2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Rotation

For all of the shortcomings that plagued the 2014 Atlanta Braves, starting pitching was not on the list.

The Braves pitching staff ended up being one of the best in baseball last season. Their 3.39 ERA ranked fifth in the majors, as did the starting rotation’s 3.42 ERA. That overall staff success was anything but expected, especially given the losses of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Atlanta plugged in a pair of veteran starters in Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang and proceeded to lead MLB with 110 quality starts (6 IP, 3 ER or fewer).

At the front of that starting five was a pair of 23-year-olds that enjoyed strong seasons despite a dearth of run support. Julio Teheran and Alex Wood provided the Braves with two good reasons to be hopeful about the future, while Mike Minor gave the organization pause after a rocky 2014 campaign. In the winter that has followed, Atlanta acquired Shelby Miller in a trade with the Cardinals. That has created a quartet of arms all 27 years old or younger.

Long considered the foundation of the franchise’s success, the rotation is capable of good things. The aforementioned serviceable veterans are gone, as Atlanta turned its attention to acquiring young, high-ceiling talent over the winter. The kind of prospects they have stockpiled does come with an inherent risk attached, but if even a moderate number become major league contributors, then the Braves may well have positioned themselves to be a factor in the NL East sooner than later.

 

Julio Teheran | RHP | 2014: 14-13, 2.89 ERA in 33 GS

Teheran, who recently turned 24, improved across the board in seemingly every category, save a couple. His 2.89 ERA was just ahead of the likes of Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Strasburg, if you’re into that sort of a thing. Teheran ranked 11th in the NL with a career-high 186 strikeouts, ahead of Jordan Zimmermann and Adam Wainwright in that category.

Yes, 2014 was a fine follow-up to his rookie season. Teheran led the staff with 221 IP and saw his hit rate (7.7 H/9), home run rate (0.9 HR/9) and walk rate (2.1 BB/9) all improve as he earned an All-Star nod.

While he did fan those 186 hitters, a slight drop in velocity likely affected his strikeout rate, which dipped from 8.2 K/9 in 2013 to 7.6 K/9 in 2014. Teheran averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball in 2013, but slipped to 91.3 mph last season according to FanGraphs. Missing bats is something a fly-ball pitcher typically needs to do, and Teheran does it enough right now. If that velocity trend continues, however, it could prove troublesome down the road.

Many reasons exist to be excited about Teheran’s future. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has praised his poise and tenacity on the mound, something that impresses his teammates as well. After being humbled by a poor 2012, Teheran committed himself to making the necessary adjustments and enjoyed the success that followed. The organization promptly committed to Teheran, giving him a six-year, $32.4 million extension with a seventh year option.

With the price of pitching ever on the rise, having an arm like Teheran under an affordable long-term deal like that is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Every winter you can find another middle-to-back-end starter getting a multi-year deal for upwards of $10 million annually. The Braves remain a middle-market team in terms of payroll, and Teheran’s extension may be the best of the group handed out last year. Consider the kind of money the Reds heaped on Homer Bailey (6-years, $105 million). He is five years older and has yet to enjoy two seasons like those Teheran has just completed.

Teheran diversified his pitch selection in 2014, throwing slightly fewer fastballs and more off-speed offerings. Most notably, he began to integrate his changeup into the equation more often. The overall mix of sliders and curveballs remained consistent with 2013.

Pitching in the Dominican Republic during the winter of 2012, a struggling Teheran got the opportunity to meet Pedro Martinez. While it was not a series of private pitching lessons off a mound, the two sat down over dinner. Teheran credited Martinez with reinforcing the importance of the mental aspect of pitching. The results speak for themselves.

If Teheran has anything to prove in 2015, it would be that he can pitch consistently away from Turner Field. The righty turned in a 2.11 ERA and .208 BAA in 111 IP at home as opposed to a 3.68 ERA and .244 BAA on the road. Buried in those splits was more success by righty hitters when Teheran is away (.244/.288/.341 Road vs. .190/.240/.302 Home). Perhaps it’s just a comfort factor, but finding a way to enjoy more success outside of his home ballpark could perhaps elevate Teheran to another level.

Alex Wood | LHP | 2014: 11-11, 2.78 ERA in 35 G (24 GS)

If you watched Alex Wood on a regular basis in 2014, then a couple of things were quickly evident. First, the kid is legit. Second, pay no attention to his record because he was criminally under-supported.

Wood is just two and a half weeks older Teheran and every bit as formidable for opposing hitters. In some respects, perhaps even more effective. Just look at where he found himself at the end of 2014:

  • 2.78 ERA – 10th in NL
  • 8.91 K/9 – 10th in NL
  • 3.78 K/BB – 9th in NL

 

Wood was incredibly consistent in his first full year in the big leagues. He finished the season with 10 straight quality starts. In fact, Wood turned in the seventh-best quality start percentage in baseball last season at 79 percent (19 of his 24). His 11-11 record underscores the Braves’ biggest flaw in 2014 − lack of offense. Wood received just 2.75 runs per game (RPG), the second-lowest run support among all qualified starters in both leagues.

