Braves won’t repeat if more young pitchers don’t pan out

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tucker Davidson prepares to deliver to a Houston Astros batter during the first inning in Game 5 of the World Series at Truist Park, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tucker Davidson prepares to deliver to a Houston Astros batter during the first inning in Game 5 of the World Series at Truist Park, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

The new-era Braves had long planned to win a World Series with pitching as the foundation, just as they did during their 1990s heyday. The Braves won the championship in 2021, but it didn’t go according to that plan. Instead of thriving with a deep group of arms, the Braves grinded through the regular season and then got good performances from unlikely candidates in the playoffs.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Braves

That’s very hard to do. The odds are against the Braves doing it twice. There are a lot of good reasons to believe the Braves can repeat as Series champs. A lack of pitching depth is one good reason to doubt them.

The Braves will open the season Thursday with only two starting pitchers who’ve spent at least two full seasons in the majors. Right-hander Charlie Morton, 38, is old reliable. Lefty Max Fried, 28, is the late bloomer. The Braves can expect those pitchers to give them quality starts each time out. The other three rotation slots are filled by Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa.

Anderson has delivered very good results in a limited sample of 30 starts (eight in the postseason). I don’t expect that to change. Anderson turns 24 next month, but he’s always pitched above his age. The Braves can count on him, too. The starting pitching get shakier from there.

Ynoa, 23, was surprisingly effective in eight starts early last season. He wasn’t so good after spending three months on the injured list because of a broken hand suffered while punching the dugout bench. Wright, 26, had a strong outing in the World Series but has yet to live up to his billing as a former No. 5 overall draft pick. The projected sixth starter to begin the season is Tucker Davidson, who’s pitched 21-2/3 innings in the big leagues.

Davidson and Spencer Strider are fifth-starter candidates who broke camp with the big-league Braves. Kyle Muller and Touki Toussaint will begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett. They are on standby should Wright or Ynoa falter or if any of the starting pitchers get injured, which usually is a given. Mike Soroka was an All-Star in 2019 but he’s a mystery after two Achilles surgeries limited him to three starts since that season.

The Braves don’t have a lot of pitching depth for a Series contender. General manager Alex Anthopoulos was on the lookout for an “impact starter” before the season, but didn’t find a deal to his liking.

“We have a young rotation, very talented with a significant upside,” Anthopoulos said during spring training. “Guys like Ynoa, Wright and Touki and Muller and Davidson and Strider and (Bryce) Elder — they are all competing, but they are young. They haven’t been able to sustain a six-month, big-league season where they take down 25 to 30 starts.

“Hopefully this is the year. You have to do it once. Max Fried finally did it. Ian Anderson finally did it. Hopefully this is the year for some of those guys.”

Anthopoulos built the roster with some contingencies in case that doesn’t happen. He struck out on adding a quality starter, but shored up the bullpen to give the starters and manager Brian Snitker some leeway. The idea is for the Braves to have an eight-deep bullpen, with at least half of those arms available for every game.

The deep ‘pen should help take some of the load off the starters. At some point, though, the Braves need some solid starts behind their top three pitchers. They also can’t afford much regression from Fried and Anderson. There are few internal options to give the rotation a boost if too much goes wrong.

To win a fifth consecutive National League East title, Braves need to get enough from their starters to navigate the long season. The odds of repeating as Series champions go up if they take more than three quality starters into the postseason. The Braves won it all with Snitker patching together pitching in the playoffs. But it’s not good when the plan to win the most important games is to hope for four innings from starters and depend on off-days to keep the relievers fresh.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way for the Braves. By now, they were to have a surplus of pitching from among the young players they’ve acquired over the years. Most prospects don’t pan out, of course. The Braves accumulated so many that their hit rate didn’t have to be high. So far, there have been a lot more misses.

The plan began in earnest near the end of Frank Wren’s tenure as general manager and continued with John Hart and John Coppolella. From 2011 through 2017, the Braves selected 22 pitchers within the first four rounds of the amateur draft. They traded for another six players who were immediately placed on their list of top prospects.

Fried and Anderson are the only two pitchers from that group to begin this season in the rotation. Alex Wood became a good starter for the Braves, but Coppolella traded him as part of the ill-fated deal for Hector Olivera. Sean Newcomb washed out as a starter and now has a tenuous hold on a bullpen job. Toussaint and Muller are even lower in the pecking order.

The Braves became World Series champions because so many of their homegrown hitters became good big leaguers in recent years. Outfielder Ronald Acuna is an MVP candidate. Second baseman Ozzie Albies has been an All-Star twice and third baseman Austin Riley should be one soon. Dansby Swanson is a solid shortstop who tapped into more power in 2021, including two homers during the Series.

To repeat, the Braves need more of their young pitchers to pan out.