Braves 2016 Preview Series: Starting Rotation

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves enter spring training with no shortage of candidates to fill out the starting rotation. Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of questions surrounding each man. Some are seeking to rebound in 2016, while others are simply hoping to establish themselves at the major league level and cash in on the promise that comes with that “top prospect” billing. After utilizing 10 different starters in 2015 and trading away two of its better horses in last year’s rotation, Atlanta is banking on several men from its stockpile of young arms to turn the corner and contribute this season.

 

Julio Teheran | RHP| Age: 25 | Contract Status: 4-years, $29.6 million

How does a 25-year-old become the elder statesman in a major league rotation? Simple. The Braves have turned over their starting five roughly two times in the last two seasons. Julio Teheran is, in fact, the last man standing from Atlanta’s previous crop of highly touted young arms. After establishing himself as one of the top starters in the league, Teheran struggled throughout the first half of 2015. He seemed to find himself midseason and parlayed that into a finish that would suggest he was getting back to normal by the end of the year. Teheran may have toiled at times, but he led the league with 33 starts and registered his second consecutive 200 inning campaign.

Coming off all-star honors just one year prior, 2015 was an obvious step back for Teheran. A quick look at the numbers shows that Teheran’s hit (8.5 H/9), home run (1.2 HR/9) and walk (3.3 BB/9) rates were all career-worsts, contributing to a career-high 4.04 ERA (4.40 FIP) and 1.30 WHIP. Oddly enough, in a season in which he allowed a career-high 27 home runs, Teheran posted both his lowest fly ball percentage (36.2 FB%) and his highest ground ball rate (39.7 GB%).

A frequent talking point through his first three full seasons is the fact that Teheran has been much better at home than on the road, a trend which continued last season:

Teheran Home Road

Obviously, Teheran struggled during 2015 on several fronts. The road was just one of those. During the first half, both pitch selection and execution were a problem. Command issues led to control issues, which in turn contributed to his struggles. According to FanGraphs, Teheran’s average fastball velocity ticked back up from 90.4 mph in 2014 to 91.2 mph last season, which is encouraging. His strong finish to the season (5-2, 2.95 ERA and .227 BAA over his final 76.1 IP) is another positive heading into 2016. Scott Spatt of FanGraphs broke down the location adjustment Teheran made as he turned the corner last August.

With the sky-rocketing prices of free agent deals for starting pitchers in recent winters, Teheran’s contract is ultra-affordable in contrast. Trades have been a central term in the Atlanta lexicon over the past two seasons, but Teheran has remained despite the rumors swirling. With four years remaining at roughly $29 million total, it gives the Braves another reason to keep him around. He would remain under control through the age of 30 if Atlanta exercises the $12 million option ($1 million buy-out) for the 2020 season.

If anything, Teheran is also a case study for some of the other prospects that Atlanta has collected over the past two winters. He demonstrated that patience is part of the process. Once one of the Top 5 prospects in all of baseball (2011 and 2012 according to Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus), his transition to the majors was anything but smooth. Teheran also struggled mightily during his second stint with Triple-A Gwinnett in 2012 (7-9, 5.08 ERA in 24 starts) and found his name linked to trade talks the following winter. Atlanta opted to keep the talented righty, who took the challenge of a losing season and turned into motivation to improve. Armed with lessons learned and a refined approach that came in part from working with hall of famer Pedro Martinez, Teheran put it all together in 2013. He went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA in 30 starts and earned a long term extension. Given that Teheran has already shown the ability to comeback from and build off adversity, he can be seen as a good bounce back candidate in his own right in 2016. Atlanta will be leaning heavily on Teheran to supply 200+ innings of quality baseball this season. He posted a 3.2 WAR in 2013 and 3.9 WAR in 2014, before regressing to a 1.5 WAR last season. A return to form would go a long toward fortifying an unproven rotation.

