Need to see pitching depth Braves keep talking about

Kyle Wright delivers a pitch during the first inning of an intrasquad game on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves talk a lot about their deep pitching. I buy that for the bullpen. I had a hard time seeing it with the starters even before Felix Hernandez decided to sit out the COVID-19 season and Cole Hamels developed arm soreness last weekend. Now the rotation looks shaky beyond Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

That’s why Kyle Wright’s first intrasquad scrimmage appearance Thursday carried some weight. Wright had been missing from the Truist Park mound because he got a late start to summer camp. He said he was possibly exposed to someone with COVID-19 and so couldn’t rejoin the Braves until twice testing negative.

That setback meant Wright had to build up his arm again before facing hitters in a live game. He pitched three innings against teammates Thursday.

“I feel good now,” Wright said via Zoom. “Getting that outing today was a good test to see where I felt. The more I threw, the better I felt. That’s definitely the way I want to be trending.”

This might have been a minor development under normal circumstances. It’s significant now that the Braves almost certainly need Wright, their highest-rated pitching prospect, as part of their rotation. He was bad as a Braves starter in 2019 but finished strong for Triple-A Gwinnett, then recorded lots of strikeouts with few walks at spring training.

The Braves have options to “piggyback” their starters’ short outings early in the season as a bridge to the deep bullpen. The question is whether there are enough good choices. And, at some point, they’ll need more than two reliable starters for the back half of the 60-game sprint.

Lefty Hamels was to be the reliable veteran for the Braves this season in the same mold as Dallas Keuchel last season. Then he aggravated his throwing shoulder in January and didn’t pitch in spring training. The expectation was that Hamels could be ready for the restart 3 ½ months later, but his last bullpen session got scratched because of triceps soreness.

Hamels says he needs three outings in game conditions to build up to 60-65 pitches. Opening day is a week away. Hamels threw on the side Thursday and will be evaluated after an off day on Friday, Braves manager Brian Snitker said. But he added: “I don’t know that there’s time right now for him to be ready to go in the beginning.”

Hamels, 36, still can be good if healthy. He was having a good year for the Cubs in 2019 before the shoulder became a problem. There’s just not much time for Hamels to ease into a 60-game season.

With Hamels on the shelf, the Braves’ rotation is headed by 2019 All-Star Soroka and Fried. They are a good pair: FanGraphs projects 1.2 Wins Above Replacement for both pitchers, tied for the 25th-best among MLB starters. According to the forecast, Soroka will post a 3.77 ERA and Fried a 3.74 ERA.

That sounds right. I believe Fried could be better than expected after drastically improving his command in 2019 and refining his change-up for 2019. There could be some volatility in Soroka and Fried’s results -- they are young pitchers and the truncated season leaves little room for error -- but they are an exciting pair.

There are big questions for the Braves starters after those two.

ExplorePhotos from Thursday's scrimmage

Mike Foltynewicz’s performance long has been unpredictable. Left-hander Sean Newcomb lost his rotation spot early in 2019 and ended up being better in small doses as a reliever. Josh Tomlin, formerly a solid starter, was an effective reliever for the Braves in 2019 following a bad year in Cleveland’s bullpen.

Those are the alternatives as far as proven veterans. Wright is among prospects who might be called on to help. He’s probably got the best chance to do so from that group. Bryse Wilson got beat up during brief MLB stints in 2018 and 2019 and Tucker Davidson and Patrick Weigel have yet to make their big-league debuts.

It’s possible I’m being too pessimistic about the Braves’ pitching. That might have something to do with spring training getting cut short. Something about that time of year allows sunniness to shine through my usual skepticism. I can’t remember what that felt like now and the surreal summer camp is no substitute.

It’s reasonable to believe the starting pitching will work out for the Braves. Soroka and Fried meet expectations. Foltynewicz or Newcomb become reliable No. 3 starters. Hamels eventually returns to form and someone becomes a good enough fifth starter. That would be a competitive group in the NL East.

The Nationals are the only division team with more pitchers than the Braves among the top 25 in the FanGraphs WAR projection. No MLB team can match the top three of Max Scherzer (third in projected WAR), Stephen Strasburg (fourth) and Patrick Corbin (tied for 11th). But the Braves’ rotation compares favorably with the other NL East contenders.

The Phillies have Aaron Nola (tied for 17th in projected WAR) and Zack Wheeler (tied for 28th), but there’s a chance Wheeler will opt after his wife delivers their child soon. Mets ace Jacob deGrom left Tuesday’s intrasquad outing after just one inning because of back tightness An MRI was negative but the setback casts some doubt on deGrom’s scheduled opening-day start against the Braves.

The Braves could cobble together enough starting pitching to win the East again because they should score plenty of runs. That’s assuming slugger Freddie Freeman recovers from COVID-19 in time to join the lineup for a significant number of games. Snitker said the Braves should know more about Freeman’s status when they return from the off day.

Freeman’s health is the most important issue for the Braves. Their starting pitching is next on the list. The Braves have boasted about their depth, and maybe they are right to do so. I’m just not seeing it.

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