The Braves’ best years, and one of the best runs in sports history, were built on pitching. There isn’t a Greg Maddux or John Smoltz in this present group, but the organization’s lifeblood remains the same: It begins and ends with pitching depth.
That’ll be on display this spring. The rotation is mostly set with Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran. The fifth spot is expected to go to one, or perhaps a combination, of the many ready prospects.
Foltynewicz was an All-Star last season, scratching the surface of the potential he teased in previous years. He’ll likely start opening day (March 28 at Philadelphia), assuming the top-of-the-rotation mantle he secured when he started Game 1 of last year’s National League Division Series.
The question now is how high is Foltynewicz’s ceiling? Will he build off last year or drop off a bit? The Braves’ staff is solid, but it lacks consistency. Foltynewicz continuing his late work would help.
Newcomb tailed off after a big first half, but like Foltynewicz the year before, the Braves feel the learning experience will help him make strides this time around. The enigmatic Teheran, meanwhile, was jettisoned from the postseason rotation. But his value as an innings eater is among the more reliable aspects of the group.
Gausman, acquired at the trade deadline, produced a sub-3.00 ERA. He traditionally has been better in the second half, but the Braves’ analytically approached adjustments seemed positive. Perhaps Gausman is just a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who flashes something more, but that’s a fine result.
The fifth spot encourages competition among Touki Toussaint, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Kolby Allard, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright. Barring a surprise, it likely will come down to those first three – each of whom will factor into the team’s immediate plans.
The Braves will play it carefully with Soroka, whose season was cut short after five starts because of shoulder inflammation. Toussaint was the most impressive of the group, and his ability to operate as a starter and reliever betters his odds of making the club. Similar can be said of Fried, who isn’t new to the mix but has shown enough to stay in the discussion, even if he hasn’t established a clear role.
While the Braves still would like an additional pitcher for the bullpen, their 2018 group returns. Arodys Vizcaino, on a non-guaranteed deal, needs to show he’s healthy in spring training or the club may opt to move on. If he stays, Vizcaino and lefty A.J. Minter project to handle the ninth inning again.
Dan Winkler faded after a phenomenal August, while Shane Carle and Sam Freeman also were burned out by the postseason. They’re back for 2019, though none is a lock to be in the bullpen.
Jesse Biddle was a good story a year ago, as was comeback player of the year Jonny Venters. Grant Dayton will aim to follow in their footsteps. The former Dodger missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and now vies for a spot in the Braves’ bullpen.
Dayton excelled as a rookie in 2016, posting a 2.05 ERA with 39 strikeouts and six walks in 26-1/3 innings. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was with the Dodgers at the time, acquired him last year as a low-risk long-term play.
Similar can be said of Darren O’Day, whom the Braves added in the Gausman trade. He’s recovered from a hamstring injury and has the ability to be one of the better bullpen arms. The 36-year-old has been an elite-level reliever since 2010. There’s no guarantee he recovers that form, but spring training could give an indication.
Then there’s Chad Sobotka, the hard-thrower who came out of nowhere last year and has a chance to cement his place in the later innings. The bevy of young pitchers could make a mark here, too, with Toussaint, Fried, Gohara, Allard, Wilson and Wright all having experience out of the bullpen.
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