Braves: 2019 is a make or break year for Sean Newcomb

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The Braves have made a number of crucial trades that have allowed them to rise back to the top of the NL East quickly. But in every rebuild, there are going to be trades looked back on with some semblance of regret. After 2019, Atlanta may find themselves doing that with Sean Newcomb, who was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels.

Simmons is widely considered the best fielding shortstop in baseball and one of the best fielders of all-time for that matter. Now that he is with the Angels, his bat has come around significantly as well. In his three seasons out West, Simmons has slashed .284/.331/.404 and finished in the top fifteen in MVP voting twice. With the Braves, Simmons slashed .265/.321/.328 in his best season. The talented shortstop also has two more years remaining on his team-friendly contract.

That being said, it’s understandable why the Braves were willing to move on from Simmons. He had yet to show any consistency with the bat, and while his glove was good, it wasn’t worth holding onto throughout a complete rebuild. So they sold him for the best offer, which at the time was the Angeles top prospect, Sean Newcomb.

It’s easy to see why Newcomb was considered an elite prospect and why he piqued the interest of, at the time, general manager, John Coppolella. At 6’5″, Newcomb is an intimidating figure on the mound throwing from the left side. He effortlessly tosses it in the mid-90s and features one of finer curveballs at any level of professional baseball.

Newcomb would earn his way to the big leagues as a member of a porous Braves team in 2017, finishing 4-9 with a 4.32 ERA in 19 starts. Nothing stellar, but the Braves were encouraged by his ability to limit solid contact and strikeout batters. The glaring issue: His control of the strike zone.

For a brief moment, it looked like Newcomb left those warts in the past, establishing himself as a potential All-Star through three months of the 2018 season. But eventually, those control problems would come back to bite him, causing him to fade in the season’s second half. Through 49 professional starts, Newcomb is averaging 4.7 BB/9 innings, and it is now fair to question whether he will ever be able to live up to the potential the Braves once believed he had.

It’s frustrating because Newcomb has flashed his ability several times with the Braves. Most notably, coming an out shy of a complete game no-hitter against a stacked Dodgers lineup. In that game, he powdered the strike zone with 95 MPH darts, working both sides of the plate. It was Jon Lester-esque, and instead, the conversation is about whether he belongs in the Opening Day rotation.

Newcomb’s inability to control the strike zone has followed him into spring training. In 17 innings pitched, the southpaw has 15 walks, resulting in a gaudy 1.706 WHIP and ten earned runs. Meanwhile, other star prospects are beginning to catch up to Newcomb in terms of progression.

With Mike Foltynewicz out for at least a couple of more weeks, and Kevin Gausman questionable: Newcomb will have the chance to work things out at the major league level. But it is unknown how long his leash will be. The Braves have a surplus of star pitching prospects that are due to become major leaguers this year. Once Folty, Gausman, and Soroka are all healthy, Newcomb is not going to be given the same amount of opportunities if he continues to falter.

Last June, a 2019 rotation without Sean Newcomb was unthinkable, providing he was healthy. Now, it’s becoming a reality with each passing outing. However, spring training doesn’t count, and most of this will be forgotten if Newcomb can start the year of hot.

I’ve been high on Newcomb ever since the Braves acquired him, and believe he can have a breakout year similar to Folty’s 2018. But the longevity of these control issues are becoming impossible to ignore, and down this path, it is only a matter of time before he falls out of favor with the Braves’ brass.

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