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Braves have crowded field of rotation options

Earlier today we spotlighted some options for the Atlanta Braves who are still in the market for a top half of the rotation arm via trade or free agency. It seems like the pursuit of an established pitcher has been something that the franchise has been seeking for at least three seasons.

For this exercise, we are going to take a look at where things stand currently assuming there are no further signings or a trade that brings a starter into the equation. It is pretty clear cut at the top of the rotation with a highly competitive situation developing for the final spot involving many of the team’s top pitching prospects.

Rotation holdovers

Mike Foltynewicz (2018: 31 GS, 183 IP, 9.93 K/9, 3.34 BB/9, 2.85 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 3.77 xFIP)

There is no real question at the top. Mike Foltynewicz took a big step forward in 2018 and the Braves will be looking for more of the same in 2019. Foltynewicz was downright dominant at times and put up 3.9 fWAR to lead the staff. His season put him in line to replace Julio Teheran as the team’s Opening Day starter.

Sean Newcomb (2018: 30 GS, 164 IP, 8.78 K/9, 4.45 BB/9, 3.90 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 4.33 xFIP)

The questions start once you look past Foltynewicz but Sean Newcomb at least has the stuff to answer all of them. It is just a matter of harnessing that stuff and finding a bit of consistency along the way. One thing that is interesting about Newcomb’s 2018 season was that it was viewed that he had a strong first half and fell off at the end. While that is what the results were but the underlying numbers actually improved in the second half where he was a bit less fortunate.

For example, Newcomb averaged more than one strikeout per game more in the second half (9.61 K/9 vs. 8.31 K/9). His walks were basically static while he gave up homers at a slightly elevated rate. Yet his ERA jumped by more than a run while his FIP and xFIP were pretty close to the same. The biggest change came in terms of BABIP where he held hitters to a .255 average over his first 105 innings and that elevated to .304 over his final 59. To help explain further, he allowed much harder contact down the stretch as both his Med% and Hard% spiked while his Soft% cratered per FanGraphs. But, his xwOBA allowed didn’t change too much (.291 before the All-Star Break; .302 after); he just got somewhat unlucky in the second half (wOBA-against was .314 to go with the .302 xwOBA) which made his runs allowed look worse than they should have.

All told, Newcomb wasn’t that much different a pitcher than he was in 2017 as his FIP, xFIP and fWAR suggest. He was pretty much a league average pitcher which is fine for a staff. It would probably be better if he were penciled in at No. 3 or No. 4 instead of No. 2 however, hence the Braves’ search for another experienced rotation arm.

Kevin Gausman (2018: 31 GS, 183.2 IP, 7.25 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 3.92 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 4.19 xFIP)

Kevin Gausman was Atlanta’s key addition at the 2018 trade deadline and he will likely be slotted into the No. 3 spot in the rotation in hopes that he will eat innings and give the rotation some stability. Gausman pitched better after being acquired from the Orioles even though the underlying numbers suggest that he was a bit fortunate (4.06 FIP, 4.59 xFIP). Still Atlanta is hoping they can further unlock Gausman’s potential and he should benefit from having a good defensive club behind him for a full season.

Julio Teheran (2018: 31 GS, 175.2 IP, 8.30 K/9, 4.30 BB/9, 3.94 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 4.72 xFIP)

Raise your hand if you thought Julio Teheran would still be a member of the Braves when the calendar flipped to 2019? Teheran in 2018 went from the team’s Opening Day starter to almost being left off the NLDS roster altogether. He made it but was relegated to mop-up duty in the elimination game which seemed to put his role on the team for 2019 in question.

Yet here he remains and I’m penciling him in as the No. 4 starter provided he is still here when Spring Training comes around. Teheran’s 2018 season was a weird one in many respects. He saw another velocity drop to just over 90 mph on his fastball. If you watched, there were several starts where it was significantly below that. Yet his strikeout rate jumped by more than one per nine innings going from 7.22 K/9 in 2017 to 8.30 K/9 this season. However, his walk rate jumped significantly as well to 4.30 per nine which was the worst of his career.

Homers continue to be a problem for Teheran as he allowed 26 more last season. He’s allowed a total of 57 over the last two seasons. All those extra men on base left him not much margin for error.

Prospect Options

As things stand currently, it looks like there will be an open competition for the final spot in the rotation. As you can see below, the team is not short on options provided everyone stays healthy and remain on the roster.

The Favorites

Mike Soroka (2018: 5 GS, 25.2 IP, 7.36 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 3.51 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 3.63 xFIP)

Had he not been sidelined with a shoulder injury in the second half, it feels like Mike Soroka would have been penciled into the list above. Shoulder injuries are scary and he hit the Disabled List twice with discomfort, which is concerning. However, reports suggest that he is feeling well and ready for the season.

Soroka only made five starts in 2018 but he was impressive in all of them. His ability to command the strike zone separates him from the rest of the group in my opinion and if he is healthy he is my pick to open the season in the rotation.

Luiz Gohara (2018: 9 G, 1 GS, 19.2 IP, 8.24 K/9, 3.66 BB/9, 5.95 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 5.15 xFIP)

To say that Luiz Gohara’s 2018 season was a disappointment would be an understatement. Gohara was an odds on favorite to capture a rotation spot last season and was a Rookie of the Year hopeful according to some analysts. However, he got hurt early in Spring Training and a variety of issues short circuited his season.

Reports suggest that he has dropped weight this offseason and if that is the case, he could have a major impact in 2019. He will need to recapture some of the magic that he had in 2017 which saw him jump three levels in the minors but he has the talent to do so. It would not be surprising to see him earn a spot in the rotation or even possibly a bullpen role in Spring Training.

Touki Toussaint (2018: 7 G, 5 GS, 29 IP, 9.93 K/9, 6.52 BB/9, 4.03 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 4.24 xFIP)

Not many people were expecting Touki Toussaint to make his major league debut in 2018 and he not only did that but also earned a spot on the team’s postseason roster. No one has ever questioned Toussaint’s stuff; there have just been questions about the command. We saw a little bit of that at the big league level but in a short stint he showed that he could get big league hitters out.

I think ultimately he starts the year at Triple-A but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he went to Spring Training and earned a spot.

Max Fried (2018: 14 G, 5 GS, 33.2 IP, 11.76 K/9, 5.35 BB/9, 2.94 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 3.24 xFIP)

Health is probably the biggest concern for Fried in 2019 because if he is healthy, then he can have a big impact for the Braves, either in the rotation or out of the bullpen. He may be a bit of a longshot to earn a spot in the rotation out of Spring Training but a lot of it depends on what happens with the rest of the competition. Fried has made cameo appearances in the big leagues in each of the last two seasons. He just needs to stay healthy long enough to secure a spot. However, that the Braves haven’t shied away from using him in relief so far in his career suggests that he may be pigeonholed into a relief role unless there’s an opening in the rotation.

Others

Other options include Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson. All three have pitched in the majors but it feels like all are likely to at least begin the season at Triple-A. Even though, we should probably expect to see these guys again at some point this season provided they are still on the roster.

Of this group, Wilson seems like the best bet to get the first call but Wright shouldn’t be overlooked either. Allard struggled during his brief stint at the major league level but has shown that he doesn’t have a lot left to prove at Gwinnett.

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