Matt Wisler | RHP| Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many pieces acquired from the San Diego Padres last winter, Matt Wisler showed flashes of what he brings to the table in 2015. The wide-eyed righty closed his rookie season with an 8-8 record and a 4.71 ERA in 109 innings. The numbers don’t jump off the page, but Wisler seemed to find another gear in the season’s final month. After being on the receiving end of a September 3rd drubbing courtesy of Washington (1.2 IP – 7 ER), he came right out of the bullpen three days later to throw two scoreless innings at the Nationals. Wisler followed that up with 2.34 ERA over his final five starts and came within one out of his first career shut-out in his final outing of the season.

While he may not be an ace in the making (as John Sickels of Minor League Ball points out), Wisler’s makeup and arsenal certainly profile as a middle of the rotation pitcher, if not more. Like Teheran before him, the improvement over his final handful of starts of the season may indicate Wisler made adjustments as he gained valuable experience. Wisler was a key piece in the trade that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. to the Padres and was rated San Diego’s top prospect by Baseball America at the time of the trade – and top three on just about every other hot sheet.

Wisler works in the 92-94 mph range with good sink and tops out at 96 mph. That velocity seemed to surprise some folks in his major league debut on June 19th against the Mets, when he spun eight strong innings to earn his first career win. His slider has the potential to be a strikeout weapon, and he’s going to need one after averaging just 5.9 K/9 last season. Wisler will no doubt continue working to improve and implement his changeup, giving him another wrinkle to keep opposing hitters guessing. A fly ball pitcher (0.76 GO/AO) in 2015, he must also work on keeping the ball in the park. It’s something Wisler struggled with in Triple-A in 2014 (19 homers in 117 IP) and last year with Atlanta (16 homers in 109 IP). He was not alone on the Braves staff in this regard in 2015. These are the lumps that young pitchers routinely take in their first season, and there was some indication that Atlanta was hoping Wisler would benefit from a re-do in Triple-A before he was pressed into action at the big league level during the summer. Baptism by fire can be a powerful teaching tool, however.

The Braves have dealt away two starters under the age of 25 in the past six months – first with Alex Wood to the Dodgers and again with Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks – and lost another young arm in Mike Minor to a shoulder injury which led to his eventual release. This substantially altered the plans that the Braves brought into spring training just last February. Of course, those plans had been altered by the losses of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy in 2014. Atlanta has had a rough go of it when it comes to putting together the rotation over the past two seasons. Wisler will be leaned upon fairly heavily in his first full season in the big leagues in 2016.

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP| Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

If you’re looking for the best stuff on the entire staff, look no further than Mike Foltynewicz. The hard throwing right-hander took his fair share of lumps during his first long look in the big leagues, but he also showed flashes of what he could become. Foltynewicz can hit triple digits, which put him among the hardest throwing starters in the National League in 2015. In fact, his average fastball velocity of 94.9 mph was 15th in MLB and 8th among NL starting pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched (Leaderboard). That’s just behind Mets strikeout artist Jacob deGrom (95.0) and just ahead of Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta (94.6) of the Cubs and Nationals big money starter Max Scherzer (94.2). That’s pretty good company.

For now, Foltynewicz’s calling card is velocity, but he’ll need to polish his skills in order to have sustained success at the big league level. To that end, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell worked with Foltynewicz to incorporate a split-finger into his repertoire. Establishing a reliable breaking ball offering has been a work in progress, and a split-finger could really aid the cause. After scrapping his slider while still in the Astros organization, Foltynewicz brought it back with Atlanta. The belief at the time was that a renewed focus on his fastball and curveball combination was the key to building the foundation to a successful career. There was also some arm soreness that may or may not have been associated with the pitch. Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle detailed the changes, which were geared toward harnessing Foltynewicz’s high-octane stuff and pairing it with the right secondary offerings.

