3.14 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 4.19 xFIP)

Kyle Muller found a significant uptick in velocity after spending the offseason working at Driveline. However, some of those changes also resulted in a skyrocketing walk rate which ballooned to 5.48 per 9 innings last season. His fastball is electric, sitting in the 90-97 range with a high spin rate. He made some progress with his curve and changeup but must exhibit better control to take the next step. He looks like he could be converted to a reliever at some point but it will be interesting to see what kind of success he has in the spring and early in the season at Triple-A.