Three Cuts: Veteran additions raise expectations for Braves’ 2017 rotation
As the Atlanta Braves’ celebrated rebuild targets starting pitching with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, the organization’s big-league rotation has offered a clear illustration of what life looks like without it.
The starting rotation was the weak link of Brian Snitker’s roster last season. Even with standout performances from Julio Teheran and, at times, Mike Foltynewicz, Braves starters finished 29th in wins above replacement (4.7), 28th in ERA (4.87) and 27th in strikeout rate — a track record of unreliability that led Snitker to tax his bullpen more than all but four other managers.
By adding three established veterans and ratcheting up the competition for playing time at the major-league level, Atlanta’s front office is convinced — and not without reason — the nagging issues have been resolved, if only temporarily until the cavalry arrives.
Will the veterans committee of Colon, Dickey and Garcia hold the fort from April to October?
The average age of an Atlanta Braves starter jumped by a decade this offseason.
In signing 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (one year, $12.5 million contract) and R.A. Dickey (one year, $7.5 million contract plus a 2018 team option), Atlanta took a sharp left turn away from its youth-infused rotation by mid-November. Then the Jaime Garcia trade unfolded in early December, sending three prospects to St. Louis to shore up yet another Opening Day rotation spot.
If Colon, Dickey and Garcia, each of whom pitched 160-plus innings and posted at least one win above replacement, can even come close to their 2016 levels of production the Braves upgraded in a significant way. Colon and Dickey have defied the odds to become two of the more durable arms in the majors over the past few years while Garcia, when healthy, is a quality left-hander with a career 3.57 ERA. While young arms like Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair have not maxed out their MLB potential by any means, last season proved there are still growing pains — and, with their new park in place and high-ceiling arms on the way, the Braves have less time for patience these days. As general manager John Coppolella said at Winter Meetings in December, competition is healthy.
The weather-worn trio’s biggest question mark might concern its longevity in Atlanta.
Projecting the Colon-Dickey-Garcia triumvirate to pitch coast-to-coast for the Braves makes at least two assumptions: no injuries and no trades. For veteran arms in Coppolella’s orbit, that’s a tall order. The front office has shown time and again — from Bud Norris to Jhoulys Chacin to Lucas Harrell to Jason Grilli — that veteran arms on short-term deals are prime suspects for midseason moves. That description fits three of Atlanta’s five starters at the moment. If the three arms hold up and produce, there will be market interest.
At this point, it would be surprising, to say the least, if each of the three veterans held the same role in September, especially given the organization’s young pitching waiting in the wings.
The only possible justification? A playoff run.
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Will Julio Teheran or Mike Foltynewicz make The Leap?
Julio Teheran’s return to form following a difficult 2015 season provided a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise forgettable campaign for Braves starters. The soon-to-be 27-year-old, equipped with his team-friendly contract through at least 2019, tied his career high in WAR by walking out of the season with a 3.21 ERA and striking out eight batters per nine innings.
It was a resurgence for the Braves’ No. 1.
Since his rookie season in 2013, Teheran has carved out a reputation for consistency. He’s still waiting on his breakthrough, though — the year when he pushes his way into the Cy Young conversation for the first time. The two-time All-Star has yet to register a single vote for pitching’s top postseason award. The “Is He A No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3?” conversation has been swirling around Teheran, as it does for many talented young arms, since he was baseball’s top pitching prospect. Four years into his MLB run, any answer still seems like a possibility, though the odds of him jumping into the mix with Kershaw, Scherzer or Sale does seem unlikely at this point.
It’s important to keep in mind that if there is no leap to be made (he is in the traditional prime of a player’s career already), it does not alter the narrative on Teheran: He’s a standout right-hander locked into club control at a ridiculous price. Any leap is a bonus.
Mike Foltynewicz’s odds are even more volatile.
There are moments when the 25-year-old right-hander with a high-90s fastball is capable of magic. In games against the White Sox, Royals and Giants last season, Foltynewicz, who conventional wisdom suggests will be the fifth starter in Atlanta’s Opening Day rotation, was untouchable. Then there were lapses. He finished his sophomore season with a 4.31 ERA and a better walk rate (2.55) than he posted at any stop in the minors. He struck out 111 batters in 123 1/3 and with more consistency those numbers could see dramatic improvement.
Foltynewicz remains a bit of an enigma, but he is, at the very least, a solid major-league starter. He (still) possesses the highest ceiling of any arm on the 25-man roster. As he enters what should be the prime of his career, the organization will see just how high he can reach.
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How many top prospects will get their chance (or second chance) this season?
The next wave is starting to arrive, but the previous one has yet to fully break.
The stockpiling of veteran arms backlogged the Braves farm system with MLB-caliber arms still in their early- to mid-20s. Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair were key components to the front office’s direction this winter, as neither right-hander pieced together the desired results. Both were demoted at various times.
Blair, a consensus top-five prospect in the organization last year, stumbled early and often, posting a 7.59 ERA despite a dominant outing in the final weekend. Four of Wisler’s final six starts were rotation-worthy, but his 5.00 ERA and frequent hiccups pointed to the need for more refinement.
Though Blair and Wisler enter spring camp fighting for a starting spot in theory, it’s likely they will join a bolstered Triple-A Gwinnett rotation in April. The team traded fringe starting prospects like Chris Ellis, Tyrell Jenkins and John Gant in the offseason, but Lucas Sims and Sean Newcomb, one of the franchise’s best pitching prospects, are expected to make appearances. Max Fried and Patrick Weigel could also find themselves in the conversation at this rate. Young challengers are on their way.
Wisler and Blair should receive another crack at a rotation spot sometime this season, either due to injuries, trades or a lack of production. It will interesting to see just how much patience the organization has with them if and when opportunities arise. The upcoming arrival of Newcomb, the 23-year-old lefty with top-of-the-rotation stuff, is merely the tip of the iceberg.