2018 Braves Positional Preview: Rotation

Every team needs pitching to set the foundation for success. The Atlanta Braves became synonymous with strong starting pitching during their heyday in the 1990s, but things have been quite different in recent years. The focus of the team’s rebuild has been drafting and developing young arms, many of which are just now finding their way to the big leagues or will be knocking on the door in the not-to-distant future. Thus, 2018 is an interesting year for the Braves pitching staff. They’ve got some veterans coming to camp as well as some of the brightest young prospects in baseball. These men will likely be counted on to set the course for the franchise this year and beyond, and it could all start this season.

Before we get rolling in this installment of the preview series, here’s an interesting note: 2017 was the first season in franchise history that the Braves pitching staff failed to record at least one complete game. That dates back to 1871. Let that sink in. Not one single starter went the distance. While the game continues to evolve with an emphasis on relief pitching, that is still an unusual distinction. Atlanta was one of three teams that failed to register a complete game last season, a growing trend.

Julio Teheran | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 2-years, $19 million

It was a strange ride for Julio Teheran in 2017. At no place was that more apparent than in his new home stadium. SunTrust Park did not exactly welcome Teheran with open arms. That or he simply did not find the new ballpark to be all that hospitable for whatever reason.

Regardless, it was nearly an even split in terms of workload, but Teheran posted a disappointing 3-10 record with a 5.86 ERA in 17 home starts as opponents batted .272 with 17 home runs in his 93.2 innings. On the road, he was a completely different pitcher, going 8-3 with a 3.14 ERA in 94.2 innings over 15 starts in opposing ballparks. He allowed 14 homers on the road as well, but his walk rate was nearly a full batter lower per nine innings – 3.0 BB/9 away vs. 3.8 BB/9 at home. To boil it down, he dealt with more base runners at SunTrust Park and that was the root of the problem.

Those numbers might suggest that it may have been a mound issue, but Teheran never placed the blame anywhere other than his stuff, command or execution on any given night. Home runs across baseball have been on the rise over the past few seasons and saw a noticeable spike in 2017. Teheran was one of many pitchers who set career-highs in home runs allowed last season. His 31 homers surrendered tied for second in the National League and was nine more than he allowed in 2016 in almost the exact same amount of innings (188.1 IP).

There were some signs of progress as the year wore on, however. After surrendering 26 home runs in his first 21 starts while posting 5.09 ERA, Teheran was able to close the season with a solid 3.44 ERA and just five home runs allowed over his final 11 starts. That success provides some indication that he was getting back on track. What’s more encouraging is that good work included a tidy 2.81 ERA with just two homers allowed in his final four home starts (25.2 IP). It may not sound like much, but it was a night and day difference from his early returns.

The struggles at SunTrust Park aside, the Braves need Teheran to bring consistency to the front of the rotation. Even as a younger pitcher, he has been looked upon as a No. 1 starter for the last four years, making the All-Star team in 2016. While trade rumors have swirled in recent years, Teheran’s team-friendly contract makes him an attractive asset for Atlanta whether he is stays or goes. Though he may not be a true front of the rotation ace, Teheran has avoided major injury and been a durable and dependable pitcher for the majority of his big league career. A cost-controlled big league starter with the ability to throw 200 innings, Teheran is under contract for two more seasons and has a $12 million team option for 2021 that includes a $1 million buy-out.

Brandon McCarthy | RHP | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11.5 million

Acquired from the Dodgers in the Matt Kemp trade, Brandon McCarthy is expected to fill the same role as R.A. Dickey in 2016, serving as a veteran to help stabilize the rotation. Injury has limited McCarthy in recent years, but from all accounts he is healthy and ready to contribute in 2018 according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who saw McCarthy pitch with Los Angeles last season. One would have to question the durability to some extent, as McCarthy has logged just 155.2 IP over the past three seasons combined. He missed substantial time in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

McCarthy dealt with shoulder and knee injuries as well as a blister issue that all cost him time in 2017. He made 16 starts for Los Angeles and returned just before the end of the season, even earning a spot on the Dodgers’ postseason roster. That, at least in part, led Anthopoulos and the Braves to take a chance on the right-hander as part of the five-player trade with L.A. in December. Over the course of a 12-year career, McCarthy has surpassed 10 wins and 200 innings just once, both in the 2014 season.  McCarthy has dealt with a litany of arm injuries that required elbow and shoulder surgeries and is in the final season of his four-year, $48 million contract. He could be a suitable stopgap for the Braves in 2018 as young arms like Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard continue to climb through the system.

