Three Cuts: Who will emerge as Atlanta’s fifth starter?
Brian Snitker’s club sits at cruising altitude with less than two months remaining in the regular season. Since the All-Star break, the Atlanta Braves have won or split five of their seven series — three of which have come against division rivals Washington and Philadelphia. While it may not be the breakneck pace needed to challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League’s best record, it’s a pace that, if sustained, will result in back-to-back division crowns. (Put another way: If the Nationals, Phillies or even the surging Mets can not win a second-half series against Atlanta, this race is probably already over.) Here are three observations from the week, starting with Atlanta’s next big pitching question.
1. With Kevin Gausman out, can Mike Foltynewicz solve Atlanta's fifth starter vacancy?
(UPDATED AFTER THE REDS CLAIMED KEVIN GAUSMAN ON WAIVERS MONDAY AFTERNOON)
Atlanta can win its division without a No. 5 starter emerging. Let’s just get that out of the way.
With 49 games remaining, the Braves can play .500 ball and still win 90 to 91 games, likely securing consecutive NL East titles as the Nationals and Phillies both sit seven games back on Aug. 5. According to FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight, Atlanta’s playoff odds are 97 percent or better and its chances of winning the division hover around 85 percent.
The Braves do not need a big push to reach the finish line. They just need to avoid a collapse.
That still does not answer perhaps the team’s biggest post-deadline question mark: Can anybody round out the rotation behind Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran and Max Fried? Soroka (2.9 WAR, 2.37 ERA) is in the Cy Young conversation. Keuchel has been the steadying veteran presence manager Brian Snitker needed. Teheran is enjoying an under-the-radar bounce-back season — his best since 2016 — and, after a midseason lull, Fried appears to be back on track, allowing just five earned runs over his past three starts. The Braves can cruise to the finish line if they get solid production from that group. It’s not the scariest playoff rotation by any means, but it can get the job done if Atlanta’s offense shows up this year.
However, Braves starters outside of that Soroka-Keuchel-Teheran-Fried mix have a combined ERA climbing over 6.50. So what happens with that fifth spot?
The answer to that question became much clearer Monday afternoon after the Cincinnati Reds claimed Kevin Gausman on waivers. On a conference call, general manager Alex Anthopoulos highlighted Gausman's accomplishments in Atlanta — helping push the franchise to its 2018 National League East title with a strong performance after being the team's major trade deadline splash — but noted the drop in his production in 2019: “This is performance-based. Every game counts."
The Reds assume the remainder of Gausman's 2019 salary and retain his control through 2020.
This turns the page to Mike Foltynewicz. Atlanta’s preseason No. 1 has hit his stride at Triple-A Gwinnett:
Needless to say, getting anything close to Folty circa 2018 would be a major boost for the Braves. Anthopoulos said the Triple-A staff flagged his return to form and the right-hander's recent run was the ultimate reason the team placed Gausman on waivers: "At the end of the day, we were going to give Folty another opportunity.”
If last season’s All-Star starter is still not there, there’s a long list of options — none of whom have excelled in limited time in 2019.
Promising arms Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright have each made four starts with sub-replacement production. Wilson has been the better of the two but Wright, the organization’s top pick in 2017, is on an absolute tear at Triple-A one this past seven starts: 2.22 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. There’s also talented right-hander Touki Toussaint, who is also at Triple-A after struggling to recapture last season’s late-season magic. Sean Newcomb owns the best numbers and longest track record of this group, but he’s emerged as one of the better left-handed relievers in baseball, filling a major need for the Braves. I’d expect him to stay put for the remainder of the season.
The wildcard in this mix is, of course, top pitching prospect Ian Anderson, who has been a one-man wrecking crew against Double-A hitters this season. The 21-year-old ranks second in the minors in strikeouts to go along with a 2.68 ERA. He’s one of the best prospects in baseball and postseason baseball is the time to ride your best arms.
Atlanta turned to unproven arms Toussaint and Chad Sobotka last year and, if healthy, Jacob Webb has a good shot at making a postseason roster this season. Could Anderson jump into this mix? Here’s the issue: He’s already thrown 111 innings in 2019. The former No. 3 overall pick’s career-high is just 119 frames. The Braves front office does not subscribe to shutting down players or setting strict inning limits for young arms. It is still worth considering how well Anderson’s arm would hold up with an extra month-plus tacked onto the end of the minor-league season. Maybe there’s a non-zero chance it happens — as he climbs to Triple-A along with fellow top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, Anthopoulos did mention his name in the context of arms who could help — but the Braves have plenty of options outside of rushing Anderson.
Though there’s a chance it may not matter in the grand scheme of the division race, getting another arm going would certainly be nice insurance for Atlanta. Now Foltynewicz gets another chance to prove he's got it covered.