As a rookie in 2015, Foltynewicz had his fair share of ups and downs. He won his major league debut on May 1 and turned in a 3-2 record, 3.96 ERA and 38 strikeouts during his first six starts. Foltynewicz allowed just four home runs over 36.1 IP over that stretch. After that, it was a struggle to maintain any kind of consistency. Foltynewicz went 1-4 with a 6.97 ERA in his final 50.1 IP, fanning 39 men while allowing 12 home runs. Among Braves hurlers with at least 10 starting assignments last season, Foltynewicz led the staff with 7.8 K/9, but his 1.82 HR/9 and .340 BABIP were both team-highs and illustrated that hitters were having their way with the young right-hander. His groundball rate of just 33.8 GB% was edged out only by Wisler (33.5 GB%) for the lowest of all 10 Atlanta starters in 2015.

The question lingers of whether or not his future is in the rotation or the bullpen. While it’s a legitimate debate, there is no reason to rush the process. With just 15 big league starts under his belt, the jury is still very much out and a bullpen role will always be a fallback option. When I spoke with Braves executives and manager Fredi Gonzalez over the past year about Foltynewicz’s ideal role, the reigning sentiment was to give him every chance to succeed as a starting pitcher before changing course. Given the rarity of finding a hard thrower who possesses a strong arm, rushing him to the bullpen is not something Atlanta is interested in doing. For his part, Foltynewicz has a strong desire to remain a starting pitcher as well.

Though he underwent surgery to remove a portion of a rib due blood clots in his right arm, Atlanta believes Foltynewicz will be ready to pitch and be a big factor in their rotational plans for 2016. Alex Cobb of the Rays had a similar procedure in August of 2011 and returned to the rotation the following May. With a handful of other options in camp, there is no reason to rush Foltynewicz back.

Bud Norris | RHP| Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.5 million

In an off-season that was filled with pitchers from seemingly all walks of life finding a big payday, Atlanta took a very a cost-conscious flyer on Bud Norris. He enjoyed a career year with the Orioles in 2014, but fell on hard times last season. Soon to be 31 years old, Norris is coming off a dreadful 2015 in which he lost his spot in the Baltimore rotation in June and was released in August. It was a precipitous fall for a man who was coming off a 15-win season and a pair of playoff starts, which included a series-clinching victory in the ALDS against the Tigers.

Norris started 28 games for the Orioles in 2014, going 15-8 with a 3.65 ERA (4.22 FIP) in 165.1 IP. Though his strikeout rate of 7.6 K/9 fell below his career average of 8.5 K/9 entering the season, he was a solid contributor to a Baltimore team that was ultimately ousted by the Royal in the ALCS. Norris was just 2-9 with a bloated 7.06 ERA in 18 appearances (11 starts) for the O’s before being designated for assignment on July 31 last year. After six extremely poor starts to open the season, Norris came down with a terrible case of bronchitis which sent him to the 15-day disabled list and caused him to lose 14 pounds, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“I got real sick,” Norris told Roch Kubatko of MASN. “I tried to battle back. I came back from the DL and made some good starts and some shaky ones. I got demoted to the ‘pen, and that’s not the best place to try to find yourself.”

Alas, he never found another starting gig, but his work in the bullpen for the Padres was somewhat encouraging. He racked up 21 K in 16.2 IP with a 5.40 ERA (2.65 FIP). It’s no secret that Norris was hoping to land a starting job this winter, and that’s exactly what he gets with Atlanta. President of Baseball Operations John Hart has said the team is providing an opportunity to an established pitcher like Norris this season, with the financial component making the righty a low-risk bounce back candidate. He averaged 29 starts and 170 innings per season from 2010-2014 with the Astros and Orioles, turning in a composite 4.21 ERA (4.09 FIP) with 3.5 BB/9 and 8.3 K/9. If he returns to previous form, Norris could very well fill an important hole in a rotation that is need of a veteran innings-eater. He could also become an attractive trade deadline commodity in the process.

Manny Banuelos | LHP| Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Once a prized prospect in the Yankees organization, Manny Banuelos finally realized his dream of making it to the big leagues with Atlanta in 2015. It was a long road to get there as well. He spent the better part of three seasons on the road back from Tommy John surgery (2012) and his elbow troubles were not completely behind him as he switched organizations either. Banuelos went under the knife again in September to remove a bone spur from his left elbow, but general manager John Coppolella mentioned during the Winter Meetings that Banuelos’ agent said the young lefty is feeling better than he has in years heading into spring training.

