2019 Braves Positional Preview Series: Starting Rotation
Updated: Feb 17, 2019
Grant McAuley’s 2019 Braves Preview Series will break down a different position group. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 15 and their first workout is Feb. 16. Position players report on Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 21. The Braves begin Grapefruit League Play on Feb. 23 against the New York Mets.
Part 5: The Bullpen The Atlanta Braves bring plenty of starters to camp this year, though the pursuit of a bonafide ace did not bring in any outside assistance. The rotation is anchored by Mike Foltynewicz, fresh off a breakout season in 2018, and includes big lefty Sean Newcomb as well as veterans Julio Teheran and Kevin Gausman. Saving the competition for the fifth spot, that rotation is certainly capable of giving the club a chance to win on a given night. It also leaves little room for regression and could depend on contributions from, as of yet, largely untested commodities if the Braves hope to repeat in the ever-improving National League East. Atlanta hired pitching coach Rick Kranitz away from the Phillies to help refocus the entire staff with a different voice and perhaps a new message.
It is almost overwhelming to sift through the starting candidates in the Braves minor league system. Many of those arms ascended to the big leagues in 2018 and are hoping to stay there. Still more are working their way through the minors and should be knocking on the door in the months and years ahead. Indeed, Atlanta has assembled an impressive stable of pitching prospects. Now the club must decide how best to use those assets, whether that be in rotation, relief or potential trade to bolster the club in other areas.
Mike Foltynewicz | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 1-year, $5.1 million The rise of Mike Foltynewicz was one of the best stories of 2018 for the Braves. Armed with great velocity, Foltynewicz just needed to refine his arsenal and find consistency every fifth day. He did just that last season. Foltynewicz led the Braves rotation in virtually every category, earning an All-Star selection in the process. His 2.85 ERA was among the top 10 in baseball, as was his 9.93 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings). Foltynewicz was the first Braves pitcher to strikeout 200 batters in a season since 2009 (Javier Vazquez) and the first ever to post a 200 strikeout campaign with an opponents' batting average below .200. In fact, only Max Scherzer (.188) held opponents to a lower batting average against than Foltynewicz's .196 AVG. Those are the results Braves fans had been waiting for since the hard-throwing righty debuted in 2015.
Foltynewicz turned in a 13-10 record in 31 starts, posting career-highs across the board as he finally put everything together. His 3.9 fWAR (FanGraphs' wins above replacement) led the Atlanta staff and was the 17th best in MLB among qualified starting pitchers. Foltynewicz's 96.4 mph average fastball velocity was topped only by Luis Severino of the Yankees and Gerrit Cole of the Astros among qualified starters. It was seventh highest among all pitchers with at least 100 IP. Not only was Foltynewicz using his fastball to better results last season, but his entire arsenal took a step forward. In particular, Foltynewicz's reliance on the slider and command of the pitch yielded better results when paired with his fastball. Command and composure were readily apparent last season as well, things that had been a work in progress over the first three years of his big league career.
Last spring, there was plenty of conversation about the fact that Foltynewicz and the Braves went to arbitration over a $100,000 difference, a case he eventually lost. Peculiar and perhaps avoidable, the two sides had no such trouble hammering out a deal that included a substantial raise for the righty in 2019. That added security in place, Foltynewicz is primed to pick up where he left off a year ago. Though his playoff outings were bumpy, the fact that many of Atlanta's young talents got that experience can only be looked upon as another building block in a surprising season. If Foltynewicz continues to build on his gains from 2018, a repeat performance would give the Braves a steady force at the front of the rotation.
Julio Teheran | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $12 million (2020 team option) There is no bigger enigma on the Atlanta staff than Julio Teheran. It's hard to believe he is just 28 years old despite spending the last half a dozen seasons atop the rotation. After five consecutive opening day starts, that figures to change in 2019 with Mike Foltynewicz entering the year as the Braves' top starting pitcher. Teheran had a strange ride in 2018, his second consecutive challenging season following an All-Star selection in 2016. On the plus side, he cut his hit (6.4 H/9) and home run (1.3 HR/9) rates from 2017 while posting a career-best strikeout rate of 8.3 K/9. On the negative, Teheran saw his walk rate skyrocket to a career-worst 4.3 BB/9. That fueled the sometimes erratic results he experienced.