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible (1st)

The 2017 season was a tale of two halves for Mike Foltynewicz, a hard-throwing right-hander who has serious potential if he can find a way to harnesses his high-octane stuff. Building off a solid 2016 campaign, Foltynewicz got off to a solid start last year. He went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA through his first 21 starts, striking out 111 batters against 42 walks over 119 innings. He allowed 18 home runs over that stretch, while averaging 3.2 walks and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Track it back over a one-year span that includes 31 starts from August 2, 2016 to August 5, 2017 and Foltynewicz was 15-7 with a 4.06 ERA, 59 walks and 168 strikeouts in 177.1 IP. For a 24-year-old pitcher finding his way in the big leagues, this was encouraging work.

What was not quite as encouraging was the final couple of months, particularly a bad August stretch which once again raised doubts about Foltynewicz’s ability to maintain that level of production over the course of a full season. His good work was tarnished in August and September. Foltynewicz was beset by a slew of base runners as he lost his final seven starts. He allowed 44 hits, 17 walks and hit three batters in just 33 innings while producing a 7.91 ERA over that stretch. Oddly enough, he allowed just one home run in those final seven outings. Left-handed hitters were also an area of concern last season. They slashed .308/.384/.495 against him, walked more often and struck out less than their right-handed counter parts. In order to take the next step, Foltynewicz is going to have to find a way to neutralize lefty hitters so that he may mitigate some of that damage.

The numbers say a variety of things about Foltynewicz, but ultimately it appears the jury is still out. Scouts, talent evaluators, front office executives, coaches and players alike agree that there is a next level to be reached based on arm talent. As you’ll find annually in this preview series, Foltynewicz has electric stuff. His 95.2 average fastball velocity is among the best in the game according to FanGraphs. Only 19 starting pitchers in all of baseball average 95+ mph on their fastball. He’s in the same grouping with Chris Archer and Jacob deGrom, and ahead of the likes of Chris Sale, Yu Darvish and Lance McCullers among others. Obviously, it’s not all about the stuff but rather what a pitcher does with it. Secondary offerings have been a major focus as Foltynewicz and the Braves try to perfect the arsenal that could unlock his full potential.

Sean Newcomb | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

A big lefty with an excellent fastball-curveball combination, Sean Newcomb arrived in Atlanta by midsummer and entrenched himself into the big league rotation. Originally a first round draft pick by the Angels in 2014, strikeouts and walks have been his calling card thus far and Newcomb gets more than his fair share of both. The major return from Los Angeles in exchange for slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons in 2015, Newcomb’s future will dictate whether that was a trade worth making. There were some ups and downs during his rookie season, but Newcomb has shown enough promise to merit a spot in the Braves starting five in 2018. What he does with that opportunity remains to be seen. Given the stats he put up in 19 starts last year, the numbers are open to interpretation.

For Newcomb, a 6-foot-5 lefty with a power arm, bases on balls are the main area he must improve, but his strikeout stuff in tantalizing. His 9.72 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ranked 10th best in the NL among starters with at least 100 IP. On the flip side, Newcomb’s 5.13 walks per nine innings was the worst rate among that same group. That’s been a trend for Newcomb in the minors, but he has routinely been tough to hit and that has taken the edge off the walks. That said, Newcomb somewhat predictably incurred more damage when facing big league lineups, which was to be expected. His hit-rate jumped from 7.0 hits per nine innings in his minor league career to 9.0 H/9 in the majors. Newcomb’s sparkling home run rate also nearly doubled, from 0.4 home runs per nine innings in the minors to 0.9 HR/9 with the big league club. That’s not altogether surprising considering the historic rate at which balls were leaving the park in 2017. The home runs are manageable, but dealing with nearly 14 base runners per nine innings is not a recipe for success.

Luiz Gohara | LHP | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Yet another young starting pitcher acquired as part of Atlanta’s extensive rebuilding effort, Luiz Gohara arrived with less fanfare than some but quickly opened eyes. The Seattle Mariners parted with the big left-hander, who rocketed through the minor leagues in 2017 and punctuated a breakout campaign with five big league starts. Just 19 years old for the majority of the season, the young lefty made three minor league stops before arriving in Atlanta for a September call-up. Gohara had never thrown more than 70 innings in any of his four seasons in the Seattle system, but combined to go 7-4 with a 2.62 ERA, 44 walks and 147 strikeouts in 123.2 IP before tossing almost 30 more innings with Atlanta in 2017. This is a pitcher who has front of the rotation potential and has already flashed some of that ability in a brief taste of the majors. Braves officials seem unified in their desire to see exactly what Gohara can do over the course of a full season.

