When the Braves decided to pull the plug and go all in on a rebuild, it was quite obvious that the front office was looking to construct a team around great starting pitching, much like they did during the team’s glory days. There is no doubt that pitching prevails in the postseason, and that you can never have too many arms. The Braves have successfully stockpiled arms, but nearly two years later the rotation is still in shambles. Little progress has been made, and the rotation looks worrisome heading into 2017, a year in which the team was planning to be competitive.
Obviously Julio Teheran offers consistency as the team’s ace. He has been great and given his ability and his contract the Braves would be foolish to move him. Beyond Teheran, however, things are not so bright. Though the Dansby Swanson-Shelby Miller deal was a steal, and Miller has had his struggles, losing him is a big reason why the team could not take a step forward this year. It is hard to say who is really the team’s number 2 starter at this point. That role probably belongs to Mike Foltynewicz, who actually has shown some improvement this season. He is one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in the game, but fans must keep in mind that this is his third major league season. He is not a rookie like many other pitchers who have had notable struggles this season. Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler and Tyrell Jenkins are the most recent guys to get optioned to the minors for lack of performance. Blair was awful in the majors, and he has been nothing more than mediocre in the minor leagues. He was a top prospect heading into this season, and he still has the potential to turn things around, but he has had a really discouraging year that has many fans doubting whether he can live up to that potential.
Tyrell Jenkins has a few really, really bad outings that overshadowed some great outings. He likely should have gotten a more extended look with the team. Because he is a ground ball pitcher, many believe he may not end up being anything but a reliever in the big leagues, the role the Braves initially thrust him into when making his major league debut. Jenkins’ demotion is frustrating to see, but not nearly as much so as Blair’s.
Matt Wisler probably has the best “stuff” of these three guys, and has been decent since returning to Gwinnett to work on his mechanics. All of these guys still have the potential to contribute to the big league team, but they are not guaranteed roster spots for next season. The trio has failed to live up to expectations, but they are also young. It takes many pitchers a while to “figure it out”. Rob Whalen has shown glimpses of good stuff in his short sample size in the big leagues, so perhaps the front office has found a diamond in the rough. It would not be wise to jump to any conclusions, however, until we see more of him.
The clock is ticking. Undergoing this rebuild was a sacrifice for the fanbase that will hopefully pay off, but the early Dansby Swanson callup could be evidence that the front office is feeling pressure to fill the seats for next year. No fan will be content with another last place effort from the team. Though the Braves have no shortage of arms, it may be in the team’s best interest to invest in a starting pitcher with experience this winter who can offer some stability to the staff. Some intriguing names include Rich Hill, R.A. Dickey, Doug Fister and Bartolo Colon. Adding any of these guys could add a veteran presence that this rotation has lacked this season. Given their age, they would also be short-term investments that could garner a return if the younger guys prove to be viable rotation candidates.
But do not fret Braves fans, there is still good news. The high-end pitching talent the team has is currently in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Kolby Allard, Sean Newcomb, Joey Wentz and Ian Anderson all appear to have frontline starter potential, and the depth beyond that is outstanding. Pitching prospects are the least likely of any other position to succeed in the major leagues, and pitching is volatile. The Braves luckily have way more lottery tickets to work with than most other clubs. The good news is that the team only needs a handful of these guys to pan out, and this is a system that many have ranked 50 men deep. While many of the arms the Braves have acquired have not panned out as hoped, the scouting department appears to have done a spectacular job drafting. However, only time will tell if this is actually the case.
It is not time for Braves fans to panic, but it is time for them to start monitoring the progression and regression of the young starters more carefully. The Braves are once again approaching the record for most pitchers used in a season, and that is not a good thing. All of these kids can flash potential, but at the end of the day numbers show that around 70% of top prospects fail to become good major league regulars. Take a look at Manny Banuelos, who was designated for assignment by the Braves last week. He has since signed a minor league deal with the Angels. This is a kid who was once a top prospect. Mariano Rivera deemed him to be the best pitching prospect he had ever seen. However, elbow injuries have essentially turned Banuelos’ arm into a noodle. The Halos plan to shut down ManBan for the remainder of 2016, but it does not look like he will ever be able to throw the same again.
Coppy has done the right thing to stockpile pitching, but the lack of success of those he has acquired may begin to start breathing down his neck. Braves fans will pray that between now and the season’s end, these youngsters can provide some more clarity as to how next year’s rotation will pan out.