The addition of Brandon McCarthy coupled with the development of young pitchers who debuted last season and more on the way has given the Braves and their fans reason to believe, or at least hope, for significant improvement from their starting rotation.
It can’t come soon enough.
To say the rotation has been shaky during the recent rebuilding seasons would be like saying Bartolo Colon didn’t quite live up to expectations last season. A massive (in more ways than one) understatement.
Braves starters tied with the Phillies for 21st in the majors in ERA (4.80) in 2017 and had the second-most walks (391) while ranking 15th in strikeouts (757). They were one of three MLB teams with no complete games.
That was actually an improvement over 2016, when Braves starters bottomed out at 29th in the majors in ERA (4.87) and had a 40-64 record and one complete game. In 2015, Braves starters ranked 20th in ERA (4.27) and went 45-66.
So it’s been a while since anyone was impressed by a Braves rotation.
And while it still appears a far cry from being one of the top units in baseball, this year’s rotation could at least move back into the top half of the National League if McCarthy remains healthy. As things currently stand, I think the Braves will open with Julio Teheran -- his fifth consecutive Opening Day start, not because he’s necessarily earned it but no one has done enough to take it away -- followed by Mike Foltynewicz, McCarthy, lefty Sean Newcomb and either veteran lefty Scott Kazmir or rookie lefty Max Fried.
Luiz Gohara would’ve been in the third or four spot but strained his groin early in camp and hasn’t pitched in a game yet. He felt good when he threw his first live batting-practice session Monday and will likely have two more before pitching in a game, manager Brian Snitker said.
Gohara probably still has enough time to build up and be ready before the Braves need a fifth starter April 11 in the 12th game of the regular season; they can go that long with four starters because of two off days in the first eight days.
If Gohara isn’t ready by April 11, the Braves would most likely have Teheran, Folty, McCarthy, Newcomb and either Kazmir or Fried in the rotation. If Gohara is ready, he would probably take the place of Kazmir as the Braves have indicated all along that the youngsters would compete for spots in the rotation behind Teheran, Folty and McCarthy.
The only reason Kazmir has entered the equation is he’s been healthy in camp after missing all of last season with the Dodgers due to hip, back and arm injuries. He came to camp as a wild card, not someone the Braves were counting on. They could always trade him if he stays healthy and they’re willing to pick up part of $16 million they owe him.
It’s understandable if you, dear reader, want to take a wait-and-see approach or if skeptics choose to point out that prospects are prospects and until they actually prove it in the big leagues. They are, indeed, and there is no certainty it’ll come together for many or any of them on any sort of convenient timetable. Newcomb made 19 starts last season, about twice as many as Gohara and Fried combined, but Newcomb is far from a finished product and the walks are still a big concern. The others are relatively untested.
Gohara has to stay healthy and being overweight probably isn’t going to help, but his arm is dynamic and he was awfully impressive for most of the last four of his five starts in September. And Fried is a sharp kid with a good fastball and a hammer of a curveball. The future is bright for him and for Gohara, for sure – each has less risk than Newcomb, who must improve his command to have major success.
Skepticism aside, we’ve seen reasons since last summer to believe things could be changing sooner rather than later, that it won’t be too much longer before Atlanta regains some of the shine from its once-sterling pitching pedigree.
“A few of them made some strides in the offseason, from what they look like the first couple of bullpens and first couple of outings,” Braves catcher Tyler Flowers said of the team’s young starters. “The talent’s definitely in the room.”
He said this Monday morning, a couple of hours before McCarthy made his second start. The first had been quite impressive, the 6-foot-7 right-hander tossing three scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Mets.
If McCarthy, 34, can stay healthy – something he couldn’t do any of the past three seasons with the Dodgers – then the Braves would have not just a reliable and proven pitcher to join Teheran in the top half of a young rotation, but also a pitcher who can be a bell cow of sorts, setting the tone with both his performance, work habits and wisdom, which McCarthy is eager to share with youngsters but says he can’t do that effectively unless he’s active.
In other words, you can’t come to a new team and be a leader from the training table. And so far, both he and Kazmir, the other starter the Braves got from the Dodgers in the financially motivated Matt Kemp-salary-dump trade in December, have been healthy in camp and can be seen daily talking to young pitchers in the clubhouse, on the field during batting practice, in the dugout.
McCarthy will be in the opening-day rotation as long as he’s healthy, but for now I still think Kazmir is a long shot unless Gohara is slow to heal and a kid such as Fried or Newcomb has a bad spring. Kazmir is topping out in the high 80-mph range, maybe touching 90 occasionally, with his fastball and might have difficulty doing a whole lot with that in his repertoire during the regular season, should he remain healthy long enough to try.
But he’s definitely good depth to have for now.
And having top prospects including the extremely impressive Mike Soroka, lefty Kolby Allard and last year’s first-rounder from Vanderbilt, Kyle Wright, on the way -- possibly by late season if needed that soon -- puts the Braves in a much better place than they’ve been with starters for the past three seasons.
“It’s an old/young kind of mix, experienced/inexperienced -- in a good way,” Flowers said, adding that McCarthy was “potentially a really good influence for some of the younger guys, and probably a little different train of thought than what they’re used to as well, which is good. More information is typically a good thing. You don’t want to flood it, but that said, if you use it the right way it can be extremely valuable.”
Having a strong rotation again – and one with prospects that should keep it strong for a long time – would be such a welcome development for a franchise that had the best or very near the best rotation in the majors throughout the Braves’ unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles in the 1990s and early part of this century.
As recently as 2014 they had the majors’ fifth-lowest ERA and a 58-60 starters’ record with five complete games – not the glory years, but pretty solid, especially compared to what’s transpired during the rebuilding years since.
The 2015 season was the first in a difficult rebuilding project that has seen the Braves lose 90 or more games for three consecutive seasons and the starting rotation struggle. And not just a bit. Struggle like the team’s fans probably never thought they’d see again, not after the Big Three future Hall of Famers and plenty of others established Atlanta as the epicenter of starting pitching back in the day.
We’re not going to say they’re ready to reclaim their status as the premier pitching team in the majors or even the NL East, but the Braves could at least take a big step this season toward having a rotation that is a foundation again for winning, instead of a hodgepodge of journeyman, has-beens and never-weres the way it’s been for the most part over the past three seasons.