You could say MLB free agency is still in its infancy stages, but the Braves, who have been the most active team by far, have already filled in most of their holes. They added a catcher, strengthened their bullpen, and, most recently, brought in a lefty starting pitcher with loads of playoff experience. Atlanta still needs to find a third baseman – Josh Donaldson remains on the market – but that could be the last thing left on their to-do list this offseason.
Adding another top-of-the-line starting pitcher would be ideal, but that seems like a luxury the Braves won’t be able to afford any longer. Zack Wheeler recently signed a five-year deal with the Phillies worth close to $120 million. And while an arm like Madison Bumgarner, who Atlanta has had rumored interest in, is still a free agent, I don’t see the Braves mustering up the 100+ million in cash to make that deal. So if Anthopoulos is looking for an ace, his best option is to navigate the trade market, which is never easy – just look at what he said this past season about attempting to trade for starting pitcher. The asking prices are astronomical.
Still, I wouldn’t say trading for an ace is out of the realm of possibility, but it would make plenty of sense for the Braves to stand pat in this area and enter 2020 with what they currently have on the roster as well. Let’s take a look:
- Mike Soroka
- Max Fried
- Mike Foltynewicz
- Cole Hamels
The first four spots are all somewhat interchangeable, except for Mike Soroka. There’s been a lot of talk about the Braves acquiring a true “ace” when the reality is they already have one in the form of a Canadian 22-year-old. Brian Snitker and this coaching staff held him back – due to pitching restrictions – and he still gave Atlanta close to 175 innings pitched with a 2.68 ERA. For the entire season, opponents managed to post a laughable .628 OPS thanks to a .236 average and .340 slugging percentage against him. He may not be what you think about when talking about modern-day #1’s, but he’s a pure pitcher, and all of his peripherals suggest this is only the beginning.
Soroka rarely gives up hard contact and his patented sinker/changeup combination leads to a groundball rate of over 50%. He led the league in preventing home runs, allowing just 0.7 of them per nine innings, and he keeps his walks down, surrendering just 2.1 BB/9. As a rookie, rightfully, there were questions about whether Soroka could handle the pressure of the postseason, and he proved those are the kind of situations he thrives in the most, tossing seven innings of one-run ball against the Cardinals. There shouldn’t be any pitch limitations on him this year, and he’s more than ready to assume the role of the leader of this rotation. Expect to see him in the Cy Young conversation once again in 2020.
As of now, spots 2-4 are interchangeable. All of them come with questions, but also have the type of upside that could justify putting them at the top of a rotation.
Max Fried is the guy I’m looking at to take the next step this upcoming season. He racked up 17 wins and a 2.9 bWAR in 2019 to go along with his 4.02 ERA, but his 3.72 FIP suggests he did suffer some poor luck at times. This is a guy who has all the makings of being a horse behind Mike Soroka in the rotation. He’s a bulldog on the mound and has an elite two-pitch combination (fastball, curveball). He’s messed around with a slider and changeup as well, but they are not on the same level quite yet. That’s where I think having a veteran left like Cole Hamels could help him out.
Fried’s the type of player that loves to take notes and is dying to improve. With Hamels around and a full year of experience under his belt, I don’t see why he can’t become an elite starter in the majors, and I’m fully expecting him to be a top of the rotation type arm next season.
Speaking of Hamels, even though he’s up there in age (36 years old), he hasn’t lost much over the years. He was an All-Star as recently as 2016, recording a 3.3 fWAR and 3.32 ERA. And this past season, he posted a 2.5 fWAR and 3.81 ERA in 27 starts. Hamels may not be a 200 inning guy anymore, but come the postseason, he’s one of the arms you want on the mound in must-win games. So not only is he a luxury to have as potentially your #4 pitcher during the regular season, but he’ll be at his best when you need him the most and should give the Braves much more confidence in their rotation during the postseason than they had in 2019.
The X-factor, as he was last season, is Mike Foltynewicz. Folty was a shell of himself for most of 2019, which led to a prolonged stint in Gwinnett. But eventually, he came back looking better than ever and put together one of the best postseason performances in franchise history in Game 2 of the NLDS. If the Braves are getting that guy and the one that showed up throughout 2018, he’s another potential ace they have on their hands. However, if he suffers the same type of issues that he did through the majority of 2019, then Atlanta will have another gaping hole to fill, with few options to turn to.
Still, 90% of teams would be thrilled to have Foltynewicz as their third or possibly even fourth starter, but the fifth spot is the lone question mark. The Braves could continue to pursue a high-priced free agent on the market, but it seems less likely after the Cole Hamels signing and what Zack Wheeler received from the Phillies. That’s just too much money and commitment for Liberty Media’s taste, and the Braves still have a glaring hole to fill at third base.
The rest of Atlanta’s money in free agency, if there is any remaining, should focus on bringing back Josh Donaldson. The starting rotation is already loaded with upside and has the potential to improve a lot more just based on progression from who they have internally. Sean Newcomb could make an elite fifth arm, especially if he returns back to his early 2018 form. The Braves also have Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Touki Toussaint – one of whom is bound to break out at some point – and don’t forget Ian Anderson, who ended last season in Gwinnett.
The Hamels deal was perfect because it allows the Braves to fill out the remainder of their rotation while still seeing what they have in their younger arms. Perhaps they add another veteran arm to the mix to compete with Newcomb and others, but there’s no reason for them to make a hasty decision because this group could be good enough as it stands now.