One of just five men from Brazil to play in the major leagues, Gohara is a big-bodied strikeout machine at over 260 pounds, and has drawn comparisons to CC Sabathia based on his build and upper-90s fastball. Gohara combines it with a sharp-breaking slider that has proven to be an excellent strikeout pitch. While his changeup is not as refined as his other two offerings, it’s an adequate third pitch that may improve over time. After all, Gohara won’t turn 21 until July, so he’s still very much a work in progress. With that said, his first taste of the majors was tantalizing. Gohara struck out 31 men in 29.1 IP and posted a 4.91 ERA, but that number is somewhat deceptive since his 2.75 fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests he was much better. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Gohara does not crack the rotation this spring, making him a stealth Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League.

Other candidates

Scott Kazmir, 34, did not pitch in the majors in 2017 because of a hip ailment which affected his velocity. He underwent hip surgery and made a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Though he is not being counted on, Atlanta is hopeful that the comeback-driven lefty will show them something in spring training… Chase Whitley, 28, is another veteran arm getting a crack at the rotation this spring. The righty was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. Whitley pitched exclusively in relief in 2017, posting a 4.08 ERA in 41 appearances, but came up as a starter with the Yankees in 2014. An Alabama native, Whitley is obviously a bullpen candidate if he’s unable to secure a spot in the rotation… Max Fried, 24, is another highly-touted lefty who can pile up the strike outs. His first taste of the big leagues included four starts and five relief appearances, over which he posted a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings. A blister issue sapped his effectiveness in the minors, but it did not discourage the Braves from taking a look at him in the big leagues. He struck out 22 batters, but had to deal with a lot of base runners in his brief cameo with Atlanta. Fried went to the Arizona Fall League, where he was 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts and struck out 32 men in 26 innings. His dynamic breaking ball, which is a plus-pitch, is Fried’s biggest weapon. Healthy and motivated heading into 2018, Fried will compete for the fifth starter’s spot this spring… Lucas Sims, 24, has spent six seasons in the Atlanta system and finally advanced to the big leagues in 2017. Well-liked for his competitive nature, Sims’ results were mixed. He was 3-6 with a 5.62 ERA (5.07 FIP), 44 strikeouts and 23 walks in 57.2 big league innings. Like other young Braves pitchers in recent years, too many base runners and the occasional home run ball worked against him. Sims made 10 starts and four relief appearances and could be a useful bullpen arm if pushed out of rotation. He’d like to remain a starter, though, and Triple-A Gwinnett may have to be the place for that given the numbers game in camp this spring… Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are both 25 years old and both men had challenging 2017 seasons. Wisler had a promising rookie year in 2015 but was unable to turn the corner in 2016 and those woes followed him into 2017. He tried his hand as a reliever, but the results were not good – 8.89 ERA with 12.7 H/9 in 19 appearances. Meanwhile, Blair struggled at Triple-A then suffered a torn latissimus dorsi, which he spent the winter rehabbing. Blair has noticeably slimmed down as he tries to impress the club and get back on the right track this spring. Both men realize their window in Atlanta could be closing.

Down on the farm:

Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard will get their first taste of big league camp after advancing to Double-A Mississippi at the age of 19 last season. Both men more than held their own, with Soroka’s progress opening more eyes. That’s something that seems to be an annual event. Soroka appeared in the Futures Game during MLB All-Star Weekend and was named Braves organizational pitcher of the year after going 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts in the Southern League. Meanwhile, Allard turned in a 3.18 ERA across 27 starts. It was a big test for the duo, and they passed with flying colors. Soroka and Allard are ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett this season and could make their big league debuts before 2018 is over… Kyle Wright, 22, was Atlanta’s top pick in the 2017 draft and also received an invitation to big league spring training. Wright is a Vanderbilt product and was the fifth player taken in last year’s June draft. He pitched sparingly in his pro debut, making nine starts but tossing just 17 innings in total. The Braves wanted to monitor Wright’s workload coming off the college season, but he should begin 2018 with Double-A Mississippi and could catch up with Allard and Soroka before the season ends… Ricardo Sanchez will turn 21 in April and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter. The lefty has shown flashes of potential in his two seasons in the Atlanta system. Acquired from the Angels at just 18 years old, Sanchez averaged a strikeout per inning at High-A Florida last season. He has been a slow starter the past couple of years, but has routinely been one of the younger players in each level he’s competed in. That could mean it just takes a little adjustment period to get rolling. While Sanchez might start the year in Double-A, it’s possible he could get a little more time in the Florida State League before heading to Mississippi.

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