Braves by Position, Episode 1: Starting Pitchers

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It’s a cold one today in central Arkansas.

I’m a Marietta native turned Arkansas, going on about seven years now in the Natural State. Already being from another southern state, I thought I was well prepared for the cold winters of a state known to locals as the “buckle of the Bible Belt.”

The cold is one thing in itself. Do you want to know what they didn’t warn me about when I moved up here in 2013? It’s not just cold; it’s a humid cold.

My normal routine stayed true this morning as I head out the door to my favorite writing spot, only to be greeted by a sensation that felt like nothing short of walking through a frozen lake. My thermometer reads 38, with an ungodly “feels like” of 22.

Basically, it’s cold; just about as cold as the “stove” right now.

Looming Decisions

The baseball world is waiting, rather impatiently, for the anticipated announcement of Josh Donaldson’s decision. Braves fans, from the heart of Atlanta to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas alike, are more than likely the least patient of the impatient fans.

Imagine it’s Christmas Eve, and you’ve waited for so long to open all of your presents. The sun finally rises, and you head downstairs with joy and excitement overflowing. But, once you open the first box, you see a note saying, “Santa is still waiting on a final decision for presents; last word expected to come soon.”

That lack of presents with an annoyingly vague note is where Braves fans are sitting, and have been sitting since the signing of Cole Hamels back on December 4th. Since then, we’ve been seeing a lot of this type of stuff:

Now, I mean zero disrespect or animosity towards anyone with MLB Network; they are all outstanding at what they do and do it better than anyone out there. But I’m not the only one who remains tired of the “what may happen” rumors and just wants to see something, you know, happen.

Alas, that’s the nature of free agency. There isn’t much more we can say about it.

So, let’s talk about the current roster.

Over the next little bit, I will be highlighting each position on the roster. While the stove and myself, remain cold, there’s no better time than now to stop wishing for the future and focus on the present.

What better way to start this off than with the position that brings Braves fans the most joy and the most grief at the same time: the infamous starting rotation.

The Little Big 3: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz

What more is left to say about these young studs?

Since breaking into the big leagues towards the tail end of the decade, Soroka and Fried have established themselves as forces to be reckoned with and, if they keep doing what they do best, perennial Cy Young candidates for years to come.

Their potential and proven talent, combined with Folty’s high heat and (hopefully) improved arm, show a glimmer of another trio of Braves finesse arms, hence the name “Little Big 3”. Will we see another set of arms so dominant that they carry a team through a decade of playoff wins and World Series appearances? Well, it’s too early to tell, but one can at least dream a little bit.

Two Mikes and a Max are good. Great, even. They’re not quite at the “Big 3” level just yet, though.

Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz pitched with pride, confidence, and talent unmatched since. The Big 3 shut down virtually every batter they faced, carried a Braves dynasty of below-average bats to 5 World Series appearances, and established Atlanta’s rotation as, quite possibly, the best pitching rotation the game of baseball has ever seen.

Personally, I kind of wish I was my current age of 25 during those dominant years in the 90’s. But, that’s another topic for another day.

Anyway, Two Mikes and Max show promise of domination and a possible dynasty. But I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that they’re not there yet.

Soroka

I don’t need to tell you how good this kid is. If you watched baseball in 2019, you very well saw it for yourself.

But, just in case, take a look.

A 13-4 record with a 1.11 WHIP and 2.68 ERA was plenty enough to land him runner-up in the ROY voting and 6th in the Cy Young voting.

That’s right; 22-year old Mike Soroka finished 6th in the Cy Young voting in his first full season in the majors.

While Atlanta still needs some help in the rotation and, again, we’re more than a few leaps away from seeing another “Big 3”, Soroka leading the charge means the Braves have a good enough chance to go far and beyond what is expected of them for the next decade.

Fried

Young gun #2 came into 2019 as a temporary fix for a rotation that management didn’t know what to do with.

He quickly cemented his spot in the rotation and moved up to a top-3 arm with his proven track record and a filthy arsenal of pitches, like this one right here.

https://twitter.com/FOXSportsSouth/status/1169772057716056069

The movement on that curve is beyond exceptional. Anyone who can do that to a baseball deserves to be in the same conversation as the Big Three.

After all, one particular member had some movement on his pitches too.