Oh, the fourth lowest run support? That’d be Teheran at 3.18 RPG. Now we’ve come full circle.

If there was any one game in which Wood made an indelible impression, it would have to be his April 22 start against the Marlins. He went toe to toe with Jose Fernandez in a classic pitchers’ duel. Wood fanned 11 men, while Fernandez struck out 14. The two teams combined for just seven hits and no walks. Though Wood came up on the wrong side of a 1-0 score, it was clear that he had arrived. He went on to set a career-high with 12 strikeouts in a pair of August starts, fortunately both wins.

A few more one-run games didn’t go his way, but Wood stayed the course throughout the season. He was never concerned with things that were out of his control, something Gonzalez and others in the Braves clubhouse noted. He gained a reputation of being a pitcher who was mature beyond his years.

His delivery is anything but orthodox and nothing short of deceptive. Wood mixes his pitches well, flashing a low 90s fastball and effectively sinking the ball. A knuckle-curve is his chosen breaking ball. It’s a pitch he showed that he can throw for strikes when needed or to get hitters to chase. As is seemingly always the case with Braves starters, the continued improvement of his changeup only strengthens Wood’s arsenal. As he continues to refine those pitches, he will give hitters even more to think about.

Wood may have flown under the radar at times during his first year and a half in the majors, but that doesn’t figure to continue after an impressive sophomore year. The Braves like his student-of-the-game approach and competitive fire. Expect both to be on display in 2015, likely to great results.

Shelby Miller | RHP | 2014: 10-9, 3.71 ERA in 31 GS

Miller is the latest addition to the starting five, and yet another 24-year-old. He comes to Atlanta after a little more than two seasons with the Cardinals as the major return in the Jason Heyward trade. Like Heyward, he was a first-round pick and ascended to the big leagues with more than his fair share of expectations. Miller turned in a solid rookie campaign, but saw those numbers regress during his sophomore season in St. Louis.

With a high-octane arm that led to 11.1 K/9 in 78 minor league starts, Miller got off to a fast start in his first year in the big leagues. At age 22 in 2013, he went 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 31 starts, punching out 169 hitters in 173.1 IP. Miller could find neither the consistency nor the results in his 2014 follow-up campaign. His walk rate went up (from 3.0 to 3.6 BB/9) while his strikeout rate plummeted (from 8.8 to 6.2 K/9).

Miller spent much of the season looking for an answer, and he found one from new teammate Justin Masterson. Both pitchers may have been enduring some struggles, but it turned out that a new pitch grip shared by Masterson was exactly what Miller needed to turn the corner.

After adding a sinker to his arsenal in late August, Miller turned in a 1.48 ERA in five starts during September. He held opponents to an .189/.224/.279 slash line in those 30.1 IP and averaged 7.7 K/9 and a much improved 5.2 K/BB as well. That gives Atlanta reason to hope that Miller is once again on the rise.

Adding the sinker makes Miller a four-pitch pitcher. His fastball, curveball and occasional changeup comprise the rest of his assortment. If the Braves have shown anything in developing pitchers, then refining the change will be one of the top priorities for Miller as he works with his new pitching coach, Roger McDowell. Utilizing a fastball that sits between 93-95 mph up in the zone to set up his other pitches will help him continue the success he discovered at the close of 2014.

Mike Minor | LHP | 2014: 6-12, 4.77 ERA in 25 GS

The 2014 season is one that left-hander Mike Minor would like to forget. He was behind schedule in spring training after undergoing a surgical procedure on his urethra. That put his throwing schedule behind and ultimately delayed Minor’s regular season debut by a month. Unfortunately, it also led to lingering shoulder soreness than affected him throughout his 25 starts.

After turning a corner in the second half of 2012 and establishing himself as one of Atlanta’s most consistent pitchers, Minor was anything but consistent last season. The home runs once again became a problem for the left-hander. Moreover, it was evident that Minor simply was not the effective pitcher who had really come into his own over the prior year and a half.

Between July 5, 2012 and the end of the 2013 season, Minor pitched to the tune of a 2.90 ERA and .219 BAA in 298.1 IP over 47 starts. That all changed in 2014, when his ERA ballooned to 4.77 and opposing hitters tacked 66 points on that average, all the way up to .285 in 145.1 IP.

The escalation in success of opposing hitters between the last two seasons is alarming:

2013 – .232/.275/.382 with 22 HR in 820 PA

2014 – .285/.341/.458 with 21 HR in 637 PA

Turner Field was a house of horrors for Minor last season as well, which was completely opposite of his career trend. Home was where he sustained eight of his 12 losses and where he gave up 15 of the 21 home runs he allowed. He’s always allowed some long balls, but the fact that his hit rate (10.2 H/9) and walk rate (2.7 BB/9) both jumped roughly 25 percent from their 2013 levels meant that there were more base runners to be dealt with on a nightly basis. That’s not a good recipe for success.

