The Braves began this past season thinking that their rotation might be a — and maybe the — strength of the team, while they had serious confidence issues about the offense. Then they finished the season with the offense carrying the shell of a rotation across the finish line. Atlanta used 16 different starters over the season, and finished the year with major questions about 15 of them.
The Sure Things
The “Ace” of the rotation was, no surprise, Julio Teheran. Julio went 7-10 on the year, with an ERA of 3.21. That season ERA was the fourth one in a row that was beneath his FIP, which in 2016 was 3.69. It appears that Julio has the ability to outperform his FIP. He also lowered several key peripherals from 2015, including Hits/9 (from 8.5 to 7.5), HR/9 (down from 1.2 to 1.1), WHIP (down to 1.053 from 1.306) and BB/9 (from 3.3 to 2.0). He also raised his K/9 from 7.7 to 8.0. All this was over the course of 188 innings, which was 12.2 less than 2015’s total. Put it all together, and Julio’s ERA+ was a healthy 129. So, I present Exhibit 1,752 (Exhibit 1,751 was Shelby Miller ca. 2015) of why pitcher wins are a terrible way to judge starters.
The other certainty to start 2017 in the rotation is Mike Foltynewicz. Folty entered the year with high hopes and many question marks. He answered a lot of those questions in a positive manner. He has absolutely filthy stuff. High 90s heater and filthy curve that reminds me of Noah Syndegaard if I squint hard enough. Mike led the team with 9 wins to go against 5 losses, while pitching to an ERA of 4.31, which was right in line with his FIP of 4.24.
Folty got a late start in the rotation, beginning the year on the DL after recovering from thoracic outlet surgery (which Matt Harvey of the Mets underwent). Mike threw 123 innings this year, up from 86 in 2015, but unlike Teheran, his peripherals were merely pedestrian, which led to a slightly below average ERA+ of 96.The main problem appeared to be a H/9 of 9.1 (although that was better than 2015’s 11.8 mark), and a BB/9 of 2.6 which totaled a WHIP of 1.297.
The main question facing Folty next year will be health. No one doubts the stuff, and prior to taking a line drive off the calf he was pitching as well as he ever has. If he can stay healthy and improve as much from 2016 to 2017 as he did from 2015 to 2016, the Braves will have a very good 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Certainly this year showed the Braves were correct in keeping him as a starter.
The Third Guy
Next up is the perplexing Matt Wisler. Wisler went 7-13 and seemed to take a step back from 2015. But he was only 23 for the majority of the season, so it’s too early to write him off completely. Wisler’s ERA was a nice round fat 5.00, which will happen when you give up 9.1 H/9 and 1.5 HR/9. Wisler seemed to lose confidence in his pitches, and would get in trouble trying to nibble at the corners. The positive to this was that it would drive Joe Simpson crazy, which is good to keep him on his toes. The negative? Just about everything else.
One has to wonder if Wisler was one of the main reasons that the Braves and Roger McDowell parted ways, as McDowell’s rep for connecting with young pitchers was less than stellar, and Wisler never seemed to improve. 2017 will be a big year for Matt to prove himself, as he has to be hearing the footsteps from the herd down on the farm who will be itching for a spot in the rotation next year.
After Teheran, Foltynewicz, and Wisler, the Braves have a big question mark as to who will fill out the last two spots (three if Wisler can’t get it together). The front office has publicly stated that the team will be looking to acquire at least two starters, either via trade or free agency.
Trade and Free Agent Targets
The Braves have several targets they COULD theoretically pursue in trade – the main target being Chris Sale of the White Sox, who has apparently irked the Sox brass. But, to be fair, Sale would be a huge get for any of, oh, 28 other teams as well, and the haul needed for him may make us long for the good old days when we only had to send four studs to Texas for Mark Teixeira.
The Rays also may be in the market to deal some of their starters, and might be induced to part ways with Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi. Oakland may look to deal Sonny Gray as well. The only thing that will be sure is that Coppy will explore all potential options, and perhaps even some that aren’t viable.
The starters available on the free agent market are nothing to get excited about, with either age or injury concerns, or both, to give pause to clubs. The best of the lot may be Doug Fister from Houston, Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies, or Andrew Cashner from Miami. None of those names are likely going to get season ticket sales at STP soaring. An intriguing name on the list is Ivan Nova, who went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA (ERA+ of 139) in 64.2 innings for the Pirates after the Yankees traded him away mid-season.
If the Johns can’t acquire the two starters they want, then who will the Braves stick on the Opening Day Roster? Let’s take a quick look at the internal options.
Internal Options for the Back of the Rotation Josh Collmenter was acquired in the waning days of the season, and made three very good starts for the Braves down the stretch. He had spent a good chunk of the time in the Diamondbacks bullpen, appearing in 15 games, all in relief, and not turning in results that impressed. But when the Braves trotted him out as a starter, he was a different guy. His “stuff,” such as it is, will remind no one of a prototypical MLB starter. It may not even remind one of a prototypical high school starter, as he tops out a fastball in the mid 80s. However, a funky delivery, seeming to hide the ball behind his head, seems to throw hitter’s timing off. Based on the last three starts, he should get the first chance at one of the spots.
The kids on the farm who might make a push for the 2017 rotation include mainly Lucas Sims and Sean Newcomb, although Max Povse is a sleeper who pitched well in High A and AA.
The Bottom Line
As much depth as we have on the farm, the strategy in 2016 was Teheran and Folty and pray for rain, and it’s not clear how much better the staff will be in 2017. Unless you believe in Josh Collmenter, Matt Wisler is the third-best starting pitcher in the organization right now. The Braves don’t appear to be satisfied to stand pat. We’ll see what they do.