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Perilous plan for young Braves pitchers: ‘Let them figure it out’

Atlanta Braves' Kyle Wright pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Atlanta Braves' Kyle Wright pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Credit: Chris O'Meara

Credit: Chris O'Meara

The most significant development in Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure as Braves GM is what didn’t happen. He zealously guarded the top prospects he inherited. When Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies paid immediate dividends, accelerating the rebuild schedule, Anthopolous still held tight to his most talented minor leaguers instead of trading them for established major leaguers.

Anthopoulos supplemented the roster with smart signings and trades for veterans. The result was two NL East titles. The Braves are contenders again this season and their farm system still is stacked. There’s not much to dislike about Anthopolous’ plan.

Yet that approach may be reaching its limit this year. Pitching was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rebuild by Anthopolous predecessor, John Copppolella. Two former touted prospects, Mike Soroka and Max Fried, lead the pitching staff. The rest of the rotation is a mess. Others prospects either aren’t yet ready for the majors or haven’t shown they belong.

The Braves’ two best pitchers are relatively inexperienced, which usually means inconsistent results at some point. The other two starters were ineffective in their first starts. The Braves haven’t announced who will replace Mike Foltnyewicz as starter, but if there were a better option he’d already be part of this thin rotation.

The plan for now, per manager Brian Snitker: “We need to keep running our young guys out there and let them figure it out.”

That may be the best long-term strategy for the Braves. It is not a reassuring mantra for a team trying to win a third consecutive NL East title and (finally) advance in the playoffs. It’s especially precarious for a 60-game season, when bad starts are magnified.

But, really, the Braves don’t have much choice but to ride their young arms. Anthopolous signed left-hander Cole Hamels, 36, to be the reliable veteran. Hamels has yet to pitch this year because of shoulder and forearm issues. Anthopoulos got it right with lefty Dallas Keuchel in 2019. The GM struck out on Hamels, who had injury problems for the Cubs in 2019.

That left Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb as the only veterans in the rotation. Foltynewicz flamed out, which always was a possibility, so the Braves sent him to the waiver wire on Monday (Foltynewicz wasn’t claimed and reported to Gwinnett on Thursday). Newcomb still looks better as a reliever than a starter. Maybe Felix Hernandez would have helped if he hadn’t opted out because of COVID-19, but it’s been a long time since he was good.

The Braves seem to have an emergency with their starting pitching. Snitker said he doesn’t see it as a crisis.

“Not for me when I look at their stuff,” Snitker said. “They are good options for us right now. We’ve got to stay with them and hopefully they continue to develop and they help us.”

At least the Braves know they have enough offense to win with so-so pitching. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna have scuffled. Dansby Swanson and Marcell Ozuna have made up for that. Freddie Freeman is starting to get going as he recovers from COVID-19. If Albies and Acuna join the party, which their histories suggest they will, then the Braves will score plenty.

Still, no lineup can overcome erratic pitching in three of the five starting slots. The Braves have a deep bullpen but no off day until Aug. 13, which means Snitker can’t rely too heavily on his relievers. The Braves desperately need quality starts from Newcomb or Kyle Wright.

In four previous seasons, Newcomb’s only stretch as a consistent, effective starter was early in the 2018 season. He needed 82 pitches to record 10 outs against the Mets on Monday. The Braves just got burned waiting for Foltynewicz to rediscover a form he showed only briefly. The same thing could happen with Newcomb.

Wright is the second-best pitching prospect in the organization, according to Baseball America. In the majors he’s allowed 31 hits, 22 walks and six homers over 28 1/3 innings. Wright made his season debut Tuesday at Tampa Bay and gave up five runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Snitker’s options for starters on the roster include veterans Josh Tomlin and Jhoulys Chacin. Both were good in relief over the first six games. Chacin was a solid starter for Milwaukee in 2018, but hasn’t been since. Tomlin pitched from the bullpen the past two seasons.

There don’t appear to be many appetizing pitching options for the Braves at their camp in Gwinnett. Bryse Wilson’s two brief stints with the Braves didn’t go well. Two other touted prospects, Ian Anderson and Kyle Muller, haven’t pitched in the majors.

It wouldn’t be a bad return for the Braves if Soroka and Fried turn out to be the only good major-league starters from the last wave of pitching prospects. Such players are hard to identify and develop. Soroka already has established himself as a fine pitcher and Fried is on the come. They have the potential to be quality starters for years to come, but the pressure is on them to carry the rotation now.

Soroka, an All-Star in 2019, has made two good starts in 2020. He’s very talented. He’s also 21 years old with just 211 2/3 innings logged in the majors. Among MLB staff aces, only Dodgers right-hander Dustin May is younger than Soroka (by about a month). Only May, Chris Paddack (Padres) and John Means (Orioles) have logged fewer MLB innings than Soroka.

Soroka has earned his spot. He has an advanced repertoire of pitches, good command and a mature approach. Now Soroka is the best starting pitcher for a team aiming for the World Series. Soroka said he’s had to temper his own expectations after his first full MLB season went so well.

“Expecting myself to make huge jumps so quickly is a little bit unrealistic,” Soroka said. “I’ve learned to calm down a little. I think both of us (Fried and I) are finding out what it’s like to find our zone, understand who we are, be who we are, and take that to the mound instead of keeping up with guys like (Jacob deGrom).

“Looking at him, (he’s) kind of on another level. That is goal to be one of those top pitchers one day, but we’ve got to be able to temper those in the moment.”

The Braves are putting a lot on Soroka and Fried. They might be in good shape if their two young pitchers keep throwing well and one or two other starters gets on track. If not, the Braves will be in trouble this season. Then it might be time for Anthopolous to look for good, veteran starting pitchers to keep for more than a year.

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