The Yankees were ultra-cautious with Banuelos’ rehab program and limited him to just 77 IP in 25 minor league starts in 2014. Atlanta added Banuelos to its prospect stockpile last winter, shipping relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to New York in exchange for the man that Mariano Rivera once referred to as the greatest pitching prospect he has ever seen (Link). More encouraging, Banuelos was named Gwinnett’s pitcher of the year after turning in a 2.23 ERA in 84.2 IP across 16 starts at Triple-A. Though he experienced some command issues, evidenced by 40 walks, that was the case for Banuelos even before his initial arm surgery. Once he made it to Atlanta in July, elbow inflammation sent him to the disabled list before the end of the month and ultimately shut him down in September. He finished 2015 with just a 1-4 record and a 5.13 ERA in seven appearances, losing his final four big league starts.

Banuelos showed glimpses of his potential last year, but his velocity has not returned to pre-surgery levels – when he was consistently in the low to mid-90s and clocked as high as 97 mph at times. His average fastball velocity was just 89 mph in his 26 innings with the big club last season. Banuelos still appeared to be searching for his command on some nights (as mentioned above with Gwinnett), which is not uncommon of pitchers after major arm surgery. Now three full years removed from Tommy John and coming off a clean-up procedure that should alleviate any lingering pain, Banuelos will seek to get back to the 92-94 mph range. He mixes in a slider, a curve and a changeup, which will all likewise have to take a step forward to lift Banuelos to his previous luster. Long story short, he has the arsenal and the ability to become a middle of the rotation pitcher, but health has been his biggest obstacle to this point. However, despite all the setbacks, he is still just 24 years old.

Willams Perez | RHP| Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

While Williams Perez had his ups and downs, including a foot injury that interrupted his rookie season, he showed an uncanny ability to pitch out of trouble and provide quality starts. Suffice it to say, he made an impression. After making a pair of relief appearances in early May, Perez joined the rotation and proceeded to go 4-0 with a 2.31 ERA in his first eight major league starts. It may have involved some smoke and mirrors at times, but Perez used his sinker to keep the ball in the park and induce a few timely double plays. That run of success was put on hold when he was struck in the foot by a line drive off the bat of Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison on June 26.

His return to the rotation a month later (following the trade of Wood to the Dodgers) did not exactly go according to plan. Perez could not escape the fifth and was tagged for nine earned runs by the Phillies on July 31. Anything but a warm welcome, that kicked off a string of seven starts in which he went 0-6 with an 9.50 ERA. The honeymoon appeared to be over. That could be chalked up to the residual effects of the foot contusion, or simply course correction, but Perez turned in just one quality start during the span.

Amazingly, that was not the end of the story. Perez once again found a way to get into and, more importantly, out of trouble. He closed the season with a 3-0 record and a 2.35 ERA over his final five starts. The timely double plays were back, allowing Perez to mitigate the damage the league was doing (.289/.339/.456) in that 30.2 IP. It’s a tricky proposition to assume that he’ll be able to continue his trend of navigating through troubled waters, but Perez did enough in 2015 to warrant some consideration for a spot at the back of the Atlanta rotation this season. Relying on his movement and location to stay ahead of hitters, he does not miss enough bats to make mistakes up the zone, especially since he pitches to contact. A sinker-baller typically comes in in handy, but whether or not Perez remains in the rotation or has a future as a long man remains to be seen.

