The Braves made a sneaky move earlier today, signing a longtime veteran and former Cy Young award winner, Felix Hernandez, to a minor-league contract. He will be brought in to compete for the 5th starter’s spot, but it won’t be an easy job to nail down. Atlanta has a boatload of young arms to choose from, and they’d probably prefer to pick one of them rather than ride King Felix, who was last an All-Star in 2015. Let’s take a look at the guys who could occupy the fifth and final rotation spot on Opening Day.
The Braves said earlier this offseason they plan to “stretch out” Newcomb during spring training and see if he can return to the rotation. It wasn’t long ago he was looked at a lot like Max Fried is currently, but after some terrible inconsistencies with his control, he found himself in the bullpen last season. However, Newcomb made the best of his situation, becoming a lights out set-up man for most of the year. His improved control in relief was extraordinarily promising, and the Braves believe if he can do that as a starter, he could turn into a top of the rotation type pitcher.
I’d say Newcomb is the favorite heading into spring training. It makes sense for the front office to want him to become a starter. He’s still young, under team control for multiple years, and posesses a ton of upside. Not to mention, the team traded away Andrelton Simmons for him, so they probably would like him to be more than just a relief arm. With that being said, having Newcomb in the pen does sure up the Braves’ need for another lefty reliever, and it remains a viable backup plan if Newk is shaky during spring training.
Clint recently mentioned Kyle Wright among his prospects that need a bounce-back campaign in 2020. He’s dead on with his assessment, and I think Wright is going to respond with his best year as a professional. He looked ready last year coming out of spring training and ended up winning the third spot in the rotation to begin the season, but a lot of that also had to due with numerous injuries to Atlanta’s typical staff. After one bad start, Wright was sent back to AAA, where his struggles would continue.
The former first-round pick out of Vandy ended up appearing in seven games for the major league squad (four starts), posting a gaudy 8.36 ERA over 19.2 innings pitched. He also wasn’t stellar with Gwinnett, recording a 4.17 ERA in 112.1 innings, but he ended the season on a high note. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Wright shined throughout spring training and won the battle for the fifth starter’s spot; he’s second on my list of most likely candidates.
Everything I just said about Kyle Wright, I can copy and paste and say about Bryse Wilson. Wilson had slightly better numbers at both the AAA and major league levels, but it was the same story. He earned a spot in the Opening Day rotation, struggled, and then found himself back in AAA. Wilson posted an 8.10 ERA in 20 innings for the Braves and 3.42 ERA in 120 innings for the Stripers. So you might ask, why would I give Wright the edge over Wilson heading into spring training?
While Wilson has a fantastic fastball, his secondary pitches leave a lot to be desired at this point in his career. He’s never going to be successful at the major league level until he improves those supplementary offerings. Meanwhile, Wright has a legit four-pitch mix that is much more ready for The Show.
Fourth on my list is the veteran the Braves just signed. This was a no-risk move for Atlanta, and it brings someone into camp that can push the younger guys. The last time Hernandez had an ERA below 5.50 was 2017 (4.36), and he had a 6.40 ERA last year in 15 starts. Perhaps he feels healthy and benefits from a change of scenery. It can’t hurt that he will have the opportunity to join a team that should be competing for the playoffs. In his highly regarded fifteen-year career, King Felix has never been to the postseason. Perhaps that type of motivation brings out the best in him. If he has a noteworthy spring training, it might be in the Braves’ best interest to roll with him and stick Newcomb back in the bullpen.
Toussaint is last on this list for a reason; I think he’s a longshot to earn the fifth spot in the rotation right off the bat. After some solid showings in 2018 (4.03 ERA in 29 innings), many believed he might be the guy to step up in his first full season with the Braves. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition. Toussaint only made one start all season, along with 23 relief appearances, finishing with a 5.62 ERA.
That’s not even the worst part either; Toussaint was even more dreadful with the Stripers, posting a 7.49 ERA in ten starts. I’m not going to give up on the 23-year-old. He still has a ton of upside, but it would take him looking like a Cy Young candidate during spring training for him to be in the rotation on Opening Day, barring an unexpected injury.