Teheran's 3.94 ERA was an improvement from the prior year, but was posted against a 4.83 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Though Teheran has always outperformed his peripherals, that differential was greater than at any time in his career. How did it become so extreme in 2018? I'm glad you asked. Teheran held opponents to a .217 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). That was by far the best in MLB among qualified starting pitchers, well ahead of American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell (.241 BABIP). With Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb also appearing in the top 20 for BABIP, it's fair to credit Atlanta's improved focus on defensive placement as a factor for the success in that department. Overall, Teheran held opposing hitters to a career-best .196 AVG, trailing only Foltynewicz (.195) and Scherzer (.188) among all qualified starters last season.
With a mixed bag of stats to go off from 2018, Teheran's place in the Braves' plans going forward is obviously up in the air. Going forward, Atlanta will have a decision to make on his team option for 2020 if nothing else. Had Atlanta landed a top starting pitcher over the winter, the club may have sought to move Teheran in trade in order to free up both a spot in rotation and gain some financial relief. Though he has been a useful starter by in large throughout his career, Teheran posted a 0.7 fWAR in last season. For perspective, that ranked 56th of the 57 qualified starters in all of baseball. Only Chicago's Lucas Giolito (-0.2 fWAR) was lower. If Teheran can find a way to limit walks and provide the Braves with some quality innings, he could improve the Braves' chances of competing and his own trade value in the process. As Atlanta seeks to bolster the rotation for the future, Teheran's fate will likely be tied to those efforts. That could manifest in a number of ways. Obviously, a trade is one. However, if he struggles for a prolonged period, Teheran could be pushed by one or more of the Braves' many pitching prospects who are just one phone call away.
Sean Newcomb | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration One of the first elite pitching prospects to ascend to the major leagues during Atlanta's rebuild, lefty Sean Newcomb flashed serious potential during his first full season. Though he still has miles left to travel in order to take that next step, Newcomb gained considerable confidence in 2018. He went 12-9 with a 3.90 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 164 innings over the course of 30 starts. That workload was the highest of his professional career and was lightened at times by the Braves' reliance on call-ups to make spot starts throughout the season. No Braves pitcher benefited from that practice more than Newcomb, who made 22 starts with five or more days of rest and went 9-6 with a 3.30 ERA, .598 opponents' OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and 9.4 K/9 in those outings. That was a stark contrast to the 5.61 ERA, .812 opponents' OPS and just 7.1 K/9 in his eight starts on regular rest (four days).
Managing Newcomb's progression through the season no doubt helped him enjoy the success he found in 2018. Another key factor was increased use of the changeup. That pitch made a major difference for Newcomb, who works in the low to mid 90s with his fastball and has paired that with a plus-curve. Not unlike many prospects seeking to get to the majors and stay there, Newcomb was well aware that he would not be able to be a two-pitch pitcher and find sustained success. The development of the changeup was a big step in the right direction. He threw the pitch 19.1% of the time last year according to FanGraphs, nearly double his changeup usage during his rookie season of 2017. A second offspeed pitch gives Newcomb a chance to utilize his curveball to greater effect, something that helped him rack up strikeouts.
Newcomb was 12th among qualified NL starters with 8.78 K/9 last year, but ranked last in the league and second to last in baseball with 4.45 BB/9. Walks have long been his Achilles heel, dating back to his minor league days. Despite dealing with those extra base runners, a look at his splits shows Newcomb actually posted better numbers as he went deeper into the game. It would seem he simply needed to weather the storm second time through the lineup. Somewhat surprisingly, Newcomb's 16 quality starts (6+ IP with three or fewer earned runs) were second only to Teheran on the staff. The highlight of Newcomb's season and his young career occurred on July 29, 2018. He flirted with a no-hitter against the Dodgers, losing it on a two-out, two-strike single by Chris Taylor in the ninth inning. Prior to that day, Newcomb had never thrown more than seven innings or 111 pitches in a single start. It was a brush with history that was no doubt disappointing, but should also be seen as a glimpse at Newcomb's capabilities. His third year in the big leagues will require more of the same goals. That is a continuing commitment to refining his command and utilizing a complete arsenal. If he does those things, the best may well be yet to come.
Kevin Gausman | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $9.35 million The Braves made handful of moves at the trade deadline in 2018, but none paid off more than the acquisition of Kevin Gausman. Atlanta picked up the righty from Baltimore along with relievers Brad Brach and the injured Darren O'Day in hopes of bolstering the pitching staff down the stretch. Gausman found the National League to his liking. On the year, he posted a 2.3 fWAR thanks to a 10-11 season with a 3.92 ERA (4.32 FIP) across 183.2 IP. His numbers with Atlanta included a 5-3 record with a 2.87 ERA in 10 starts for his new club. It wasn't that he necessarily made dramatic changes after the trade, but he was pitching primarily out of the stretch. That's a simple yet effective change for some pitchers. Gausman also no doubt benefited from a major upgrade in defense playing behind him. Opponents BABIP dropped from .317 with Baltimore to just .260 after joining Atlanta. For comparison's sake, Scherzer's opponents posted a .265 BABIP over the course of a full season. Obviously, sample sizes matter.
