Braves Offseason Preview – The Starting Rotation
The Braves surprising 2018 season was fueled by an improved pitching staff. For the team to take that next step an improve on the 90-win season, more improvement is needed.
Atlanta’s team ERA was 3.75 last season, much better than the 4.72 from the 2017 season. The starter’s ERA was 3.50, much better than the 4.80 the season before. And the bullpen ERA was 4.15, a tad better than the 4.58 posted in 2017.
More pitching prospects from the farm system graduated this past season, so there’s a clearer picture of who may now be an option for 2019. Plus, the farm system still has plenty of solid prospects who are a year or two away from being options in Atlanta.
Let’s look at the status of Atlanta’s starting rotation heading into the hot stove league.
The season ended with Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Anibal Sanchez and Julio Teheran in the rotation. And then several young pitchers – Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and even Bryse Wilson – got turns as the Braves spaced out their starting pitchers.
Sanchez is a free agent, and while you should never say never, it’s unlikely the Braves will bring him back. It might simply be a chance for them to upgrade, even on what Sanchez brought to the table as a veteran starter.
Foltynewicz was great all season and showed great improvement. His ERA went from 4.79 to 2.85 and Folty’s hit-to-inning-pitch ratio was great, as he allowed 130 hits in 183 innings of work. Plus, Foltynewicz’s BB/9 IP ratio improved a bit (3.3 compared to 3.4 in 2017) and his K/9 IP ratio went from 8.4 to 9.9 with his 202 strikeouts.
Folty is going nowhere. The Braves want to see more development from the 27-year-old, and there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to improve. But it’s likely the Braves will prefer to pair Foltynewicz with a more veteran starter who could be the team’s number one pitcher.
Newcomb had perhaps what should be labeled as a typical season for a kid in his first full year. He was 10-5 with a 3.15 ERA in his first 22 starts, but then in the next seven starts, Newcomb had a 7.44 ERA. At times, Newcomb showed he could be the Jon Lester-type many have projected, but there are questions about his durability as he faltered down the stretch.
Gausman was solid in his 10 starts for the Braves after the trade from Baltimore. He had a 5-3 record with a 2.87 ERA. However, the Braves did not let him start in the postseason series with the Dodgers, which makes you wonder how strong his position in the rotation is moving forward.
Could the Braves decide to spin Gausman in a deal for a better top-of-the-rotation starter? Gausman is under control for two more years, so he’s got a tradable contract for a mid-rotation guy. But do the Braves instead believe Gausman can take that next step and become a solid number two starter with a full season in Atlanta?
Teheran actually improved from his 2017 season numbers, with a tremendous hit-to-innings pitched ratio of 122-175.2. His ERA went from 4.49 in the previous season to 3.94. But for some reason it just feels like Teheran may have pitched his last game in an Atlanta uniform, doesn’t it?
Teheran has been a full-time starter for six seasons with the Braves. He’s averaged 193 innings pitched, 31.5 starts and a 3.61 ERA, with half of those seasons in a rebuild. Would the figures had been better if Teheran had been on a competitive team? Perhaps.
Still, with the young pitchers graduating to Atlanta, and with money to spend to get a potential ace pitcher, Teheran’s spot may be in jeopardy. He’s due $11.166 million in 2019, with a $12 million option for 2020 that includes a $1 million buyout.
The decreased velocity might scare off some teams, but Teheran’s contract is good for many teams to have him as a mid-rotation starter. The Braves may not get anything substantial for Teheran, but a good reliever in return might make it a good deal. Plus, the Braves could spend Teheran’s money on other areas needing improvement.
Maybe Teheran returns, but sometimes it just seems like a player’s time with a team has run its course.
So, let’s assume the Braves have Foltynewicz, Newcomb, and Gausman in the rotation. Could one of the other spots go to a veteran signed as a free agent or acquired in a trade, and then the other spot to a young pitcher?
