The Braves have a good idea about which pitchers will comprise their initial five-man rotation. And they’ll consider those who miss the cut as bullpen pieces.
Manager Brian Snitker suggested the team will be “90 percent” certain what their rotation will look like entering camp. Barring an acquisition, that forecast includes Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran and whichever youngster wins the fifth spot.
“That being said, you start out with five guys, and I don't even know how many we used last year, but when we give guys extra days rest, things like that as we rotate guys around, it takes a lot of guys,” Snitker said. “We'll get a number of guys stretched out and ready to start the season as starters. And then we'll look, if we have to put a starter in the bullpen, we'll do it.
“Guys came up and they broke in in the bullpen. And a lot of those guys experienced that last year, which is going to be good for them going forward, it's not going to be such a culture shock to do that.”
Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright joined the bullpen in September (Wilson made one impressive start previously). Kolby Allard pitched in three games, and the team hopes he’s grown through his early struggles. Mike Soroka was shut down early because of shoulder inflammation. Touki Toussaint was the standout and likely enters camp a favorite, along with Soroka, for the fifth slot if the status quo applies.
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Then there was lefty Max Fried, who could assume a more concrete standing in 2019. Luiz Gohara went through a lost season, but reports on his offseason training have been extremely encouraging, Braves officials have echoed.
“These guys are all young, they're all high-energy guys,” Snitker said. “They're all really strong kids. They like to work. The work part of it, the drills, the fundamentals, all of that aren't a problem with our guys, they love all that kind of stuff. They like playing baseball.”
There remains the possibility of a trade or signing. The Braves have tried to add a starter, but prices simply haven’t aligned. In the event they add a frontline guy, perhaps Teheran becomes more easily expendable. They’d clear his $11 million salary and keep a spot open for a prospect.
Blocking youth isn’t logical, so the Braves’ efforts to add another veteran could mean someone else is out. They could also move members of their youthful pitching ensemble, clearing out competition. Given how the market is trending, both scenarios are fair “what ifs.”
As Snitker pointed out, the extra-rest factor and inevitable injuries make depth more than a luxury. There will be plenty of starts to go around over a 162-game season.
New pitching coach Rick Kranitz will play a crucial role. He has a track record working with young starters, and his aptitude for forming bonds with his players has warranted high praise. The relationship aspect is an underrated one in this situation, given the likelihood most of those arms will be shuffled between the majors and minors, rotation and bullpen.
Snitker already knows his spring-training message to the prospects, and it’s similar to the daily relays he bestowed upon his team during last year’s pennant race.
“We tell all young pitchers, my first meeting I'll have with them: We're not out to make the team today,” he said. “They have to pace themselves. I think a lot of these young guys that are coming in that have experienced that full season will get that a little more now than probably what they did last year. Because it is, it's such a long grind. They have more than enough time to get ready in spring training.”
Continuing his point, Snitker referenced the value in his youngsters switching between roles. It’s about player development, yes, but he sees the pitchers as tools to win; after last season, it’s understandable why.
“We come out of spring training, we put one of them in the bullpen, there may be a time where they get un-stretched out and have to go back and start a few games because we do want them to start,” he said. “And maybe they sit in the bullpen and they provide an asset to us as a bullpen piece.
“It doesn't mean to say they're going to be there the rest of their life. It doesn't mean they're going to be there all year. We'll stretch a bunch of them out in spring training and have them ready to start because it takes a lot of guys to get through a major league season. I think the experience that Max Fried and Kyle, Bryse came out of the bullpen a couple of times, it's going to benefit them.”