LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – So much talk of premier pitching prospects on the farm can numb the mind of Braves fans who’d like to see some of them starting nightly rather than the parade of cast-offs, fringe prospects and fading veterans who toiled for so many games for Atlanta the past couple of seasons.
This is the year when it should happen, ye recently suffering fans.
The Braves aren’t quite ready to return to the ranks of elite starting rotations, but a trio of left-handers who debuted last season – Luiz Gohara, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried – and some other power-armed prospects who’ve already pitched in the majors or are expected to soon, should assure a page has been turned.
The Braves are past the point in their ongoing rebuild where they must rely on multiple journeyman and over-the-hill veterans to fill out the rotation, and by 2019 they might not need any of those types in the regular rotation.
By then, a majority of their starts will go to young pitchers and prospects who were stockpiled over the past three years via trades and draft picks.
Case in point: A year ago, Mike Foltynewicz was the youngest in a Braves opening-day rotation that included the two oldest starters in the majors, 40-somethings Bartolo Colon, who was released in July, and R.A. Dickey, whose option was declined after the season when it was clear that he was leaning towards retiring.
This year, 26-year-old Foltynewicz is the second-oldest incumbent in the Braves rotation after Julio Teheran, who turned 27 two weeks ago and is expected to become the first Braves pitcher in the Atlanta era to start five consecutive opening days.
Brandon McCarthy, 34, was the only veteran added this winter who’s expected to be in the rotation -- if he can stay healthy.
New Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos knew McCarthy from the Dodgers and got him in a complicated, creative five-player trade in December that allowed the Braves to shed the final two years of outfielder Matt Kemp’s contract.
McCarthy was 6-4 with a 3.98 ERA in 19 games (16 starts) last season, missing half the season for a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder, knee tendinitis and a recurring finger blister, but returning late with his 94-mph fastball intact and a new slider to go with it. The 6-foot-7 right-hander was on the Dodgers’ World Series roster.
A 12-year veteran, McCarthy has worked just 155 2/3 total innings over the past three seasons after pitching a career-high 200 innings with the Yankees and Diamondbacks in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and missed most of 2016 recovering.
The Braves also got three-time former All-Star pitcher Scott Kazmir from the Dodgers in the Kemp deal, but Kazmir missed all of 2016 with injuries, and the Braves aren’t counting on him. If he makes it back, it seems more likely Kazmir might help in the bullpen rather than clog a rotation spot with so many youngsters competing for jobs.
Teheran, Foltynewicz and McCarthy -- assuming he’s healthy -- are penciled in for three spots, and Gohara impressed so much in September that it would be surprising if he didn’t get one of the remaining two spots.
The big Brazilian is only 21 and has but five major league games (all starts) on his resume, but Gohara has overpowering stuff. He made quite an impression on manager Brian Snitker and other Braves officials after climbing from high Single-A to the majors last season and then aggressively challenging big-league hitters.
His 1-3 record and 4.91 ERA weren’t much, but Gohara had 31 strikeouts with eight walks in 29 1/3 innings. After giving up six runs and four walks in four innings of his debut against Texas, he bounced back to limit Washington to one earned run, six hits and no walks in six innings of his second start at Nationals Park. He also had nine strikeouts, two walks and one run allowed in seven innings Sept. 24 vs. the Phillies.
The biggest concern about Gohara is his body – he needs to work to keep his weight under control. If he does, his future looks extremely bright.
Newcomb, 24, was the first of the higher-rated Braves pitching prospects from the rebuild to make it to the big leagues, called up in June. The former Angels first-round draft pick showed flashes of dominance and was good enough to remain in the rotation the rest of the season, making 19 starts and going 4-9 with a 4.32 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 100 innings. But those walks – 57 of them. Unsightly. Must fix.
The walks must be reduced if Newcomb is to realize his potential. Few lefties have as hard a fastball or as imposing a mound presence as big “Newk,” but he walked a ton of hitters in the the minor leagues and issued at least three walks in 10 of his 19 starts as a rookie -- including six starts with four or more walks in six or fewer innings.
If Newcomb struggles too much with command, the Braves could go with Fried out of spring training or at some point in the season. Fried opened eyes with a strong performance to win his first major league start against the Cubs on a September Sunday at Wrigley Field, and he led the Arizona Fall League in strikeouts (32 in 26 innings) while going 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts in the desert.
Anthopoulos has mentioned the possibility of using young starters in the bullpen, since there won’t be room in the rotation for all. Anthopoulos believes that giving them innings in the big-league bullpen can be a good way to break in young starters. He saw it work multiple times when he was Toronto’s GM.
In addition to the three lefties who debuted last season, the Braves also return right-hander Lucas Sims, who debuted last season and had a 5.62 ERA in 14 games (10 starts) for Atlanta. A homegrown Brave from Lawrenceville, Sims was a first-round draft pick out of Brookwood High School in 2012, and was passed on the Braves’ prospect ladder by many of those added in recent years during the rebuild.
Among the ascendant young prospects are a pair of 20-year-olds, Mike Soroka and lefty Kolby Allard, who spent last season at Double-A Mississippi and could possibly get to the major leagues at some point late in the 2018 season if needed, though a more reasonable expectation is 2019.
Newcomer Chase Whitley could be a factor in the bullpen or possibly the rotation, especially if the Braves have injuries. An offseason waiver claim from the Rays, Whitley had a 4.08 ERA in 41 relief appearances for Tampa Bay in 2017. He made 12 starts for the Yankees in 2014 and had a 2.21 ERA in nine minor league starts with the Rays in 2016.
Former starting prospects Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, who struggled in major league opportunities with the Braves the past couple of seasons, will be back in camp but are longshots to make the opening-day roster.