Will Atlanta’s bullpen provide sense of early-season urgency for front office?
General manager Alex Anthopoulos did not mince words for the reason his team has not dug a deeper April hole: The Phillies, Mets and Nationals haven’t thrown much dirt on them.
The Braves exit the first 27 games of the season with a sub-.500 record — they jumped out to a 16-11 start in the first 27 games of the 2018 division title run — and their 4-6 division record is a far cry from their NL East dominance last season. But the Phillies lead the division by just 1 1/2 games with May looming; the Mets and Nationals face their own hurdles on opposite sides of Atlanta in the standings.
It’s a race, but no one has started sprinting.
“The only saving grace for us right now is no one in the division is really pulling away,” Anthopoulos said. “Our focus is to win the division, first and foremost. As much as we’re not playing as well as we can, no one in the division has really been able to take a big, commanding lead.
"That’s the only thing that’s really allowed us to stay in the hunt right now as we continue to work through things.”
The Braves are not sugarcoating their own relief issues, so what’s now?
Luke Jackson received one of the final Opening Day roster spots, stumbled out of the gates and merely bounced back to be perhaps Atlanta’s best reliever through the season’s first month. That’s not meant as a slight to the resilient right-hander with genuinely high-end stuff: He’s been great. He's carrying a 2.57 ERA. He's been striking out 26.3 percent of batters and avoiding damage. He doesn’t have much competition for Braves Reliever of the Month, though.
Atlanta’s bullpen has been the team’s glaring weakness.
That’s not to say the Braves will not eventually have the right combination of arms in 2019 or that they are fully healthy or that those who have struggled are lost causes, but after not addressing the relief corps in the offseason the front office is not attempting to sugarcoat a collective 5.18 FIP (29th in MLB) and sub-replacement level production.
“There’s no doubt no one likes what we’re seeing. These are tough losses. This is results-oriented,” said Anthopoulos before Jackson earned his second career save in another high-scoring affair in the Colorado series finale. “ … I think it goes without saying that we’re not pleased with the results, the players aren’t pleased with the results, the staff aren’t. We’re obviously going to continue to work to try to get better.
"Until those results show up, it’s all talk.”
The Braves have held a lead in 11 of their 14 losses. In three of those losses they’ve led after six innings, including Saturday night’s deflating loss to Colorado.
There’s also no avoiding that Atlanta has spoiled top-tier production (2nd in WAR, 5th in wRC+) from its position players. So what now?
“There’s obviously a lot of talent there. We’ve seen a lot of these guys have success in the past," Anthopoulos said. "Whether that’s bringing in people from the outside or getting internal improvements from the guys that are here, we’re going to continue to grind.”
The franchise added veteran left-hander Jerry Blevins on Sunday to fill the void left behind by absent lefties Jonny Venters and Jesse Biddle — neither of whom jumped out to a strong start — but it’s difficult seeing that pickup as a game-changing move for a roster that has featured eight different relievers claiming negative WAR numbers thus far.
The Braves have tried to toe the line between present and future ever since Anthopoulos arrived and it paid off with a division title in Year 1. (Full disclosure: I was also bullish on Atlanta's collection of arms panning out into a good bullpen in the preseason, and that could still be the case by season's end. A couple cost-effective additions wouldn't have hurt, though, especially with Arodys Vizcaino's well-known shoulder issue hovering over the decision-making.)
However, Year 2 isn’t cruising along quite as smoothly since three NL East teams spent hundreds of millions of dollars to catch up. At what point does protecting the future come at the cost of sacrificing the present?
As Anthopoulos mentioned before Sunday's game there are two ways to address the issue: Internally and externally. Will the Braves be willing to push more of their young arms into major-league action, even if it means moving starters into bullpen roles like we saw at the end of last season? Will they part with a coveted prospect — something this front office regime has yet to do — to find relief help well before the trade deadline? Will they eventually find common ground with that one key reliever on the free-agent market?
It's a long season. The postseason (and more) is still very much in play. But if a rival does start to run away with the division, Atlanta’s current production could force them into a greater sense of urgency to answer those questions.