The Braves have had a full year to evaluate their young pitching prospects. Toussaint, Fried, Wilson, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, and Luiz Gohara all made starts in 2018. Kyle Wright made four appearances out of the Atlanta bullpen late in the season. Which of these kids do the Braves consider off-limits in trade talks and which ones do the Braves prefer to keep for the future?
It seemed like Toussaint became a team-favorite with his five starts. Overall, Toussaint had a 4.03 ERA, with 18 hits allowed in 29 innings, with 21 walks and 32 strikeouts. There is no doubt the stuff is there, but Toussaint must improve his control.
Fried showed great stuff, as well, but injuries limited his time in Atlanta. Fried’s start on June 30 in St. Louis was one of the best of the season, as he struck out 11 in 6.2 innings of work beating the Cardinals. Then after his next start, Fried’s blistered acted up again and he missed three weeks. When he made another start in Washington on August 7, a line drive forced him out of the game with a groin injury.
Fried made four relief appearances in September and again showed great stuff. He allowed just one run on four hits in five innings, with three walks and eight strikeouts. Fried then pitched in all four games of the division series against the Dodgers. He gave up a solo home run to lefty hitter Max Muncy in game three and that was it.
The relief appearances have the Braves intrigued about the possibility of Fried being their Andrew Miller – a lefty reliever with starting experience who could settle into the role as a dominant arm out of the pen. However, expect teams that talk trade with the Braves to discuss Fried, especially if they want to give him another shot as a starting pitcher.
Wilson made one great start in Pittsburgh and showed the Braves he has great potential. However, Wilson turns 21 in December and with only five starts in Triple-A this past season, that’s likely where he’ll return to get more development in 2019 – that is, unless he’s included in a trade this offseason.
Soroka made his debut May 1 and dazzled with six impressive innings against the Mets. But inflammation in his rotation cuff of his right shoulder ruined his season. Soroka didn’t pitch again after his June 19 start in Toronto, as the month off between May 12 and June 13 didn’t resolve the issue. So, the Braves just shut him down until he got some innings in the Instructional League in September.
If the Braves believe Soroka is healthy, he could go to spring training and compete for a spot in the rotation. However, the Braves are likely going to have to make a decision on Soroka, as it is expected that teams the Braves talk to in trade discussions are going to ask for him.
Allard simply showed he needs more time, more development. He’s still just 21 years old, and not all pitchers are ready to go at such a young age. Foltynewicz didn’t really turn the corner until this season and he was 26. The Braves still believe Allard can be a good pitcher, but he just needs more time in the minor leagues to get better.
Gohara is a wild card. The word is he is expected to work on his conditioning this winter, so he can arrive at spring training and again compete for a job in the rotation. We may be finding out, however, why the Mariners were so keen on trading him away. Gohara has plenty of potential, with great stuff for a left-hander, but his weight and other issues seem to always get in the way.
Then there’s Wright, who got a look-see in September. While he came out of the pen, Wright is still viewed as a starting pitcher. Wright could probably use more time in Triple-A, but it’s not out of the question for him to go to spring training and compete for a job.
The Braves aren’t going to keep all of these kids. We’ve just mentioned 11 pitchers and that’s just the ones who were in Atlanta last year. There are more on the way behind these pitchers.
Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Kyle Muller are the big three from the 2016 draft. Anderson is considered the best prospect, and some believe he’s worth hanging onto. Wentz was hurt for part of the 2018 season, but there is still great hope for his potential. And Muller gained traction with a great season at three levels and even in the Arizona Fall League.
Ricardo Sanchez, Freddy Tarnok and Huascar Ynoa are on the radar, while Tristan Beck and Trey Riley are from this past June’s draft. So, the numbers are there, even if the Braves include some of these pitchers in a trade or two this winter.
This is just about the decisions that must be made by Alex Anthopoulos. He’s got to determine who to fill in with this statement: The pitchers I will not trade and want to keep are _________, ____________ and _____________. Who knows if that’s one pitcher or two or three, but only Anthopoulos knows who has impressed him enough in this last year to have them off limits in trade talks.
Who does Anthopoulos believe can be in his rotation the next five years? Who does he believe has the highest ceiling? Who might he believe could be a star or even a top-of-the-rotation starter?
