Braves roster preview: Rotation could be formidable ... or position of need

Michael John Graydon Soroka was born Aug. 4, 1997 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Braves drafted Soroka in the first round (28th overall) of the 2015 draft. Soroka made his major league debut May 1, 2018 against the Mets. In his first game, Soroka recorded the win, allowing one run in six innings. Soroka was chosen for the 2019 All-Star game.

More than any other spot — including the bullpen, third base and outfield — how the rotation shakes out is paramount to the Braves’ success in 2020. It’s the most unique position on the club, with the potential either to be its greatest strength, alarming weakness or, most likely, somewhere in the middle.

The initial rotation is almost set. All-Star Mike Soroka likely will make his first opening-day start March 26 in Phoenix. Behind him are Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz, two of the more intriguing arms in the National League. Newcomer Cole Hamels will try to be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation arm while providing invaluable work as a mentor.

Myriad starters will compete for the final spot, though most will get their share of innings across the 162-game trek. Among the competitors is Mariners legend Felix Hernandez, who's on a non-guaranteed, non-roster deal to attempt one final comeback. Even if he doesn't succeed, the Braves saw benefit in having him around their younger pitchers during spring training. If he makes the club, he'll already be considered a feel-good story.

Each rotation member presents tantalizing upside, but each also comes with his warts. Soroka had shoulder issues as recently as one year ago. Fried has dealt with persistent blisters. Hamels’ 2019 season was interrupted by an oblique injury. Foltynewicz is a wild card. It’s fair to anoint this group the difference between the Braves being a legitimate World Series contender or just another good team.

Roster locks (2019 stats)

Mike Soroka (2.68 ERA, 142:41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 174-2/3 innings)
Mike Foltynewicz (4.54 ERA, 105:37 in 117 innings)
Max Fried (4.02 ERA, 173:47 in 165-2/3 innings)
Cole Hamels (3.81 ERA, 143:56 in 141-1/3 innings)

On the bubble

Sean Newcomb
Felix Hernandez
Kyle Wright
Bryse Wilson
Touki Toussaint
Ian Anderson

Key stat: 287-1/3

In bidding farewell to Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel, the Braves lost 287-1/3 innings from their rotation. They recouped 141-1/3 in Hamels, leaving 146 vacant. The Braves won't have trouble filling those — they have an abundance of talent begging to do so — but it's more about the reliability of those innings.

We tended to focus on what Teheran and Keuchel were not, rather than what they added. They were solid yet unspectacular veterans who yielded few surprises. While the Braves have an array of starters with drastically better upside, the quality of their innings is less certain. This makes it all-the-more important that the Braves’ top four perform as hope.

Key player: Foltynewicz

You have a general idea of what a healthy Soroka and Fried bring. Hamels, with modest expectations, is expected to be a steady hand. The team’s success won’t hinge on any specific member of their collection of fifth starters.

But Foltynewicz could swing the rotation into a strength or weakness. He failed to replicate his 2018 All-Star season in 2019, struggling to the point that he required a stint in Triple-A. He rebounded well, producing a second half similar to his 2018 performance. Foltynewicz's Game 5 start in the NL Division Series against the Cardinals was a disaster, but his Game 2 outing was his career's best. This is the season the Braves see the real Foltynewicz, and if there's more Game 2's than Game 5's, the rotation looks much better.

What to watch for over the season

First baseman and team spokesman Freddie Freeman suggested 2020 could be Fried’s break-out year after he impressed in his first full season as a starter. It’s hard to believe last year was Soroka’s first, given his commanding presence on and off the mound, but 2019 was just another steppingstone for the 22-year-old. Both are crucial pieces of the current and future Braves. Their development is an obvious subplot of the season.

This campaign could also determine Foltynewicz’s future with the organization. He’ll seek the consistency of 2018 that eluded him last spring. Hamels is a one-year stopgap who is expected to help in the clubhouse. The Braves just hope he stays healthy and provides similar reliability as Keuchel and Teheran (with a higher ceiling, certainly).

We would be remiss not to mention wunderkind Ian Anderson, who’s knocking on MLB’s door at 21. He likely will make his debut this season, though it might not be exclusively as a starter. Manager Brian Snitker believes in breaking in young pitchers through the bullpen, and it would be a means of keeping Anderson’s innings down. Either way, the righty could play his way into a legitimate role by September.

On that note, several other Braves youngsters are trying to establish themselves. Sean Newcomb feels his bullpen experience will make him a better starter. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint are entering points of their careers that, if they’re going to be in the team’s long-term plans, it’s time to assert themselves. How that group performs this season will affect the team’s immediate plans and long-term outlook.