Addition of veteran starters puts focus on race for fifth spot in Braves rotation
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The past two seasons, no team has had more starts by pitchers 25 years or younger than the Braves. It hasn’t even been close, with the Reds the next closest at a stunning 101 behind.
That’s not happening this season.
Wednesday’s workouts were a reminder why, as the triumvirate of 40-somethings Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and 30-year-old Jaime Garcia were together for the first time, joining All-Star Julio Teheran on the spring training mounds.
It was also a reminder of general manager John Coppolella’s Winter Meetings message to the Braves’ young arms who were given the opportunities to produce those aforementioned innings in 2015 and ’16.
“As far as the way our pitchers feel, this may not be (politically correct), but if you don’t like it, get better,” he said.
There figures to be just one rotation spot available behind Teheran, Colon, Dickey and Garcia, and the Braves have plenty of options, highlighted by those squeezed-out young arms. Right-handers Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler and, potentially, lefty Sean Newcomb, are vying for the role along with veterans Josh Collmenter and another lefty in John Danks.
“I think it’s a job that, for me right now, I’m not giving it away,” said manager Brian Snitker. “The competition is good and I think everybody needs to feel like they can be that guy. We have seven weeks. A lot can happen. I think these guys are going to be ready.”
Foltynewicz, 25, would seem to be the leader after going 9-5 in 22 starts last season with 111 strikeouts, 35 walks and a 4.31 ERA. He allowed three runs or less in five of his last nine starts. He also had the benefit of an offseason that didn’t include surgery, as he had half a rib removed before the spring of 2015.
“It’s up in the air right now,” Foltynewicz said of the race for the fifth spot. “I thought I ended the season well last year even though I got hit in the calf and had some bone spur issues.
“Other than that I thought I finished strong and came into spring training (after) a normal offseason, so I got to prepare just like everyone else.”
The issue, though for Foltynewicz is finding consistency. While he had 11 starts in all in which he allowed two or fewer runs, he didn’t post any in consecutive games after June 30.
“It was a roller coaster last year,” he said. “You try and find that medium there instead of hitting ups and downs. But that’s one of my goals this year is to try and be average the whole year instead of dipping up and down. That’s the one thing I have to work on is command of the strike zone and not worrying about walking people.”
He had his biggest problems the third time he went through a lineup, with opponents hitting .342 against him in a third plate appearance compared to .240 and .226 the first and second times, respectively.
“Trying to get through the lineup the third time was really a struggle for me last year,” Foltynewicz said. “That’s just what I’m going to have to work on this year, try to fool people, watch a little bit more video than I did last year and just prepare a little bit better.”
While Wisler, 24, had made 47 starts over the past two seasons, he went from a 4.71 ERA in ’15 to 5.00 last year. His ’16 included a demotion to Triple-A on July 28 after a 10.18 ERA in four previous starts.
There were positives in his return — including starts against the Diamondbacks (Aug. 25) and Padres (Aug. 31) with one run allowed and a pair with two earned vs. the Nationals (Sep. 18) and Marlins (Sept. 23) — but he also gave up six to Miami on Sept. 13 and five vs. the Tigers on Sept. 30.
“In the last two years I’ve leaned a lot about what it’s going to take to be successful at this level, the weaknesses and flaws that I’ve tried to fix,” Wisler said. The big thing for me is the mental side of it, sometimes over thinking. So I’m addressing my biggest flaws at the big-league level, what it’s going to take to overcome them and hopefully become a successful big-league pitcher.”
Blair had a similar season to Wisler, finding himself in Gwinnett after posting a 7.99 ERA in his first 11 starts and returned to put together his best outing of the year on Oct. 1 against Detroit. The 24-year-old fanned 10, walked one and allowed four hits over six innings.
He credits a change to his delivery, working with former pitching coach Roger McDowell to cut down on how much he turned his back to the hitter before pushing off the mound.
It’s a tweak he’s hoping he can carry into this spring.
“That’s something I really focused on this offseason and with the new pitching coaches make a couple more adjustments and get better,” Blair said.
There’s the change the Braves could ultimately go with a veteran in Collmenter — the 31-year-old had a 2.37 ERA in three starts with the Braves, or Danks — 247 career starts with a 4.38 ERA — or the 23-year-old Newcomb, who has yet to pitch past Double-A.
But the most logical contenders appear to be Blair, Foltynewicz and Wisler, who find themselves at one of the few true position battles on Atlanta’s roster heading into this season.
“You always want to be the guy that wins the spot,” Blair said. “There’s five or six guys going for that one spot. It’s going to be a good competition”
And if it doesn’t happen?
“The guys who don’t get that spot,” Blair said, “we’ll be in Gwinnett together and get to work there as well.”
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.