Braves to consider starting pitching prospects for bullpen roles after spring training

ATLANTA — As Ronald Acuña Jr. stepped into the box against Hyun-Jin Ryu under the bright playoff lights of Dodger Stadium, marking the Atlanta Braves’ first playoff game in five years, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb watched from the same bullpen setting which produced the defining image of the organization’s 2013 postseason exit.

The three young pitchers combined for 17 career relief appearances heading into the National League Division Series against Los Angeles, but the Braves’ brain trust opted to address late-season bullpen concerns by adding arm talent to the relief corps. The trio’s postseason relief results: 7 1/3 innings with a 1.23 ERA and seven strikeouts against the baseball’s best second-half lineup. After a strong Game 1 appearance, Newcomb was tabbed as the Game 3 starter in Atlanta’s lone win in the series, but the former first-round picks more than held their own as bullpen options in a high-stress playoff environment.

The regular season’s 162-game grind presents different challenges than the playoffs, however, leaving the Braves’ front office with a decision to make concerning their organizational surplus of young starters capable of helping the major-league roster.

The Braves will hold off on that decision at least until after spring training, not only for the aforementioned trio but also for names like Luiz Gohara, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka and Bryse Wilson.

“That’s going to be a big discussion,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “I think they’ll all be stretched out in the spring and as we get to the end, hopefully everyone’s healthy and everyone’s performing well, but I’m very confident we’re going to have a decision to make: Are we in a better position to carry a starter, carry that person in the bullpen, or leave them stretched out down in Gwinnett in case somebody gets hurt? There’s going to be some decisions to make.”

Atlanta could dabble with a six-man rotation again in 2019, but there is a finite number of rotation spots available behind current roster guarantees Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran and likely Newcomb, who posted a 3.90 ERA in 164 innings despite second-half struggles before his convincing postseason performance. (Newcomb’s season-long adjustments, including adding a changeup and cutting down on missing arm side with his sweeping curveball in his final outings, leave the Braves optimistic the 25-year-old lefty can continue to improve.) If the Braves add a frontline starter — and they continue to monitor the starting pitcher market, particularly in terms of trade options — that could shut the up-and-comers out of the Opening Day roster altogether.

If Atlanta feels comfortable with both its starting pitching and bullpen options at the end of spring training, Anthopoulos’ preference is to avoid replicating the playoff strategy and keep his young starters stretched out at Triple-A — essentially housing the game’s most talented minor-league pitching rotation in Gwinnett. This would serve as an insurance policy for injuries or poor production at the top level while also keeping some of the organization’s top prospects on track developmentally. Still, the early offseason moves from division rivals could dictate Atlanta’s roster choices.

“In a perfect, ideal world, they would all start, all be stretched out. It’s best for their development and their career,” Anthopoulos said. “At the same time, we’re trying to win. We’re going to have to balance that. We’ll be open to it. Every game’s going to matter from the start, especially the way the division’s going.

“If at the end of the day we think we’re a stronger club with that person in the bullpen, we’ll look to do it.”

The Braves were one of eight teams to hand 400 or more innings to rookie pitchers last season, ranking second in adjusted ERA (92 ERA-) and tied for first in adjusted fielding-independent pitching (93 FIP-) out of that group.

Soroka and Toussaint, arguably the organization’s top two pitching prospects, impressed in limited time: The right-handed Soroka posted a 2.85 FIP and 3.51 ERA in five starts before being shut down with shoulder inflammation while Toussaint, another righty, showed enough in his seven outings to make the postseason roster. Throw in Fried, who posted a sub-3.00 ERA in his hybrid regular-season role, and Wilson, who pitched five shutout innings in his impressive major-league debut to help spark a key series sweep over Pittsburgh, and there was no shortage of important first-year contributors.

Gohara and Wright might be the wildcards.

Wright’s numbers were shaky in four MLB relief appearances, but the stuff that made him the top pitching prospect in the 2017 draft is all there. The former No. 5 overall pick and Vanderbilt star just turned 23 years old and he dominated minor-league hitters in first full pro season.

Anthopoulos was well aware of Gohara when he took over Atlanta’s baseball operations department last fall after the left-hander dazzled in his first five major-league starts. Anthopoulos was even more encouraged when star first baseman Freddie Freeman pulled him aside in spring training and told him Gohara has the opportunity to be an All-Star in 2018. None of that materialized. Personal tragedy struck in the offseason followed by several injuries, leaving the 22-year-old with a lost season on the mound.

The Braves have not given up on Gohara, though. Braves farm director Dom Chiti is overseeing the hefty 6-foot-3 southpaw’s progress in Florida this offseason as he’s shed excess weight to make a roster push as early as this spring.

“Last offseason, not by any fault of his own, was a lost offseason for him and it impacted him. … The people that saw him in September 2017, the stuff was off the charts. We tend to forget he’s only 22,” Anthopoulos said. “If he has a regular offseason like he’s had, I think there’s huge upside and pretty excited for how he’s going to look come spring training.”

There’s also the distinct possibility that if Atlanta opts to trade for a high-end piece, whether it be an outfielder or pitcher, the likely cost of doing business will be at least one of their prized pitching prospects.