We don’t need to see another slash line to know that Minor had a rough time both home and away a year ago. When September rolled around, Minor finally confirmed his shoulder had been “barking” at him throughout the season. With extended rest over the winter, Minor is hoping to return to form.

Luckily for Minor, his velocity did not see any decrease. In fact, it was up a little at times last season. The pitch data shows that he threw 40 percent fewer changeups than he had the prior two seasons. It was not an effective pitch for him, which could explain why he avoided it. Minor also generated the lowest amount of swinging strikes (7.1 percent) of any season in his career, down nearly 30 percent from 2013.

It could be that 2014 was just a collection of things that never allowed Minor to establish a rhythm − a lost season if you will. Early setbacks coupled with a sore shoulder would certainly explain the regression. Whatever the case, Minor enters an important season in his still young career.

“The Fifth Element”

The competition for the fifth spot in the rotation certainly bears watching during spring training. Various pitchers at various stages of their careers will all vie for the final spot in the rotation. The odds-on favorite could be hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz. The 23-year-old was among the prospects acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade last month.

He has electric stuff, routinely touching triple digits with a fastball that averages better than 96 mph. Foltynewicz entered 2014 ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game by Baseball America (No. 59), MLB.com (No. 54) and Baseball Prospectus (No. 43). Though he scuffled at Triple-A for the Astros, he eventually got a late season audition in the bullpen. Foltynewicz was 0-1 with a 5.30 ERA in 16 appearances, fanning 14 men against seven walks in 18.2 IP.

For Foltynewicz to have success as a starting pitcher, he’ll have to continue refining both his command and his secondary offerings. His curveball and changeup have both received mixed reviews from scouts but could see marked improvement after working with McDowell. The Braves are counting on him to help bring out the best in Foltynewicz.

The other notable prospect in the mix for a rotation spot is left-hander Manny Banuelos. He spent years as a top-rated prospect in the Yankees organization, eventually climbing to No. 29 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to 2012. That reputation was built on the strength of four pitches, including his 93-95 mph fastball. His advanced repertoire made quite an impression on his teammates. Mariano Rivera called Banuelos the best pitching prospect he’d ever seen. Inconsistency and injury quelled the excitement, specifically Tommy John surgery, which wiped out most of 2012 and all of 2013.

Banuelos, 23, was eased back into action by New York last season. He worked just 76.1 innings in 25 starts spread over three levels, the majority coming at Double-A Trenton. This was a calculated risk for Atlanta, dealing away relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve to acquire Banuelos. If he returns to pre-surgery form, the Braves have added an arm that could factor into their plans for years to come.

“Veteran presence”

Then we get to the mix of veterans on minor-league deals. Wandy Rodriguez, 36, was a serviceable starter for the Astros before running into a rash of injuries with the Pirates over the past two seasons. A right forearm strain limited him to just 12 starts in 2013, though he pitched well enough while he was out there 6-4, 3.59 ERA in 12 starts. Last season, a balky knee led Pittsburgh to release him prior to the All-Star break. Rodriguez had agreed to a deal with the Phillies over the winter, but failed the physical. Atlanta swooped in and offered him a minor-league deal and the opportunity to prove he has something left in the tank.

The Braves also have veteran lefty Eric Stults in camp. If anyone knows about lack of run support, he’s the guy. San Diego gave the lefty just 2.53 runs per start, by far the lowest in MLB last season. That’s a pretty good way to end up 8-17, which is exactly what happened. Stults, 35, has spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues and enjoyed his most success with the Padres, where he turned in 3.87 ERA in 472 IP from 2012-14. The home run bug bit Stults last year as well. He allowed 26 in 176 IP after surrendered just 18 in 203.2 IP in 2013.

The well-traveled Chien-Ming Wang, 34, spent all of 2014 in the Triple-A international League between the Reds and White Sox affiliates. A two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees, his career has never been the same following a freak base-running injury in 2008. The last six years have been filled with even more injuries and ineffectiveness. Wang made his living with a power sinker, but shoulder surgery has sapped some of the velocity that made him so effective during his early days in New York. Once in the low-mid 90s, Wang lives in the upper 80s now. Never known as a strikeout pitcher, he misses even fewer bats now. If nothing else, Wang figures to be available as a fallback option in Gwinnett.

Getting the necessary innings to evaluate all the candidates this spring will be a unique challenge for the Braves. The good news is that they have four quality arms with room to grow in their rotation already. With Teheran, Wood, Miller and Minor, Atlanta may have the pitching to keep them in games, just as it did a season ago. The onus will be on the offense to find a way to be more productive than it was in 2014 if the Braves are to have any hope of over-achieving this summer.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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