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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Starting Rotation

Pitchers and catchers will report later this week to Disney’s Wild World of Sports complex as the Atlanta Braves prepare to embark on the 2019 season. While the major focus has been what didn’t happen during the offseason, the Braves have an interesting mix of players who will return this season.

Much of the intrigue of the spring will center on the pitching staff. Over the next week we will be breaking down the spring roster and will highlight some of the decisions the team will have to make as things currently stand.

Barring an unforeseen trade or free agent signing, the rotation appears largely set with the only real question as too who will open the season as the team’s fifth starter. (Due to an unusual April schedule, the Braves will need a fifth starter pretty early in April.) The Braves have indicated that they will utilize many of their young pitching prospects to provide an extra day of rest for the rotation. So there may not be a clear cut answer when all is said and done. Here is a look at how things stand currently.

Rotation Frontrunners

Mike Foltynewicz – RHP

Mike Foltynewicz took a step forward for the Braves in 2018 and they will be hoping he can do so again this season. Folty turned in the best season of his young career posting a 2.85 ERA (3.37 FIP) in a career-high 183 innings. He topped 200 strikeouts and flashed top of the rotation potential. If there is a concern about his breakout season it was that he navigated 2018 with a low BABIP of .251 which could be difficult to sustain. He more than doubled his teammates’ ERA-FIP gap in 2018, and his FIP was below his xFIP as well.

Foltynewicz will head to spring training with a new contract after avoiding arbitration and is the odds on favorite to be on the mound for Atlanta on Opening Day.

Sean Newcomb – LHP

Sean Newcomb put together a solid if unspectacular season in 2018 and the Braves will be hoping that he can take a step forward this season. Newcomb got off to a great start and was dominant at times. However, he struggled for long stretches in the summer as he amassed a career-high in innings with 164.

The question with Newcomb always comes back to his command. He lowered his walk rate in 2018 but still walked 81 batters in those 164 innings. His stuff can be dominating as he showed with a near no-hit performance against the Dodgers. Developing more consistency will be key for he development.

Newcomb will come to spring training with a rotation spot in hand and should slot in somewhere behind Foltynewicz in the order.

Kevin Gausman – RHP

Kevin Gausman will be entering his first full season in a Braves uniform after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline. Gausman prevented runs well for Atlanta down the stretch, but some of his peripherals went in the wrong direction after he was traded. Despite moving out of the AL East, both his walk and strikeout rates took a turn for the worse, and if not for some luck on fly balls, his Braves line could have been really nasty for the season’s last two months. The Braves will be hoping that Gausman can at least return to his pre-trade peripherals, and will try to further unlock some of his potential.

Gausman’s strikeout rate fell by more than one per game in 2018 but he was also able to cut his walks. He should benefit from pitching with Braves’ defense behind him and will be called upon to eat up innings. He has thrown at least 179 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Julio Teheran – RHP

At one point it looked like Julio Teheran might have thrown his last pitch in a Braves uniform. However, he is still here and looks like a safe bet to be penciled in for the rotation on Opening Day.

Teheran was up and down in 2018. He raised his strikeout rate despite enduring another drop in velocity but that came with an increase in walks. That is a bad recipe for a pitcher that is as prone to giving up home runs as Teheran who surrendered 26 last season.

Teheran’s streak of consecutive Opening Day starts will assuredly come to an end in 2019. He appears likely to slot somewhere into the back half of Atlanta’s rotation. His spot could be in jeopardy once some of the team’s young pitching prospects are ready. However, the Braves will likely try to limit the workload on those young pitchers so it would be surprising to not see Teheran in the rotation when they break camp. Still, if the Braves are really worried about accumulating as many wins as possible in 2019, they may want to move on to more promising arms sooner rather than later.

The 5th Starter

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Thanks to a couple of early off-days, the Braves aren’t likely to need a fifth starter until around the first weekend in April. Who gets that first call will be one of the interesting things to watch during the spring.

Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint will likely begin the spring as favorites for the final rotation spot. Soroka was impressive in his 2018 debut but was limited to just five starts due to a shoulder injury that would lead to a pair of DL stints. Early indication is that he is now healthy and has put those shoulder issues behind him but it will be interesting to see how he holds up as the spring progresses. Even if he’s healthy, the Braves may choose to give him an extended tune-up at Triple-A.

Toussaint pitched his way onto Atlanta’s postseason roster after an impressive stint at Triple-A late in the season. There is no questioning Toussaint’s stuff but some questions about his command remain. He showed enough progress last season to come to camp with the chance to earn a spot in the rotation.

Other Options

When spring training began in 2018, many had Luiz Gohara penciled in not only for a spot in Atlanta’s rotation but also as a Rookie of the Year candidate. That didn’t materialize as he suffered groin and ankle injuries early during camp and never really recovered. Gohara struggled in the minors posting a 4.81 ERA in 13 starts between Double-A and Triple-A. He made nine appearances for Atlanta including one start but was unimpressive allowing 13 runs in 19.2 innings. Early reports are that Gohara has spent the offseason working on his conditioning. If healthy, the stuff he showed while advancing from High-A all the way to the majors in 2017 simply can’t be overlooked.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets - Game Two

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Max Fried is another name to keep an eye on as well. Blister issues continue to hamper Fried at times but he pitched well for the Braves down the stretch posting a 2.94 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 14 appearances including five starts. His strikeout rate of 31 percent is impressive although he needs to cut down on his walks.

It is also worth mentioning that both Gohara and Fried could end up pitching out ofthe bullpen. Fried in particular pitched well in that role down the stretch in 2018. Gohara could emerge as a multi-inning option similar to Milwaukee’s Josh Hader. So one thing to keep an eye on is how the Braves handle both Gohara and Fried early in camp.

Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Kolby Allard all pitched their way to the majors in 2018. They will be in big league camp but it feels like they are probably destined to begin the season at Triple-A.

Wilson began last season in High-A but has just 22 innings under his belt at the Triple-A level. Wright struggled early on at Double-A but turned the corner in the second half. He and Wrightcould both be ready as rotation depth at some point in 2019.

Allard made 19 starts at Gwinnett where he posted a 2.72 ERA (3.40 FIP) but struggled in a cameo appearance in Atlanta allowing 11 earned runs in just eight innings. He will get another opportunity as well but is going to have to find a way to make batters miss at the big league level. At this point, it’s not clear whether any of these names have a leg up over Soroka and Toussaint for the fifth spot in the rotation. But, as the season winds on, throwing schedules and health might play a big role in determining who ends up getting big-league starts.

Non-Roster Invitees

The Braves will also have three intriguing starting prospects in big league camp as non-roster invitees. Ian Anderson is easily the biggest name of this group and has saw his name rising up preseason prospect lists.

Anderson was impressive in High-A and was even better after a late promotion to Mississippi. He will likely start the season back at Double-A but could be at Gwinnett at some point in 2019.

Kyle Muller saw an uptick in velocity last season and parlayed that into good results. He began the year at Rome but made his way all the way to Double-A Mississippi. He also put up a good showing in the Arizona Fall League. Muller will likely start the season back at Double-A but is another arm that could be at Gwinnett by the end of the season.

Joey Wentz was limited to just 67 innings in 2018 due to injury but was impressive when he was on the mound. He will look to get a full season behind him in 2019.

None of these three guys are likely to challenge for a roster spot during the spring but it is going to be fun to see them get some experience in big league camp. If things break a certain way, it might be possible for Anderson to get some major league innings by the end of the year, but this possibility seems much more remote for Muller and Wentz.

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