Coming into the offseason, the Braves had two rotation spots to address with Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran set to hit free agency. They filled one of those a few weeks ago by inking 35-year-old Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million deal. That final slot is still up for grabs, but based on reports, it looks like the Braves will fill it internally.
Most of the marquee starting pitchers are off the table, and Anthopoulos doesn’t appear to be seriously considering an arm like Ryu. The Braves have a multitude of young pitchers such as Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, or Bryse Wilson that can fill that role. So while adding another starting pitcher could still happen, it’s on the back burner of Anthopoulos’ offseason to-do list.
That might concern a lot of Braves Country, and I don’t blame you. For over a year, the fan base has been clamoring for an ace-type arm to pair with their youthful rotation. And instead, Anthopoulos has decided to settle for two aging veteran southpaws with fraudulent top-of-the-rotation potential – no offense to Cole Hamels. Both he and Dallas Keuchel make this rotation better, but they do not do enough to compete with the star-studded starting arms of the Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, and Los Angeles Dodgers – all teams the Braves have to compete with come October. Without closing the gap in this area, Atlanta will always have an exhausting climb to get over the hump, and nobody knows this better than Alex Anthopoulos. The difference is he believes that boost can come internally.
Atlanta already thinks they have their ace, and it’s hard to doubt them after Mike Soroka’s performance last season, including his one start in the postseason. The 22-year-old righty is a bonafide superstar that finished 3rd in ERA, 2nd in ERA+, 1st in home runs per nine innings, and 5th in the NL in WAR. As his pitching restrictions only become looser, the Braves believe they have someone they can throw out against anybody and feel overwhelmingly confident in.
Despite that, it’s going to be nearly impossible for Soroka to better the numbers from his rookie season, so where will that progress come from? Max Fried is the easy answer.
People forget Fried won a team-leading 17 games last year, and that includes him missing several starts due to nagging blisters on his throwing hand. In a healthy year, there’s a chance he would have become the Braves’ latest 20-game winner. But besides wins, which don’t count for much in these days of advanced analytics, Fried has electric stuff paired with a bulldog mentality. The past two seasons, the Braves have used him out of the bullpen in the postseason, where he has thrived. Now that Anthopoulos has completely revamped Atlanta’s relief core, that will no longer be necessary. Fried still has a lot of room to grow and all the talent in the world to do so. By the end of 2020, it’s reasonable to expect him to be a reliable #2 starter.
Don’t forget about Mike Foltynewicz, either. The Braves didn’t even have him for most of last season, but come playoff time, he was arguably the best pitcher on the staff and was tasked to pitch in Game 5 of the NLDS. Maybe he’s not the ideal candidate to pitch two games in one series, but the 2018 All-Star remains a helluva a third option and is liable to shut down the best of lineups on any given night. His struggles this past season should only give him more confidence that he can overcome anything thrown at him in the future.
With those three horses, we are talking about Cole Hamels as the potential #4 on the roster. That’s something even the best of rotations cannot stake a claim to. Hamels may not be the ace he once was, but he’s a step-up from Dallas Keuchel, especially in the postseason, and is good for a 3.50 ERA and 2.5 WAR each year. 98% of teams would kill to have this type of arm occupying the back-end of their rotation.
The final spot will end up being a battle – if no more additions are made – between Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson. All three are young, ultra-talented arms but have yet to show enough consistency in their opportunities as starters in the majors. However, there’s no reason to believe one of these three won’t be ready to step up. They all have nasty stuff and could be around the corner from establishing themselves as shutdown arms. Atlanta also has a top prospect in Ian Anderson, who is currently in AAA Gwinnett. There’s a risk here, but there is also tons of upside, and the Braves understandably believe at least one of them will break out.
Anthopoulos’ only addition may have come in the form of a 35-year-old veteran, but that really means the plan is to trust his youth. The Braves have a bevy of directions this could go because they have so many talented arms. We can clamor that we don’t need all of them and that prospects should be traded for players so we can win-now, but I remember the same things being said about Mike Soroka and Max Fried this time last year, and everything turned out pretty damn good. The Braves starting rotation is easily a top ten unit in the majors already, with the potential to be exponentially better than last year. There’s no reason to pony up $100 million or give up elite prospects when you may have equal or better options in your own backyard.