Mike Foltynewicz was not perfect in his return to the majors following an extended run of rehab starts. He was not the 2018 All-Star version of himself, the right-hander with the 2.85 ERA and four wins above replacement. He was not expected to be.
In his first official major-league start since taking the mound in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Foltynewicz pitched six serviceable innings with five strikeouts and one walk. He gave up two solo home runs and the wheels started to fall off in the seventh inning, but he was efficient and a clear-cut upgrade for Atlanta’s starting rotation.
If his start against a dangerous Rockies lineup could be considered shaking off some rust, the 27-year-old right-hander is going to be just fine in 2019.
“I felt good with my command tonight. All of my pitches really were working well for me,” said Foltynewicz, who dealt with a bone spur on the back of his throwing elbow during spring training. “Threw some good changeups. Just left a couple fastballs over (the plate), but other than that I thought I had good command of it through the night. Just had one walk. I felt pretty good about that overall.”
Added Brian Snitker: “He was throwing a lot of strikes. Breaking ball was really good. I mean, he looked great.”
Foltynewicz’s return could signal a shift for Atlanta’s rotation. The Braves have seen both extreme highs and extreme lows from its collection of (mostly young) starters with Max Fried and Mike Soroka emerging as potential top-of-the-rotation arms, but the return of their preseason No. 1 should only serve to strengthen the group.
Foltynewicz, Fried, Soroka and Kevin Gausman appear to be entrenched — and that’s yielded strong returns to date.
Fried: 2.30 ERA, 3.46 FIP
Soroka: 1.69 ERA, 2.64 FIP
Gausman: 4.80 ERA, 4.10 FIP
(Gausman has looked better than the numbers suggest, ranking in the top 70th percentile or better in opponent exit velocity, hard hit percentage, strikeout percentage and fastball velocity.)
Spotty production remains for veteran fifth starter Julio Teheran (5.40 ERA, 4.59 FIP) but he’s missing bats at a career-high clip and the Braves have a surplus of young arms waiting in Triple-A: Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, each of whom have shown flashes at the major-league level. MLB insider Ken Rosenthal also linked Atlanta to Madison Bumgarner over the weekend, though paying a “top-of-the-rotation” prospect price for the left-handed rental would be rather absurd. (Bumgarner has not put up ace-type numbers since 2016, though his services would obviously be welcomed at SunTrust Park.)
The Braves have reasons for optimism in the starting rotation and plenty of options — again, both internal and external — to upgrade.
Though their collective production does not rank in the top half of the league, extreme outlier starts and health setbacks hold them back. (Keep in mind: Foltynewicz, Soroka and Gausman were not on the Opening Day roster.)
Atlanta clearly has pitching issues; it’s the leading cause for their sub-.500 record. The starting staff is nowhere near the top of that list right now.
Opportunities for improved Braves bench increasing as schedule ramps up
As the Braves have showcased their bench depth with Charlie Culberson and Matt Joyce jumping out to strong starts — forming the best pinch-hitting duo in baseball through the season’s first month — questions of opportunity have followed.
In their first 35 combined plate appearances, Culberson and Joyce produced four home runs, five doubles and nine runs batted in. With Johan Camargo getting the majority of starts in place of Atlanta’s regular starters, opportunities have been few and far between. That will likely change over the next two months.
Snitker is already resting his starting position players at a much higher rate this season — and that’s with extra off days built into the schedule.
The Braves’ 2019 schedule featured four off days breaking up the first 22 games. Then weather postponed a game in Denver, giving Snitker’s coaching staff five free days within the first 26 days of the campaign to keep players like Josh Donaldson well-rested and healthy.
This is where the team’s focus on improving its depth comes into play: Atlanta’s schedule features just five more off days through the end of June — a stretch of 64 games.
Even the beginning of this run has shifted the rest patterns for the coaching staff. Ozzie Albies sat the final game of the Cincinnati Reds series, his first off night of the season. Dansby Swanson sat the series opener against Colorado and Donaldson followed him to the bench on Saturday. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. are the only two position players who have not had a single day off.
At this rate, Culberson and Joyce are guaranteed to see more opportunities. And if this current level of production is anywhere close to the full-season versions of the duo — along with the multi-faceted Camargo and another promising veteran catcher duo — the Braves might just boast MLB’s best bench.