These answers will partly be answered by what Anthopoulos does this offseason. Even with all the depth, the belief the Braves need a veteran starter not named Julio Teheran to lead the rotation could temp Anthopoulos to look around a bit.
Do they sign a free agent or look for a trade for a starting pitcher? Well, it might depend on their strategy with other positions. There is a need for a closer, and there are several available. Even if the Braves make a big trade for a catcher (J.T. Realmuto), they still have enough depth to make a deal for a starting pitcher.
First, let’s kill the Jacob deGrom dream. It would be great to bring the Braves fan home to the south, but it’s unlikely his new general manager, who used to be his agent, will trade him inside the NL East, if at all. With the Mets now talking again about winning now, it’s unlikely they’ll trade the probable Cy Young Award winner.
As far as potential trade targets, one team stands out above the rest. Rumors have the Indians interested in lowering their payroll, and they have some starting pitchers the Braves might be interested in.
Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer could all be available in a trade. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young Award winner and is still one of the best pitchers in the sport. If the Braves want a true ace, Kluber fits the description.
Kluber, who is 94-50 in the last six seasons with an ERA of 2.96, is due $17 million for 2019 and then two more options on 2020 and 2021. Kluber will be paid $17.5 million if the 2020 option is picked up and then $18 million in 2021.
Carrasco will be paid $9.75 million in 2019 and there is a $9.5 million option for 2020 (with a buyout of less than $1 million). Bauer has two years remaining in arbitration before he’s eligible for free agency.
Maybe if the Braves can’t get Realmuto from the Marlins they would have interest in Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes, who was a finalist for the Gold Glove award. What would the Braves have to give up for Kluber and Gomes?
If Atlanta could include Ender Inciarte in a deal, that would offset some of the salary that would be coming their way. Might a deal including Inciarte, two pitching prospects and an outfield prospect get that deal done?
The Indians have Jose Ramirez for third base, so they probably wouldn’t need prospect Austin Riley. They might ask for catching prospect William Contreras or outfield prospect Drew Waters. Expect top outfield prospect, Cristian Pache, to be off limits.
Imagine the rotation with Kluber, Foltynewicz, Newcomb, Gausman and maybe Toussaint. That stacks up a bit better to the rotations in Los Angeles and Chicago compared to what the Braves had in 2018.
The Diamondbacks are also interested in dropping payroll, but Zack Greinke is due a fortune ($105 million for the next three years). They also could have a bat available in David Peralta who could interest the Braves, so that’s worth keeping in mind.
The Nationals, Phillies, and Yankees have also been linked to Greinke, but he has expressed a desire to play in Atlanta in the past. The huge money will be an issue, however.
Could the Braves ask the Giants about left-hander Madison Bumgarner? Well, they don’t have a general manager yet, so we don’t know if they’re going to rebuild or try and win immediately. Bumgarner, who is from Hickory, NC, will enter the last year of his contract in 2019. The Giants may try to get something for him instead of the risk of losing him a year from now.
The Braves are likely to talk with some of the free agent starting pitchers. The youngest of the available free agents are Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi, who are both 29 years old. Corbin is expected to be heavily pursued by the Yankees and is expected to get a huge contract.
Eovaldi is an interesting possibility. He obviously proved he’s healthy again by his performance in the postseason with the Red Sox. Eovaldi also showed off his strong fastball when he pitched for the Red Sox in Atlanta. But can Eovaldi survive a full season and make 30 starts?
J.A. Happ (36 years old), Charlie Morton (35), Hyun-Jin Ryu (31), Dallas Keuchel (31) and Matt Harvey are the other free agent starting pitchers. Aren’t they just complimentary pieces, though?
Again, Anthopoulos knows what he wants to do with Teheran and he knows which young pitcher(s) he’s ready to give a spot in the rotation to next year. That will determine the plan, especially if the priority is to simply add someone to the top of the list – someone like a Corey Kluber. Those decisions will also determine who may be available in trades to fill other needs.