Gausman was the fourth overall selection in the 2012 draft out of LSU. He arrived in the majors the following year and spent the next five and a half seasons in Baltimore's rotation. He averaged over 8.0 K/9 each season prior to 2018, when that rate slipped to 7.3 K/9 between the Orioles and Braves. While that number could easily return to its prior level, it is certainly worth noting his average fastball velocity dropped from 95.0 mph in 2017 to 93.6 mph last season. That could partially be accounted for by Gausman throwing more split-fingers than at any time in his career. The evolution and adjustments of a pitcher take many forms and it could just be one of those periods where Gausman is making some changes in hopes of unlocking some untapped potential.
At just 28 years old, the Braves picked up Gausman in the midst of what should be the most productive years of his career. He has the stuff to be an impact arm, even if front of the rotation starter is an unrealistic expectation at this point. Gausman helps stabilize the Atlanta rotation and still has room for some added upside if he continues what he did following the trade last summer. Only a year away from free agency, there could be a little bit of added motivation for Gausman to put together a big season.
Touki Toussaint | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves got a firsthand look at just how dominant Touki Toussaint can be. The young righty cracked the big leagues and dazzled in a handful of starting assignments, even making the playoff roster and getting some October innings. After going 9-6 with a 2.38 ERA and 10.8 K/9 between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett, Toussaint was 2-1 with a 4.03 ERA and 21BB/32K in 29 innings for Atlanta. Toussaint's trek through the minors has been filled with learning experiences and growth as a pitcher. The raw talent he displayed out of high school still needed the proper polish in order to climb through the ranks. Despite some speed bumps along the way, Toussaint has continued to refine his arsenal and his command to pile up strikeouts and draw the attention of talent evaluators. Sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball, Toussaint owns one of the best curveballs in the game. He's also sharpened his secondary stuff in order to become a more complete pitcher. Though he is prone to the occasional rash of walks, those times have become fewer and farther between over the last two years as his minor league walk rate fell from 4.8 BB/9 in 2016 to 3.5 BB/9 last season. While a spot in rotation seems the ideal place to deploy Toussaint long term, he is one of the first arms Atlanta could call upon to make contributions out of the bullpen if needed. Either way, this young righty is major league ready.
Mike Soroka | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Perhaps the sharpest and most cerebral of Atlanta's pitching prospects, Mike Soroka ascended to the big leagues and gave the Braves a little taste of what could be in store once he gets established. Soroka made his major league debut on May 1, 2018 against the Mets and fired six innings of one-run ball to earn the victory. He did that as the youngest pitcher in baseball at 20 years, 270 days old. The story would take some unfortunate turns as he landed on the disabled list and battled shoulder soreness for much of the summer. The good news is that the club believes the issue is muscular and not structural, which allowed Soroka to avoid surgery and work on physical therapy and rehab in order to get back on the mound. He finished his major league work with a 2-1 record and 3.51 ERA (2.85 FIP) in five starts. That followed up on his outstanding minor league career in which he posted a 2.81 ERA with 1.9 BB/9 and 8.0 K/9. Soroka also surrendered just 13 home runs in 361.1 IP. Those numbers are the combined result of talent and work ethic. Soroka owns a three-pitch mix which he sets up with pinpoint fastball command. If healthy, he could be a major contributor in the rotation in 2019.
Luiz Gohara | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
Expected to be a factor in 2018, left-hander Luiz Gohara dealt with personal tragedy and injury as he struggled through the season between the minors and majors. Gohara came to spring training with hopes of cracking the starting rotation, but brought with him the heartache of losing his father over the winter. A spring training leg injury put Gohara behind and pushed back the once accelerated timeline the big lefty had been on throughout 2017. He rocketed through the minors, starting in High-A and ending that season with five major league starts for Atlanta. Gohara's mid-90s stuff was also diminished in 2018, down noticeably at times. That could be due to poor conditioning or simply the result of a number of factors converging on Gohara in span of several difficult months in his life. A full-framed hurler who has drawn comparisons to CC Sabathia, Gohara will have to prove himself once again in order to carve out a place in the Braves' plans in 2019. He has 49 IP under his belt over the past two seasons with Atlanta, posting 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9 to go along with a 5.33 ERA (3.47 FIP). If Gohara is healthy and productive, Atlanta has yet another intriguing option to use in some fashion over the course of a long season.
