Mostly the Braves have been playing themselves, never the greatest measure. The biggest change from July 3 to now has been the loss of rotational depth – King Felix in exile, Hamels still in flux. That means the starting five almost surely will consist of Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. All are talented, yes, all having been somebody’s Round 1 draftee. The latter three, however, spent time in the minors as late as last summer; the top of the rotation features two pitchers coming off their heaviest professional workloads.
That’s why Hamels/Fernandez were brought here – to offer cover in case one of the younger guys goes sour. (Don’t say it can’t happen. It happened with Foltynewicz, a 2018 All-Star, last year.) This quintet is something John Coppolella envisioned when he assembled it, the since-jettisoned general manager having drafted Soroka and Wright and traded for the other three. It’s possible the Coppy Five will become the best rotation in the business. Still, with so many young guys, you’re never sure, and you’re even less certain when a season is set to last only two months.
Alex Anthopoulos, now the Braves’ GM, made a tiny move Tuesday that hearkened to the Coppolella days. Anthopoulos signed Jhoulys Chacin, a 32-year-old who has worked for nine different teams. One of them, albeit briefly, was the Braves. He made five starts at the beginning of the 2016 season, whereupon Coppolella did what he always intended to do: He flipped him for a younger pitcher. That was Adam McCreery, who’s 6-foot-9. He has made one big-league appearance. As a Brave, he worked an inning Aug. 8, 2018. He yielded four hits and two runs. He was shipped to the Dodgers that winter.
In 2016, Chacin was a place-holder as the Braves awaited the flowering of their lovingly acquired young arms. In 2020, he’s cheap insurance in case one of those not-as-young pitchers can’t hold up his end. He’s also an arm that could allow the Braves to tag-team early starts, as all teams will surely seek to do coming off what amounted to a mini-camp.
Let’s be clear: On talent, the Braves can stand with anybody. Trouble is, nobody knows how talents – of any age – will respond to a season like no other. With six months to work through, it’s possible to muddle around and still make the playoffs. The pandemic has turned what’s normally a marathon into a 5K. You can’t fall way behind, especially when 40 of your 60 games will be played against divisional opponents.
This is why having Freeman coming off so few at-bats since March could matter. It’s why not having Hamels or Smith available for Game 1 undercuts some of what Anthopoulos sought to do over the winter. It’s why the absence of Markakis, and Puig, reduces the stockpile of available bats over two months with the universal DH.
By no means do the Braves look terrible. They just don’t look quite as robust as we thought they might. That said, it’s 60 games. Nobody has seen this sort of season before, meaning nobody knows anything. Least of all me.