For more than two decades, starting pitching was the foundation of the Atlanta Braves, and was the key to their continuous success throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. Now though, the rebuilding franchise goes into 2016 with starting pitching looking like it’ll be the club’s Achilles heel of the club.
Gone are the days of Tom Glavine, John Smotlz, Greg Maddux, and Tim Hudson leading the Braves’ rotation. Over the past two seasons, the once pitching rich organization, has faced the reality that they needed to strip it all down and build again, which is exactly what President of baseball operations, John Hart, and general manager John Coppolella have done since taking over the front office.
After a plethora of trades beginning at the end of the 2014 season, Hart and “Coppy” have coveted numerous prospects, especially young starting pitching.
Having pried Manny Banuelos, Mike Foltynewicz, Tyrell Jenkins, Max Fried, Matt Wisler, Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis, Aaron Blair, and numerous others away from other clubs over the past 18 months, the team now looks to open the season with a lot to prove on the starting pitching front.
Julio Teheran is primed to make his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Braves on April 4. Who will follow in the rotation has been one of the most interesting and worrisome aspects of the team’s spring training thus far.
Veteran Bud Norris is almost assured a spot in the rotation, even though he was roughed up against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, March 15. Norris gave up six runs on nine hits with one walk over three innings. After pitching to a 3.65 ERA and a 15 win season for the Baltimore Orioles in 2014, Norris regressed into the worst season of his career last year pitching to a 3-11 record with a 6.72 ERA between the O’s and second half stint with the San Diego Padres. Now, on a team friendly contract (1 year/$2.5M), Norris is pitching with a chip on his shoulder as he tries to rebound from a dismal 2015. He had pitched well in his previous spring outings before getting battered around on Tuesday.
Matt Wisler looks to have solidified the number three spot in the rotation with his good work down the stretch for the club in 2015. Acquired on the last day of spring training last year in the surprising Craig Kimbrel/Melvin Upton, Jr. trade with the Padres, Wisler made his debut against the New York Mets in June of 2015, and held the eventual NL champs to one run over eight innings. Wisler finished the year with an 8-8 record and a 4.71 ERA. He also finished the year in fine fashion by shutout the St. Louis Cardinals over 8.2 innings at the Ted on the final day of the season. The now 23-year-old has given up one run and one walk, with four strikeouts so far this spring in his 4.2 innings of work over two starts.
The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation are where it becomes a coin flip for the Braves. The club signed a number of veterans to minor league contracts this offseason, including Jhoulys Chacin, Chris Volstad, Kyle Kendrick, hoping at least one of them would provide some experience in the rotation. Volstad and Kendrick were released following multiple bad outings. Chacin was pitching well before, like Norris, getting hit hard in his last outing. Chacin has given up three earned runs and 11 hits in his eight innings so far this spring.
Youngsters Foltynewicz and Banuelos are both working their way back from injuries they sustained towards the end of 2015. “Folty” gave up two earned runs in two innings in his spring debut Thursday, while Banuelos has given up four earned runs and six hits over his two innings of work this spring.
Newcomb, the prized pitching prospect in the return from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade, has been knocked around pretty good this spring, giving up six earned runs in his 1.2 innings of work. Blair likewise hasn’t missed many bats, giving up seven earned runs in his six innings on the hill.
Blair, and fellow righty prospect Lucas Sims were both reassigned to minor league camp on Friday, March 18.
Jenkins, Mauricio Cabrera, Casey Kelly, and Danny Burawa have all already been reassigned to minor league camp.
While Chacin looks like a pretty good contender for the fourth spot in the rotation, the fifth spot could fall in the lap of one of the Braves youngsters. “Folty” has all the stuff to be a front line starter, but probably needs a little more time to develop his command. The most likely winner of the final spot could be the unlikeliest of prospects, right-hander Williams Perez, who pitched well for the team in a pinch late last season. Perez went 7-6 in 23 games (20 starts) last year, while pitching to a 4.78 ERA.
The Braves’ offense should be a little more consistent this season with the acquisitions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar at the top of the lineup, and a healthy Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman. The bullpen should also be relatively consistent with Jason Grilli, Arodys Vizcaino, and Jim Johnson at the back end. The biggest question is going to be the rotation.
Glavine, Smotlz, and Steve Avery all took their lumps and got his hard when they first arrived in Atlanta. Growing pains are just part of the game for young players. Hopefully Teheran, Norris, and Chacin can help bridge the gap until some of the organization’s young, powerful arms are ready to flourish. Either way, the team’s pitching efforts will be interesting to watch, and probably highly scrutinized in 2016.