Kyle Kendrick | RHP| Age: 31 | Contract Status: Non-roster Invitee

A veteran of nine big league seasons, Kyle Kendrick will be fighting for a spot at the back end of Atlanta’s rotation as he returns to the NL East after a one year absence. For all of Atlanta’s young arms who have yet to get their feet under them at the highest level, Kendrick has been going to the post since 2007. He finished fifth in the rookie of the year voting for the Phillies that season and has been a serviceable back-end starter for most of his career. Kendrick is coming off his worst campaign, however, after going 7-13 with a 6.32 ERA in 27 starts for the Rockies. He led the league in with 33 home runs allowed and 100 earned runs, all in just 142.1 IP. Colorado has a way of being unkind to pitchers of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. Consider Kendrick’s misadventures last season, when he posted a 7.62 ERA and 1.71 WHIP while allowing 21 home runs in just 65 innings at Coors Field.

Kendrick holds a career 81-81 record with 4.63 ERA (4.81 FIP) in 1,281 IP. He doesn’t miss many bats (just 4.9 K/9) and deals with plenty of base runners, but he has been a regular contributor for the majority of his career, including some good Phillies clubs from 2007-2012. It’s worth noting that if Kendrick is able to make the Atlanta rotation, it would represent the first time he hasn’t had to pitch in a hitter friendly home park. That said, he is going to have plenty of competition this spring and is coming off the worst season of his career. If he’s right, Kendrick could add experience to a very young staff.

Jhoulys Chacin | RHP| Age: 28 | Contract Status: Non-roster Invitee

Jhoulys Chacin accomplished something that not too many pitchers can claim. He established himself as a solid starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. As noted above with Kendrick, pitching in Coors Field is not an easy task, but Chacin did a pretty fair job of it until a shoulder injury caused his career to stall out in his mid-20s. The Rockies cut ties with Chacin last spring, ending a six year run with the club which originally signed him out of Venezuela in 2004. With a career record of 40-49 to go along with a 3.76 ERA and 6.9 K/9 in 698.2 IP, Chacin turned in a respectable 23-23 mark and 4.28 ERA in 374.1 IP at Coors Field. He navigated through that minefield about as well as could be asked of any pitcher in the rare air.

A Top 50 prospect for both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus in 2009, Chacin cracked the Colorado rotation for good as a 22-year-old in 2010. He pitched well, though both back and shoulder injuries have worked against him at times. Though he was able to avoid surgery, Chacin missed most of 2014 with shoulder inflammation, brought on by a rotator cuff sprain and a frayed labrum. The injury had caused him to lose considerable amount of velocity, which did not fully return in his time with Arizona in 2015. Chacin turned in a 3.22 ERA, but just 6.0 K/9 in 128.2 IP at Triple-A between the Indians and Diamondbacks organizations, then returned the majors to go 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in five appearances (four starts) with the D-backs. He struck out 21 batters in 26.2 IP during his late season call-up, but his once low 90s fastball was still averaging just 89 mph. Chacin has shown the ability to sink the ball throughout his career and may rely on it more heavily moving forward. He is a relatively safe bet to open the season with Gwinnett if he remains with the Braves.

Other Non-Roster Invitees:

RHP Chris Volstad, 29, is a seven-year veteran who has made 123 starts between the Marlins and Cubs, while pitching briefly for the Rockies and Pirates as well. He holds a 35-51 record with a 4.92 ERA in 705.2 IP in the big leagues. Volstad is a long shot to make the club, but is useful as veteran depth at Triple-A Gwinnett… LHP David Holmberg, 24, is another minor league signing. Holmberg was has made just 12 major league starts, posting a 3-6 record with a 6.24 ERA for the Diamondbacks and Reds. He was 2nd round pick by the White Sox in 2009, who was twice traded and has battled shoulder injuries. Holmberg was Top 10 prospect for Arizona a few years ago, but has lost his luster in recent years thanks to injury (shoulder) and inconsistency. He’s likely earmarked for Gwinnett if he stays in the organization… Several Top Prospects, including LHP Sean Newcomb, RHP Aaron Blair, RHP Lucas Sims and RHP Chris Ellis (all non-roster invitees) will join RHP Tyrell Jenkins, RHP John Gant, RHP Casey Kelly and RHP Ryan Weber (already on the 40-man roster) to compete for spots. Most, if not all, of those men will be featured in my Prospect Preview on February 8th.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher). All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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