Straight filth.

Anyways, the numbers like ERA (4.02) and WHIP (1.34) aren’t the best, certainly not the numbers of a perennial Cy Young candidate. But, no one gets to 17 wins by accident. He may not be in his fully dominant stride yet, but the kid can pitch, and he can do it exceptionally well. The potential 1-2 of Soroka-Fried, while still young and very much coming into their own, should start scaring batters a bit.

Foltynewicz

Now, I’m aware that writing this and comparing Foltynewicz to one of the ‘Big 3″ earlier in the year would’ve been a tad crazy. Even now, it may be a bit crazy. I mean, all of you saw just how badly he fell apart following his late-season debut.

Vast improvements were made, and his 2018 domination came back towards early June.

But, sadly, it only takes one bad moment to overshadow an entire second half of improvement.

You hate to see it, but it doesn’t reflect who he is as a pitcher at all.

When I see Folty, I see a proven pitcher with an electric fastball and exceptional command in the zone, off-speed stuff that can break a batter’s ankles and confidence that not many people see because of their fixation on the downfall.

I see this.

Now, I know his start was rocky, and his final finish was even rockier. But, you can’t overlook how dominant he was mid-season. As I said earlier on, I think the 7-1 record with a 2.35 ERA from June 16th on speaks for itself, don’t you?

Anyways, as long as Folty stays healthy and keeps a hold on his confidence, he could be the final piece in what I like to call “The Little Big 3”.

Support Staff: Cole Hamels and Sean Newcomb

This is where things get kind of foggy.

The number 4 spot is all but cemented by proven veteran and former rival Cole Hamels. The Braves signed Hamels to a one year, $18M deal on December 4th, adding the veteran piece to the rotation that they were looking for.

As far as veteran players go, Hamels is among the best of the best.

Hamels

While he doesn’t have the same fire in his arm that he did in the early 2000s, he still brings a dangerous arsenal of pitches and enough experience to take on every batter with aplomb and confidence that a lot of the younger arms just can’t bring.

He may be a little long in the tooth, but he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve for sure.

We saw Hamels’ production drop over the last few years, especially towards the tail end of his tenure in Texas. It wasn’t until he went back to the National League that we saw a glimmer of the old Hamels.

After being traded to the Cubs during the 2018 season, Hamels went 4-3 with 74 K’s and a 2.36 ERA – his lowest career ERA with a single team.

While age and injury plagued a bit of his production in 2019, he still showed a lot of that trademark Hamels, giving up only five runs in June and establishing himself as an old-timer with a remaining amount of danger.

The change of scenery and opportunity to serve as a mentor to a young staff could help fuel his confidence even more, leading to a potential late breakout season in 2020.

Newcomb

Sean remains the black sheep pitcher for the Braves.

Newk came into the bigs with a vengeance, seemingly with something serious to prove.

He was called up when the Braves desperately needed a rotation spot filled and delivered more than was expected. His sophomore season saw a 12-9 record with 160 strikeouts and the performance of a lifetime, coming one out away from no-hitting the Dodgers.

His consistency and power are enough to cement him into the rotation. So: why is he a dark horse?

Well, if you didn’t know already, Newcomb has turned into one of the strongest bullpen options the Braves have.

While he was initially hesitant to make the jump to the ‘pen, he seems to be comfortable in his late-inning role.

It also goes without saying that it’s working VERY well.

Newk posted a 6-3 record with a career-low 3.16 ERA out of the bullpen in 2019, with more than a few strong postseason performances. He’s proven himself to be an outstanding late-inning asset for the Braves.

But, that leaves more questions than answers for the 5th spot in the rotation.

The offseason is still far from over; there’s plenty more that can be done to improve the team that isn’t named Josh Donaldson. If the Braves don’t add to the rotation before spring training begins, a platoon of Wright/Touki/Wilson taking on the number 5 spot could work very well. Anthopoulos could also make a move for a solid SP come July, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

We’re just a shade under two months away from Spring Training, and several things remain for the Braves to address. While we wait patiently, our next stop on our “Braves by Position” tour is the very position that gave Braves fans the most anxiety in the 2019 season – the bullpen. Stay tuned in to SportsTalkATL for all your Braves news, rumors, and analysis as the offseason winds down.

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