Every point Alex Anthopoulos made in recent conversation would, had I been a member of Parliament, have been met with a lusty “Hear! Hear!” – every point save one. I agreed with the general manager’s stated intent not to pay big for a rental (meaning Manny Machado, since traded to the Dodgers). I share the belief that the Atlanta Braves could get by with three or four solid relievers in October, assuming they make it. But that bit about improving this rotation from within …
There I’m not so sure.
The question: Realistically, do the Braves have enough starters to get them through October?
Anthopoulos: “We do. Because (Luiz) Gohara is going to start (at Gwinnett) … and he’s a candidate to be our fifth starter coming out of the break. (Max) Fried could arguably pitch, but it was one of those things where we just wanted (his blister) to heal and him to get back on track. Kolby Allard is deserving of an opportunity. He has continued to perform at a high level in Gwinnett.”
Then: “Between Fried coming back and Gohara – we expect to get him going – and with Allard being available right now, we’re hopeful. (With Mike) Soroka as he starts to build back up and Brandon McCarthy, although his knee’s still barking, we think we’ll have enough depth. What I can’t speak to is what the quality is going to be. We’ve pitched at a high level. That’s a big part of our wins. It’s allowed our offense to go cold at times, our bullpen to not be as strong. Our rotation and our starters’ ERA is really key for us to continue to maintain this pace.”
The Braves have slipped over the past month. They’re now fourth (as opposed to first, which they were for a long time) among National League clubs in runs. Their bullpen ERA is 11th-best, which is why Anthopoulos is certain to add a reliever before the July 31 deadline. (Though Brad Hand of San Diego is gone to Cleveland, and the New York Mets just traded Jeurys Familia to Oakland.) But the reason the Braves are positioned to make the playoffs – they lead Arizona by a game for the second wild card – is their rotation, which has the league’s third-best ERA.
The issue here: That rotation is showing signs of wear. Fried is expected to come off the disabled list soon; he threw 4-2/3 no-hit innings in a rehab start for Gwinnett last week. Gohara yielded four earned runs in 4-1/3 innings in Triple-A on Thursday. McCarthy, who’s 35, hasn’t been healthy enough to work 100 innings in any big-league season since 2013. Allard, who’s 20, is awaiting his MLB debut. There’s a chance Soroka, also 20, could return from the 60-day disabled list in September; there’s also a chance the Braves will err on the side of caution and shutter him until 2019. (Not going to lie: Soroka’s loss is huge.)
That leaves Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb and Anibal Sanchez. Foltynewicz just made the All-Star team. Newcomb didn’t miss by much. Teheran is a two-time All-Star. Sanchez, signed as a free agent in March five days after being cut by Minnesota, has been Anthopoulos’ best acquisition in his eight months on the job, and that’s not meant as faint praise.
Foltynewicz, 26, has never worked more than 154 MLB innings; he’s at 107-1/3 with two-plus months to go. Newcomb, 25, logged 157-2/3 innings in both majors and minors last year; he’s at 105. Four of Teheran’s past seven starts have been good-to-excellent; the other three were lousy. And, for as good as Sanchez has been, he’s on his third organization in less than a year.
In the same conversation, Anthopoulos said: “We’re not trying to pitch through September; we’re trying to pitch through October. We’re planning for that extra month in everything that we do.”
Can the Braves rely on any combination of Fried/Gohara/Allard/Soroka – the oldest of whom is 24 – into September? (The rotation shrinks in the playoffs, but you have to get there first.) Can Foltynewicz and Newcomb and Sanchez keep doing as they’ve done? Even Anthopoulos broached the issue, saying: “You just wonder how fair it is to expect the sustainability of elite performances.”
You do. You also wonder whence help might come, and at what cost. J.A. Happ of Toronto just made the All-Star team, though his numbers aren’t all that great, and will be a free agent come November. So will Nathan Eovaldi of Tampa Bay, who has a big arm but has rarely managed big results. Cole Hamels of Texas has pitched into October seven times, but he’s 34 and having his worst big-league year and would command $6 million if released after the season – and $20 million if not.
Michael Fulmer of Detroit would have been a possibility, but he landed on the disabled list over the weekend with a strained oblique. Such is often the case at the deadline: Everybody needs starting pitchers, but few of the really good ones are available. (We reference last July, which the Braves shipped Jaime Garcia to the Twins, who six days later sent him to the Yankees. He now works for the Blue Jays.)
For the Braves, there’s a greater tangle: Does the organization that has rebuilt itself around young pitching sacrifice any of those arms, all under club control well into the 2020s, for a rental who mightn’t be much better than what’s already in this rotation? If we parse Anthopoulos’ words, the answer would seem to be no. Which, in the grand scheme, would make sense.
As for the Braves having enough starting pitching to get through not just September but October … well, color me dubious. As much as Zach Britton might help in the eighth or ninth inning, he won’t mean much if his team trails 4-1 after five. This rotation is why these Braves are where they are. I’m just not sure that, with injuries and youth and the weight of innings, it can go the distance.