In 2018, it was Mike Foltynewicz, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies. Last year, it was Mike Soroka. The Braves’ rebuild is way ahead of schedule, and due in large part to their young breakout stars. Alex Anthopoulos has done a fantastic job filling in the roster with veterans who can help win, but there is little doubt that the Braves’ young core is what has carried this team to success. Despite the signing of Marcell Ozuna, many are seeking answers as to how Atlanta will see improvement from last year’s club with the departure of Josh Donaldson. The good news is that the Braves are loaded with a top 5 farm system and many young players that have graduated from it, so there is no shortage of potential internal options for production. But which young player can give Atlanta that next push to get out of the National League, or for that matter, out of a playoff series?
We all saw what Riley was capable of last season before his slump. But let’s also keep in mind that the Braves had very similar concerns with Ozzie Albies at the end of 2018 when his production fell off a cliff. Ozzie ended up just fine. Even Mike Trout had to be sent down after his first month in the big leagues. It happens.
The good news is that, historically, Riley has seen a jump in production in his second season at each level of the minors. He excelled in AA to start 2018 — his second crack at Mississippi. The same thing happened last year, as Riley opened the season with the Gwinnett Stripers, who he spent the end of 2018 with, and went on an absolute tear. He has cleanup hitter potential, and it is utterly ridiculous how many fans have given up on him. If Riley can have a breakout 2020, the production between him and Marcell Ozuna should easily exceed the production of an every day Nick Markakis and Josh Donaldson.
You could argue Max Fried has already had his breakout season, and I would not disagree with you. But I think he is on the cusp of being one of the best pitchers in the game and is only getting started. Wins have become an arbitrary stat in baseball nowadays, but make no mistake: his makeup is a big reason why he was able to win 17 games last season. And his FIP (3.74), as opposed to his ERA (4.02), suggests he was unlucky.
Many compare Fried to the newly acquired Cole Hamels, and the numbers between the two in their first seasons as starters are quite similar. In fact, Fried’s are better, but Hamels was also much younger. I hate making comparisons like that, but it is to show that Max Fried may just be beginning a special career. While Hamels is an upgrade over Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel individually, the uncertainty at the fifth spot will put some pressure on the other starters to perform. This could be the coming-out party for Max Fried, who has one of the most beautiful fastball/curveball combinations in baseball and from the left side at that. He is a bit older than the other Braves’ young stars, but he also missed development time due to Tommy John Surgery. I expect a breakout age 26 season from him after impressing in various roles over the past few years.
If we are talking Sean Newcomb, it won’t be a matter of merely breaking out. We have seen that twice, once in early 2018, and last year in relief. The question is whether he can have sustained success as a starter. In May of 2018, he went 5-0 with a 1.54 ERA in six outings. He followed that up with an excellent June as well, going 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA in five starts. Newcomb was emerging as one of the best young pitchers in baseball and even came close to throwing the franchise’s first no-hitter since 1994 against the Dodgers.
Newk’s biggest enemy was himself, and throwing balls over the plate. He struggled in the second half of 2018 and to begin 2019. That, compounded with a thin bullpen, found him in a late-inning role before long. The promising news is that Newcomb was fantastic in relief, posting a 3.04 ERA in 54 appearances. A different approach out of the bullpen saw him throwing strikes way more consistently, issuing just 19 walks over those outings. But the Braves did not trade away Andrelton Simmons in hopes of finding a high-quality reliever. They will give him another crack at the rotation in the Spring of 2020 and hope that his command can translate back into a starting role. He will battle the likes of Felix Hernandez and many farmhands for the final spot in the rotation, and while he should be viewed as the favorite, he will find himself back in a relief role if he does not perform.
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