2. Shane Greene offers reminder that blown saves hardly tell the entire story
The Shane Greene Era began with pulsating green lights, Young Jeezy proclaiming how he puts on for his city and a high level of expectation for the 2019 All-Star member of Atlanta’s new bullpen trio. Then came the blown save.
After entering the ninth inning with a one-run lead, the former Tigers star allowed one run on three hits and a walk on Saturday night. It was enough to allow Cincinnati to force free baseball and opened the door for Ronald Acuña Jr.’s first career walk-off hit. Tucker Barnhart’s RBI single was the first earned run Shane Greene had allowed this season that didn’t result from a home run, pushing his ERA up to a still-microscopic 1.38.
Barnhart got to Greene again on Sunday, hitting a three-run homer in the 10th inning to force the series split. And just like that, Greene's ERA doubled during his first two outings for Atlanta.
Luke Jackson became an Internet punching bag thanks to his “league-leading” seven blown saves in 2019. The young right-hander hovered in a weird paradox where he was in the middle of a career year — 29 other teams would gladly add a 3.88 ERA and 31.7 percent strikeout rate to their relief corps — but had never dealt with more public backlash. Though Atlanta’s deadline maneuvers were not even primarily about Jackson (look who got demoted and who didn’t), turning the ninth inning over to Greene, or even a committee of experienced ninth-inning arms, was clearly a step forward for the Braves’ bullpen depth. Still, it was nothing short of ironic that after Greene’s blown save, his fourth this season, it was Jackson striking out three Reds in the 10th inning and getting the win.
This should serve as a reminder that while blown saves are memorable and frustrating, they hardly serve as a good summary for a reliever’s season.
Last season, Brad Hand and Ryan Pressley, two of the top 25 relievers in baseball over the past three seasons, were among MLB's blown saves leaders. In 2017, Roberto Osuna was named an All-Star and trailed only Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen in FanGraphs’ WAR; Osuna claimed an MLB-worst 10 blown saves that season. The year before that it was the likes of Steve Cishek and David Robertson. The list goes on.
If you get pushed into enough high-leverage situations and then get judged by a broad statistic — pitching with a one-run lead virtually eliminates your margin for error as opposed to entering with a three-run cushion in the ninth, yet they are judged equally by saves — you are bound to eventually fall short.
3. Atlanta made three risk-averse moves to upgrade its bullpen more than any other contender
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has yet to trade a consensus top-10 prospect from Atlanta’s touted farm system. Instead of using the organization’s stockpile of top prospects to trade for major roster upgrades, Atlanta has supplemented its young, controllable core with top free agents (Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel) while trading fringier prospects for more marginal 25-man upgrades.
Atlanta followed a similar, albeit slightly more aggressive, blueprint at the 2019 trade deadline, acquiring bullpen pieces Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon on value deals. The moves upgraded the roster and addressed Atlanta’s greatest need: the Braves bullpen ranked 30th in bullpen WAR before the deadline. Their playoff odds increased. Their World Series odds improved.
In exchange for immediate relief help, the front office dealt pitching prospects Kolby Allard, Joey Wentz and Tristan Beck along with outfield prospect Travis Demeritte. In a media ecosystem requiring winners and losers to be pronounced upon arrival, the knee-jerk sentiment was that the Braves made out like bandits as Texas, Detroit and San Francisco sold low. That could be the case. Still, particularly with Allard and Wentz, the sentiment that Atlanta gave up scraps is strange.
Though their stocks have fallen since being tabbed as first-round picks, Allard, Wentz and Demeritte are decent value returns for relievers with shaky year-over-year track records. Allard and Wentz are 21-year-old left-handers in the high minors who could be helping their new major-league teams in the near future. Demeritte was immediately promoted by the Tigers. Even Tristan Beck, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Stanford, is going to a Giants system in desperate need of arms. Atlanta could "lose" one of those trades on pure value given the remaining player control.
Anthopoulos’ front office has yet to make a trade that truly hurts in retrospect.
Brett Cumberland and JC Encarnacion — the 40-FV prospects moved in the 2018 deadline deal for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day — are not exactly rocketing up the Baltimore Orioles’ pipeline and Evan Phillips and Bruce Zimmermann, the other two pieces of the trade, have struggled at the upper levels. The pieces in the Anthony Swarzak trade are either hurt (Arodys Vizcaíno) or already designated for assignment (Jesse Biddle) and moved to another team. Akeel Morris, Ryan Schmipf and Jim Johnson are not playing in the majors. Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler are in the majors, but they were bound to be 40-man roster exclusions in Atlanta. Matt Kemp was a 2018 All-Star for the World Series-bound Dodgers, but Charlie Culberson alone has lapped him in WAR since that financially motivated blockbuster.
It’s unlikely the front office’s latest round of deals will end with regret, though, especially after trading from the organization’s deepest position.