Rookie Foltynewicz ready to roll with Braves after Gattis swap

Michael Foltynewicz, the Braves' No. 2 prospect (source: MLB.com), has logged nearly 575 innings in the professional ranks (all within the Astros system) and will likely compete for the No. 5 starter slot in Atlanta's stacked rotation.

Ken Blaze

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Michael Foltynewicz could win 250 games at the major-league level and flirt with a sub-3.10 ERA for the next 15 years.

And yet, he might not have enough juice to live up to this mythological, almost absurd scouting report from the Web:

Catching up to a Mike Foltynewicz fastball is a nightmare for professional hitters. Pitchers don’t throw 95-plus with late-movement very often. Like Zeus shooting lightning from the heavens, hitters cannot catch up to the lightning bolts Foltynewicz hurls from the mound.

The above hyperbole suggests the Atlanta Braves knocked it out of the proverbial park back in mid-January, when the club principally acquired the 22-year old Foltynewicz, third-base prospect Rio Ruiz and pitching prospect Andrew Thurman for former Braves catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis, who has a realistic chance of belting 30-plus homers with the Houston Astros — thanks to the cozy left-field dimensions of Minute Maid Park.

It also paints Foltynewicz as a likely linchpin with the Braves rotation … whenever he lands in the big leagues on a permanent basis — whether it’s Opening Day, June 1 or Sept. 1.

"I think anyone’s goal is to make to the highest level out of (spring training)," says Foltynewicz, the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Braves organization (No. 2 overall — source: MLB.com) and a candidate for Atlanta’s No. 5 starter role when the regular season launches on April 6 (in Miami).

"I need to keep my walks down … and make my curveball and slider more effective — those get hit around more than I would like to," says Foltynewicz, modestly omitting his success in the minor leagues, which included a 3.98 career ERA (2010-14), a fastball that routinely hits 97 mph on the radar gun and three outings of double-digit strikeouts last year.

Foltynewicz may also be oblivious to the effusive praise from FanGraphs.com., which believes the Illinois native already possesses above-average potential with three pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup).

The former University of Texas commit has logged nearly 575 innings in the professional ranks, with the vast majority as a starter.

On the flip side, Foltynewicz’s 16 MLB appearances with the Astros last year all came in relief; and within that span, he entered the game before the 7th inning just once (the finale against the Mets).

That 57-day stay in the bigs might have initiated Foltynewicz’s so-called ‘major- league clock’ … but it also didn’t capitalize on his likely role for the next five, 10 or maybe 15 years:

As a starting pitcher.

* * *

From 2011-13, the Astros posted three straight seasons of 105-plus losses. In 2014, the club enjoyed a 19-game improvement from the previous year — which coincided with the maturation of young veterans and ballyhooed arrival of rookies Jonathan Singleton and George Springer (the first wave of high-impact prospects coming to Houston).

The latter was actually the muse for a Sports Illustrated cover from last summer, with SI hailing the Astros as "The Next Big Thing … Your 2017 World Champs."

By all accounts, Foltynewicz was projected to be a top-of-the-rotation asset for the Astros’ (presumed) championship-ready era. But a funny thing happened on the way to Houston:

His career path had been quickly re-reouted, as part of the seismic Gattis swap.

"I just woke up one day (Jan. 14), and my buddy actually texted me and said, ‘You’re getting traded to Atlanta,’" recalls Foltynewicz, who’ll likely compete with veterans Eric Stults (8-17, 4.30 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 11/45 K-BB last year), Wandy Rodriguez, Chien- Ming Wang and prospect Manny Banuelos (acquired in the offseason) for the No. 5 starter’s role.

"I’ve never really had any time to consult (with others who’ve been traded as prospects). You wake up and it’s like BOOM, ‘I’ve been traded!’ … so that happens."

Yes, trades happen all the time in the baseball. It’s the price players must pay for the general managers’ perpetual desire to build a better mousetrap. But in Foltynewicz’s case, he’s taking a glass-half-full approach to uprooting his life to a new state and new organization — with no tangible promise of where he’ll be in 2015.

"Everyone says it’s a good thing that you’re wanted by (another club). … For the Braves to get me in a trade is definitely an honor," says Foltynewicz, who stands tall at 6-foot-4. "Now, I just have to go out and show ’em why they traded for me."

* * *

There are a few obvious reasons to launching a pro career at 18 years old, instead of going the college route for a minimum of three seasons: Money, quality of competition, top-natch, tailor-made instruction, etc.

However, there exists one notable bone of contention for potential starting hurlers: The dreaded pitch count.

Growing up in Minooka, Ill., Foltynewicz didn’t have any restrictions when taking the mound in high school. But the second he became property of the Astros (19th overall in the 2010 draft — ahead of MLB up-and-comers like Christian Yelich, Taijuan Walker, Nick Castellanos, Mike Olt, Jedd Gyorko, Drew Smyly and Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons), the workload was regimented — and noticeably shorter in duration.

"Here I am, an 18-year-old kid, and the (Astros are) telling me, ‘Hey, we’re going to go easy on you — 100-pitch max’ … and there were times when I would think, ‘Well, let’s see if I can go a little longer," says Foltynewicz.

"But in the long run, it was a good idea."

One good idea deserves another. In his formative years, Foltynewicz’s parents were both accommodating and resolute in making sure their son kept his so-called eye on the ball with his chosen sport.

"They were always out there, helping me go to the field or get to a game or practice, or taking ground balls," says Foltynewicz, while displaying a wide grin of appreciation. "They’re the reason why I’m here; they’re always on me, harping on me to go out there and get the work done."

Which brings us to this: Last week, the MLB Network lamented the findings of a 10-year study, where the production with vital offensive categories like homers, doubles, triples, singles, slugging rate and OPS had dipped considerably, across the board.

(For what it’s worth, walks and strikeouts are on the rise.)

To counter this negative trend, the network’s talking heads discussed some possible methods for helping hitters — in addition to Major League Baseball’s new "pace of play" rules for the 2015 season (and beyond).

**Asked if he could attempt a pitch every 11 or 12 seconds — replicating the pace of Blue Jays lefty Mark Buehrle, Foltynewicz says, "I could do that. Sometimes, I get a little too amped-up to pitch. … I’ve been told (by previous coaches) to take a few deep breaths in-between pitches. But once I get the ball rolling, I think it starts working (fast for me)."

**Asked about the notion of lowering the pitcher’s mound, in an effort to minimize the effectiveness of split-finger fastballs, Foltynewicz says, "I don’t think it would affect me too much anyway."

**And when asked about the mound going back roughly six inches, Foltynewicz perked up before saying, "That’s an interesting topic."

Notice how Foltynewicz said interesting and not "daunting."

After all, when you’re the hyperbolized spawn of gods like Zeus, tossing unhittable lightning bolts at a high rate of speed — with late movement, mind you — still trumps the six-inch displacement of a mere pitching incline.