Kyle Wright | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves' first round selection in 2017, it did not take the Vanderbilt product too long to make it the major leagues. Wright went 6-8 with a 3.70 ERA in Double-A and then 2-1 with a 2.74 ERA once promoted to Triple-A in 2018. The Braves gave him four September relief appearances to get his feet wet in the big leagues. Now, Wright is one of a number of young starters hoping to stick with Atlanta and earn a spot in the starting rotation. Like many of Atlanta's top pitching prospects, Wright limits home runs (0.5 HR/9 in 155 minor league innings) and base runners (1.20 WHIP) while picking up his fair share of strikeouts (8.8 K/9). He has a four-pitch mix that includes two breaking balls, a curve and slider. Wright's fastball sits in the low-90s but can creep up to 95 mph when needed. He knows how to pitch and comes from excellent collegiate stock. More advanced in many ways that some of his minor league counterparts on this list, Wright will turn 24 years old after the season and will thus need to find a way to secure a spot in the rotational plans sooner than later to avoid being squeezed out of the plans thanks to a logjam of talent with still more on the way.
Bryse Wilson | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
A somewhat unexpected 2018 debut belonged to right-hander Bryse Wilson. One of many young arms to vault from the middle-minors to the Atlanta rotation, Wilson received a shot in late August and then returned in September as rosters expanded. He won his major league debut against the Pirates with five innings of shut-out ball and then made a pair of less impressive relief outings. It was hard not to be impressed with the progress Wilson made not one year removed from Low-A Rome. A fourth round selection in 2016, he pitched at three levels in the minors last year and combined to go 8-5 with a 3.44 ERA, 2.6 BB/9 and 10.2 K/9 in 125.2 IP. A career-high 143 strikeouts fueled that K-rate which rose at every stop in the system. While Wilson got some big league time, he'll likely be ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett to get some more seasoning and be on the ready when Atlanta decides to dip down into the minors for a starter to help lengthen the rotation.
Kolby Allard | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves' first round selection in 2015, Kolby Allard was on the same track as Mike Soroka. The duo made all the same stops over the past two seasons and found success along the way. Allard does not possess high velocity, but is a strike-thrower who is not afraid to challenge hitters. At the big league level, it will likely take a little more time to adjust in order to win those battles. Allard made his major league debut on July 31, 2018 in a winning effort against the Marlins. The Atlanta offense picked him up in an 11-6 victory on that night and Allard would make just two more appearances, both in relief. He found the sledding a bit tougher than some of his prospect counterparts. Allard posted a 12.38 ERA after surrendering 19 hits and three homers in just eight innings of work. Triple-A was a different story, however. There Allard held a sterling 2.72 ERA in 20 starts. After rocketing through the system to debut at 20 years old, a return trip to Gwinnett will likely provide Allard the chance to throw some valuable innings as he prepares to reach Atlanta to stay in the not too distant future.
Max Fried | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration
The Braves gave Max Fried a few more opportunities to take a turn in rotation in 2018. The left-hander responded by flashing his strikeout ability while occasionally still suffering from the growing pains expected of most young pitchers. Fried has a curveball that rivals both Newcomb and Toussaint in terms of its quality. It's a plus pitch and could play up big in limited stints out of the bullpen. While Fried could very well fight for a spot in rotation this spring, his best chance at sticking in the majors this year may be as Atlanta's long man. He turned in a 2.94 ERA (3.67 FIP) with 44 strikeouts in 33.2 IP. Prone to walk a few batters, which seemed to be a recurrent theme for Braves relief pitchers a year ago, Fried could also be categorized as effectively wild at times. With virtually nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, Atlanta has a decision to make with Fried and how the club plans to utilize his considerable talents.
Down on the farm: Atlanta has a stable of pitching prospects that has yet to crack the 40-man roster. Righty Ian Anderson, 20, may be the best of the bunch. Atlanta's top pick in 2016, Anderson has grown into the organization's top pitching prospect as deemed by several outlets, at least of the arms yet to make their major league debut. Anderson turned in a 2.49 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and limited opponents to a .199 AVG in 119.1 IP between High-A and Double-A in 2018. He has allowed a grand total of three home runs in 242 career innings with opponents batting just .216 against him. The tools are there, including a three-pitch mix that gets better each year. He may work his way into the plans at some point in 2020... The Braves also invited fellow 2016 top picks Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller to big league camp this spring. That duo figures to be part of a Mississippi rotation that includes Anderson to open 2019.