The most significant question about the Braves leading up to the postseason was whether their rotation could hold up. Most of the national media already counted them out, and understandably so. In October, pitching wins, particularly starting pitching, and the Braves featured one of the worst rotations in baseball.
Atlanta had the fifth-worst starting rotation among all teams, according to FanGraphs WAR. The four teams behind them — the Tigers, Pirates, Red Sox, and Diamondbacks — are four of the league’s worst teams. The Braves were even worse in terms of rotation ERA, boasting an unsightly 5.51 ERA — the third-worst mark in the majors.
Frankly, it’s unbelievable the Braves were able to win a third consecutive NL East title, but behind perhaps the best offense and bullpen in baseball, they clinched with plenty of time to spare. However, while the rotation has been a humongous wart on an otherwise perfect ball club, the future of the unit is as bright as ever, thanks to a core of young stars.
The most significant problem with Atlanta’s starting pitching this season was injuries. Cole Hamels, who the Braves signed to a one-year, $18 million contract over the offseason, only pitched 3.1 innings all season thanks to multiple arm injuries. However, the biggest blow was when Mike Soroka went down with a stomach-churning Achilles injury. That will keep him out at least a couple of months into next season season, but when he returns, the Braves will have three frontline starters.
Max Fried proved throughout this shortened campaign that he is capable of being a No. 1. Up until the very end, he was in the heat of the NL Cy Young race, finishing with a more than respectable 2.25 ERA. He also boasted a 7-0 record.
While wins have become an overlooked stat in today’s world of advanced analytics, there is something to be said about his competitive nature and understanding of what it takes to win each matchup. Fried’s been the leader the Braves staff had to have, but Atlanta wouldn’t have won five straight playoff games without the emergence of Ian Anderson.
Anderson was Atlanta’s #3 overall prospect coming into the season, but after seeing him at the major league level, they might have been selling him a bit short. The 22-year-old righty has been electric since his debut in late August in which he threw a one-hitter against the Yankees, and he’s only improved with each outing since. In his two starts in the playoffs, Anderson has tossed 11.2 scoreless innings while striking out 17. His sample size in the majors is small, but he may prove to be the best of the bunch.
Those two would have been enough to guide the Braves past the Reds and Marlins. However, Atlanta’s received a pleasant surprise over the last month of the season in the form of another right-handed rookie.
After a couple of failed stints in the majors, Kyle Wright seems to have finally figured things out. The Braves re-called the former 5th overall pick out Vandy for a September 8th start against the Marlins. Things didn’t exactly click right away, but in his final three starts of the season, Wright went 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA while going at least six innings in each outing. Then he capped things off with a nearly flawless six shutout innings in Game 3 of the NLDS against Miami to send the Braves to the NLCS for the first time since 2001.
There remains reason to temper expectations with Wright. However, he has top of the rotation stuff, and things are certainly trending upwards. Also, the Braves don’t need him to be a 1,2, or even 3 once Soroka returns. There’s a chance he’s the fourth starter in the rotation this time next season, and he has the potential of a 1 or 2 if his last four starts are a sign of things to come.
The positive news regarding the future of Atlanta’s rotation doesn’t stop there, either. They still have a boatload of highly touted pitching prospects with sky-high potential. As we’ve seen throughout this rebuild, not all of them will pan out, but there’s a great chance one of them turns into a more than capable MLB starter over the next couple of seasons.
The Braves should have the money this offseason to make a splash for a starter, but I’m not even sure signing a guy like Trevor Bauer is even necessary (unless he’s serious about taking a one-year deal). They should still bring in a veteran, especially considering Soroka won’t be ready for the start of the season, but it should be more along the lines of a one-year stopgap — kind of like what Hamels was supposed to be this season — because pretty soon the Braves might have more starting arms than they know what to do with.
Of course, that’s an ideal problem to have. As we’ve seen this season, you absolutely cannot have enough starting pitching. The fact that the Braves have been able to survive all the rotation problems they have had really is a testament to just how deep their starting pitching was heading into this season, and it should only be even deeper moving forward.