Alex Anthopoulos in conversation, Pt. 2: Braves pitching and playoffs

The Atlanta Braves arrived at the All-Star break at 52-42, a half-game game out of first place in the National League East. That's the good part. Less good is that they've lost 13 of 21 and have seen a 3-1/2-game division lead evaporate. Over the weekend, general manager Alex Anthopoulos held forth on his team and its immediate future. Part I of that conversation can be found here. Part 2 begins now.

Have you seen anything in your team that makes you think it might hit a wall?

We’ve pitched. Other than this last road trip, our rotation has done an exceptional job. We were up there (among the league leaders) in starters’ ERA, even with some of the youth. Mike Foltynewicz isn’t a 21-year-old kid, but he’s obviously having a fantastic year. Sean Newcomb the same way. We’re getting an unbelievable season, even though it was interrupted with a hamstring, from Anibal Sanchez. You just wonder how fair it is to expect the sustainability of elite performances – Newcomb was running at a great number in ERA, Mike Foltynewicz the same way, Anibal Sanchez the same way. I think we’ve seen that, as we pitch from our rotation, our team goes. (That’s how) we’re going to need to win games.

That San Diego series (the Braves took three of four, their starters yielding two earned runs), we had a great series, but those were low-scoring games. People didn’t talk about the offense because we got great starting performances and we were able to close out the games. I do think the big thing is sustainability and success of our rotation over the course of six months, and that’s why we try to give guys as much rest as we can. We’ll give them an extra day, skip them, move them around. We talk about it all the time: We’re not trying to pitch through September; we’re trying to pitch through October. We’re planning for that extra month in everything that we do.

Counting Max Fried, three starting pitchers are on the disabled list. Realistically, do you have enough here to get you through October? 

We do. Because (Luiz) Gohara is going to start (for Gwinnett on Friday) and start midweek and he’s a candidate to be our fifth starter coming out of the break. Fried could arguably pitch, but it was one of those things where we just wanted (his blister) to heal and him to get back on track. Kolby Allard is deserving of an opportunity. He has continued to perform at a high level in Gwinnett. We just haven’t had the window with some other guys that are ahead of him right now to give him that opportunity. But he’s there, ready to go at any time. There isn’t anything left for him to work on, other than to continue to pitch at a high level. I expect him to get an opportunity at some point.

Between Fried coming back and Gohara – we expect to get him going – and with Allard being available right now, we’re hopeful. (With Mike) Soroka as he starts to build back up and Brandon McCarthy, although his knee’s still barking, we think we’ll have enough depth. What I can’t speak to is what the quality is going to be. We’ve pitched at a high level. That’s a big part of our wins. It’s allowed our offense to go cold at times, our bullpen to not be as strong. Our rotation and our starters’ ERA is really key for us to continue to maintain this pace.

Do you believe this bullpen can get you to October? (Note: The Braves placed Arodys Vizcaino on the disabled list the day after this conversation.)

I think it can get us to October. The question is, can we win in October with them? On the one hand, in October you don’t need as much depth. You need three, four reliable guys. On the other, it’s a very young and inexperienced bullpen. Just like you talk about the starters and getting through the grind of six months during the season, at some point do the innings and the workload pile up on these guys and come the month of August, come September, do they start to fade a little bit? That’s always in the back of your mind, and we’re just trying to get these guys rest. I think it’s clear: We’re definitely trying to add to that group, trying to add to the depth. I do think, though, that when you get to October, you can look at a core group of four or five and feel pretty good about that. With all the off days, you can maintain it. Over the course of six months, we need a seven, eight-man bullpen that can continue to give us good results.

The Royals did OK with that Kelvin Herrera/Wade Davis/Greg Holland trio in 2014. 

Exactly. Because you have off days. We’ve seen it a lot with how bullpens are used in the playoffs. People talk about, “Why don’t teams do that during the season?” Because you’d kill them. We play every day. There’s so many off days (in October), you can shorten things up a little bit. Getting to October is a whole other matter. You need to worry about that first.

As you were holding organizational meetings over the winter, what did you think your record would be at the All-Star break? 

This is not to be evasive, but I never focused on what the win total might be or might not be. I was pretty obsessive about getting answers on who was going to be part of our core going forward. We needed to find out about (Ozzie) Albies, (Dansby) Swanson, (Ronald) Acuna, even (Austin) Riley developing, Johan Camargo. Mike Foltynewicz – tons of people were telling me this guy needs to be in the bullpen. Tons of discussion, this was a swing year for him. Sean Newcomb: Is he going to put it all together? Julio Teheran: Can he bounce back? I think he’s been up and down, but I think he’s trended more in the right direction, though he’s certainly not where he can be. And even with some of the relievers as well. (A.J.) Minter showed flashes at the end of last year.

I knew Freddie Freeman was an aircraft carrier, an MVP candidate, so I didn’t need any answers there, but there were a lot of decisions and evaluations that needed to be made. And my focus was on, “When we sit back at the end of 2018, will we say, ‘We don’t have an answer at second, we don’t have an answer at short, we don’t have an answer at third, we don’t have an answer in the rotation’?” Those were a lot of areas that, because of youth, could go either way. That’s what freeing up the payroll was going to give us – flexibility to go one way or the other. I’ve been more focused on the individual growth and development of players, and for the most part it’s been good, and that ultimately has translated to wins, which is what we ultimately wanted and expected.

I thought this was the year things would start to get good again, but I also thought you’d go 80-82. 

Which I think would have been completely fair. And I hope we continue to go forward, but we still have another two months left. You don’t know what’s going to happen with injuries and performance. The Nationals right now are (around) .500. They might take off and win 10 in a row. Look at what the A’s have done lately. Things can still move, even in a two-month period. We tend to get to this point and think we have all the answers as to how the season’s going to end up, and it’s a normal human reaction, but I learned there’s still a lot of games left. It’s one thing to have this discussion in mid-July; it’s another to have it at the beginning of September.