- By David O'Brien The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
We, and by we I mean me, get questions via Twitter, Facebook, email or the mailman if I happen to be at the box when he pulls up. (We had a conversation once, wherein he figured out what I do for a living.) So, let’s answer some of those questions now.
Q. Do you think the Braves and general manager Alex Anthopoulos are serious about potentially using Max Fried or other top pitching prospects in the bullpen?
A. This was something that Anthopoulos mentioned to a few of us at the Winter Meetings, and yes, I believe he’s given it a lot of thought and probably will do it, at least to some extent. For an idea of how it could work, consider how successful the Dodgers were last season while shuffling pitchers in and out of the rotation and bullpen. Anthopoulos watched it all season as a member of the Dodgers’ forward-leaning front office, which made thinking outside the box a standard practice in many areas -- including how games are run.
Superstar Clayton Kershaw led the Dodgers with 27 starts – he would’ve made his usual 33 or more if hadn’t spend time on the disabled list – but the team had no other starter make more than 25 starts. Kershaw was the only Dodgers starter to pitch at least 150 innings.
Granted, some of that was because of nagging injuries to others, including former Braves lefty Alex Wood, who made the All-Star team with a career-best first half and had a late-season DL stint because of shoulder inflammation. (He returned, made the postseason roster and had an impressive World Series Game 4 start.) But the Dodgers had a pattern of going to a loaded bullpen early in games, removing starters more quickly than conventionally done, and for dipping into the minor-league ranks to bring up fresh arms for both the bullpen and to make occasional starts.
The Braves don’t have the payroll to fill a pitching staff with as many accomplished arms as the Dodgers, but the Braves have built a stockpile of high-level starting-pitching prospects – more than any other organization in baseball -- and some of them are ready or close to being ready and could be used in either relief or starting roles, wherever needed. If Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, veteran Brandon McCarthy (from the Dodgers) and Luiz Gohara have four of the Braves’ starting-rotation spots, which it appears is the plan, then it leaves just one spot for the likes of young lefty starters Fried and Sean Newcomb and right-hander Lucas Sims, as well as holdovers such as Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler, assuming they are kept around.
Fried had no experience in the bullpen before making his major league debut in that role late last season, and he quickly adapted and showed he could fill a valuable role as a versatile reliever for a while if needed or until a rotation spot opens. Same for Newcomb, I’d imagine, given his overpowering stuff. They could be effective bullpen weapons for one to three innings at a time.
And though two other top-shelf Braves starting prospects, Mike Soroka and lefty Kolby Allard, are only 20, each had a full season at Double-A and could be called upon at some point late in the season if needed.
But getting back to the question -- I can be a little long-winded, huh? -- yes, I think Anthopoulos is serious about using starting prospects in the bullpen. I could see Fried, Sims or possibly even Newcomb getting bullpen time early, depending who gets the final spot in the rotation. I just have a feeling the Braves are going to go in a Dodgers sort of direction with pitching, not looking to squeeze 200 innings out of anyone, with the possible exception of Teheran -- and maybe not even him, and making quality innings rather than quantity the top priority.
Q. Can you still see the Braves making a big free-agent move for a starting pitcher or power hitter?
A. Yes on the power hitter, but no from all I’m hearing on the starting pitcher at this point. The Braves looked for a top-of-rotation starter with contractual control earlier in the offseason – including perpetual Braves target Chris Archer of the Rays – but those types weren’t available or were way overpriced.
As for the power hitter, it’s not a “must” before spring training, but the Braves are continuing to keep close tabs on the free-agent and trade markets, and I could see them adding a big bat if they could land a veteran on a short deal (two years max) or trade for one with an expiring contract. They really wanted outfielder Christian Yelich and his five years of affordable contractual control, but the Marlins wouldn’t budge in their demand for Braves super prospect Ronald Acuna, and that was a non-starter since the Braves are not trading him, period.
Yelich was an exception, a young standout available – because of a Marlins fire sale – with long-term contractual control. Most others the Braves have looked at are veterans, and third base is the position where a short-term fix such as Todd Frazier would fit if they could get him for a couple of years at a reasonable rate, which seems more possible now in the glacier-slow market than it did when the offseason began. Frazier would give the Braves some needed power, energy and vocal veteran leadership, but not block the eventual anticipated arrival of power-hitting third-base prospect Austin Riley.
If the Braves can’t sign or trade for anyone suitable, then I do believe they are content to go with Johan Camargo at third base to start the season, with utility newcomer Charlie Culberson also available to play some at the position. Camargo is solid and had an outstanding winter-ball season after coming back from his unfortunate freak knee injury.
Rio Ruiz is another third-base option on the current roster, but with Culberson acquired from the Dodgers, I don’t really see the Braves taking at-bats from Camargo by having him and Ruiz split third-base duties. The Braves more than ever want versatility from bench players, and they have that with Culberson and Camargo, but not Ruiz. As for some other names that I’ve seen bandied about, such as 35-year-old free agent Yunel Escobar, well, I don’t really see the Braves settling for an addition like him, a guy that doesn’t clearly make them better than what they have.
Q. What’s your gut feeling on whether Acuna is on the opening-day roster?
A. I think he stays in Triple-A for 2-3 weeks, just because it makes so much sense to do that and have the extra year before free agency. This even though I think the Braves will try to sign him to a long-term deal well before free agency, a la Freddie Freeman. But if they can’t work out such a deal at some point, well, then having that extra year of contractual control would be significant, either to keep him on the team one more year before his walk year or before free agency, or to have that extra year enhance his value as a trade chip down the road. Not that that is what the Braves are thinking about with Acuna because they most certainly are not. Let me repeat: I have never heard anyone with the Braves mention anything of the sort regarding Acuna years from now. They envision this guy as a franchise cornerstone, like Freeman or even like Chipper Jones – a guy to spend a long, long time in the middle of the Braves lineup. Still, you have to be smart about it, right? Things happen.
Yes, it would appease a great many fans to have him on the opening-day roster, like the Braves did with Jason Heyward when he debuted (and homered) as a 20-year-old in the starting lineup on opening day 2010. The Braves won 91 games and lost to the Giants in a division series that year. This team is, realistically, a year from really going all-in or mostly in for a playoff run. The Braves made the Matt Kemp trade, adding about $30 million to this year’s payroll, so that they could remove him from the books for 2019 and have a clean slate of sorts with plenty of money to spend next winter.
So as much as I’m with you, Joe Fan, in wanting to see Acuna in left (or right) field on opening day, honestly it makes more sense not to “waste” a potential full season of this dynamic dude by having him on the roster opening day, not to excite the fans – opening day will sell out any way – and score a few more runs in the first 2-3 weeks than the Braves might without him.
Leaving him in Triple-A for a couple of months to avoid an extra season of arbitration -- now that’s something else entirely. That would look really bad, particularly if he performs at Triple-A like he did last fall. But for 2-3 weeks, to push back free agency by a year? It makes a lot of sense. And who knows, if he struggles a little in the spring, the Braves might decide a couple of weeks at Triple-A to help ease the move to the majors might also do him some good anyway. While he’s a pretty remarkable prospect and has shown no signs of being overwhelmed by anything to date, he did briefly struggle after his promotion to Triple-A last year (before heating up and staying hot the rest of the way).
Keep in mind, he just turned 20 a week before Christmas. He’s probably going to be the youngest player in the majors when he’s called up, just as he was the youngest player last season in Triple-A and the youngest at Double-A when he was at Mississippi last summer. Acuna has a total of 486 plate appearances above A-ball. A couple or few more weeks at Triple-A, if that’s what the Braves decide, certainly isn’t going to set him back.