For the Braves to win bigger, they must pitch better

If this postseason has done anything, it has served to remind us of the importance of starting pitching. The World Series matched the teams with the highest-profile starters. The five teams with the best starters’ ERA made the playoffs; no team that ranked below 15th did.

The Braves’ rotation ranked 12th among MLB clubs in ERA. That was a marked drop from 2018, when they were fourth. They’ve won 187 games and two division titles over that span. They’ll have to pitch better if they’re to win anything bigger.

They ended the regular season with a rotation of Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran and Max Fried. It would be a surprise if that quintet returns intact. With the baseball offseason set to begin with the final out of tonight’s Game 7, we offer some guesses as to what might, and might not, happen.

Gerrit Cole: Forget it. The Braves will try hard to keep Josh Donaldson, and they'll make a run at Milwaukee catcher Yasmani Grandal, but they won't offer a multi-year contract at $30-plus million per season for someone who works every fifth day. David Price is 34, and the Red Sox still owe him $96 million. Yu Darvish is 33 and is owed $81 million by the Cubs. The Braves have long said — and this latest administration firmly believes — that the least efficient way to spend money is on a big-ticket free-agent pitcher. Cole will get a ton of money somewhere. Not here.

Zack Wheeler: He was born in Cobb County, so there's that. He has also had a history of injuries — it comes with being a Met — and he's not that great when healthy. He's a No. 3  starter at best, and the Braves already have those.

Madison Bumgarner: He's a free agent, and the Giants are in rebuild mode. He's only 30 — surprising, right? — and he carries as much postseason cachet as any pitcher of this era. He won't get a Cole-type contract because he had injury issues in 2017/2018, and 2019 was his worst season in the majors, though still not awful. The arguments against signing a pitcher for top dollar apply here, and he'd make sense only if what happened to Keuchel last winter happens to him. The market would have to collapse, and he'd have to accept a short-term deal.

Keuchel: Speaking of whom, the Braves were neither overly disappointed not outrageously delighted with the four months he gave them for $13 million. (If they had it to do again, they mightn't have given him two starts in the NLDS.) It's unlikely he'll settle for another one-year deal. It's unlikely the Braves would offer more than that.

Soroka: Assuming good health, their next long-term lock-up deal will involve him. It mightn't come this winter, though. Arms are funny things, especially young ones. You can reasonably project the next eight to 10 years for Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. You can't reasonably project anything for a 22-year-old pitcher. You can only cross your fingers.

Foltynewicz: If he's as good as he was in Game 2 against St. Louis, the Braves will take that and run with it. If he's as bad as in the first inning of Game 5, they'll need rotational cover. From 2018 All-Star to 2019 Gwinnett Striper; from no earned runs in seven Game 2 innings to six earned runs against one out (that on a sacrifice bunt) in Game 5 ... who knows what's next? He's so talented the Braves can't give up on him. They can't feel comfortable, either. And at 28, he's no longer a young pitcher.

Teheran: He's 244 days older than Foltynewicz. At least with Teheran, the Braves have some idea of what he is – an innings-eater who'll keep a team in games but not someone you'd want starting come October. The Braves have worked nine playoff games the past two seasons, Teheran starting none of them. He wasn't on this year's NLDS roster until reliever Chris Martin tweaked an oblique. The Braves can keep Teheran next season for $12 million or buy him out for $1 mil. On the one hand, $12 million for a starting pitcher isn't outlandish. On the other, it wouldn't address any playoff issues. It's a tough call.

Fried: He was electric in his first two playoff relief appearances, less so in the next two. He's 25. He won 17 games, not that anybody notices wins/losses anymore, and his 4.02 ERA was offset by a 3.72 FIP (fielding independent pitching, which is the stat analytic sorts check first). He should be in this rotation for a good long while, and a starting nucleus of Soroka, Fried and the good Foltynewicz would be a strength. Again, though, we're back to Foltynewicz being good, which he isn't always.

Sean Newcomb: He held a place in this rotation from June 10, 2017, through April 13, 2019, whereupon Brian Snitker pulled him after four outs, five hits and two walks against the Mets. (Snitker is a patient man, except when he's not.) Newcomb was shipped to Gwinnett. When he returned, it was as a reliever. He was deployed almost exclusively as a set-up man. In the playoffs, he dropped below Fried in the lefty pecking order. He has too good an arm to be written off at 26, but he has fallen from favor. On the day after Game 5, Alex Anthopoulos was asked about Newcomb returning to starting duty. The general manager was neither effusive nor dismissive. If the Braves don't believe Newcomb can start, it's time to trade him.

Ian Anderson/Kyle Wright/Bryse Wilson/Kyle Muller: According to MLB Pipeline, these are the Braves' No. 3, 4, 6 and 7 prospects. Anderson, the third player drafted in 2016, had a 6.57 ERA at Gwinnett. Wright, the fifth player taken in 2017, looked overmatched in seven big-league games last season. Wilson projects as a mid-rotation starter. Muller had a nice season in Double-A. All could well develop into something. It would be a shock if any pitches his way into the rotation in spring training.

Bottom line: The rotation at the end of the 2019 season was 60 percent different from the one that ended 2018. Only Teheran and Foltynewicz remained, and that was after the latter spend a month in Triple-A. Soroka is a keeper and Fried very good; Anderson/Wright/et alia all have promise.  The Braves must decide what to do with Teheran, and they remain prisoners of Foltynewicz's vacillations. They need to pitch better in 2020, but it's unclear if in-house options can make that happen.