2020 Braves Positional Preview Series: Rotation
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Grant McAuley’s 2020 Braves Preview Series breaks down a different position group as the club gets set for the regular season. While MLB continues to monitor the current coronavirus pandemic, this series offers an in-depth look at the men who will make up Atlanta's big league roster as well as candidates to contribute at some point this season.
Mike Soroka | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
When Atlanta broke camp at the end of spring training last year, there were two young right-handers in the big league rotation. Neither of whom were Mike Soroka. Instead, his journey began in Triple-A Gwinnett, on the road back from a shoulder injury that shortened his rookie season. After a brief setback during an offseason workout and just two minor league starts, Soroka found himself back in Atlanta. Over the next 29 outings, he became the club's best starting pitcher. Soroka went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA (3.45 FIP – 3.85 xFIP) and 4.0 fWAR.
Armed with pinpoint control and a full arsenal of pitches, Soroka carved up opponents en route to an All-Star selection and a sixth place finish for the Cy Young Award. His 2.68 ERA ranked third in the National League and fifth best in all of baseball. It was also the lowest by a Braves pitcher since 2009. Fueling that number was an MLB-leading 1.55 ERA on the road, the fourth best mark by a qualified starter in the last 50 years. Soroka wasn't just good in his first full season, he was historically good. Scanning the rest of his numbers, Soroka paced the NL with 0.7 HR/9 IP and led all qualified major league starters with just 14 home runs allowed. That's saying something when the ball was leaving the park at a dizzying pace in 2019.
After a strong regular season, Soroka fired seven innings of one-run ball in Game 3 of the NLDS, his postseason debut. With a cerebral approach and strong work ethic, Soroka seems poised to only get better in the coming years. If his strikeout rate rises from the 7.3 K/9 he averaged last season, Soroka may find himself in the running for the Cy Young Award on an annual basis. Soroka is also in line to be the Braves' starter on Opening Day, a job held by Julio Teheran for a franchise record six consecutive seasons.
Max Fried | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
Just like Mike Soroka, it took Max Fried a short while to find a spot in the Atlanta rotation. Once there, he became one of the big reasons for team's success in 2019. Fried began his campaign in the bullpen before getting bumped into the starting five when both Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson were demoted in the early going. Fried responded with a terrific run of success just when the Braves needed him most. Though there would be some peaks and valleys over the course of the year, he finished with a team-leading 17-6 record and 173 strikeouts. Fried owned a 4.02 ERA (3.72 FIP – 3.32 xFIP) in 165.2 IP across 33 appearances (30 starts).
Despite his good work, he did not have a spot in Atlanta's postseason rotation. He showed flashes of dominance out of the bullpen in the NLDS, but appeared to tire after making four appearances in the five game series. That aside, Fried's future should be in rotation for Atlanta. His 17 victories were just one shy of Stephen Strasburg's NL lead and the most on the Braves staff since Tim Hudson's 17 wins in 2010. They were also the most by an Atlanta left-hander since Tom Glavine won 18 games in 2002. Fried possesses one of the best curveballs in the league, helping him rack up strikeouts at a rate of 9.4 K/9 IP (13th highest in the NL). That rate placed him just behind Clayton Kershaw (9.54) and right ahead of Noah Syndergaard (9.2) in that category.
It might surprise some to learn that Fried (53.6%) actually owned a slightly higher ground ball rate than his rotation mate Soroka (51.2%). Fried also averaged a staff-high 3.7 K/BB while issuing only 2.6 BB/9 IP, both among the Top 20 in the NL. Add it all up and you have a breakout season from a lefty who should be ready to pick up where he left off in the rotation.
Cole Hamels | Age: 36 | Contract Status: 1-year, $18 million
After losing a pair of veterans, the Braves signed left-hander Cole Hamels to a one-year pact. It gives the club an experienced starter to help stabilize a young rotation. Though the longtime Phillies ace is no longer in the prime years of his career, Hamels still misses enough bats to be effective. He enters his 15th major league season and is coming off a fairly effective stint with the Cubs. Hamels posted a 7-7 record with a 3.81 ERA (4.09 FIP – 4.38 xFIP), good for a 2.5 fWAR across 27 starts last year.
An oblique strain derailed his season, costing him the entire month of July. Upon returning, Hamels simply was not the same pitcher down the stretch. After posting a 2.98 ERA over 17 starts through the end of June, he owned a 5.79 ERA in the 10 outings following his four-week stint on the injured list. Hamels believes he came back too soon from the injury, leading to a largely ineffective second half. He lasted six innings in just two of his final 10 starts. The oblique injury may well have contributed to the shoulder fatigue that hampered him in September.
Those ailments aside, the Braves believe Hamels has enough left in the tank to contribute in a big way to starting rotation in 2020. The lefty has a good assortment of pitches and a changeup that is still among the best in the game. He'll slot into the Atlanta rotation in place of Dallas Keuchel, who signed a multi-year deal with the White Sox this winter. Hamels has October experience and is excited about the opportunity to help mentor Atlanta's stable of young arms. The Hamels signing is similar to Keuchel's in one other way; it's a short-term deal that allows the Braves to keep the door open for another of the heralded young arms in the system to earn a spot in rotation in the near future. Hamels was unable to report to spring training on time after tweaking his shoulder during offseason exercise. The club expects him to be sidelined for the month of April, but Hamels may be able to get himself ready to start the regular season with the current shutdown delaying Opening Day.
Mike Foltynewicz | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year, $6.425 million
Last season was a roller coaster for Mike Foltynewicz. Coming off an All-Star campaign in 2018, he was projected to be Atlanta's opening day starter. That plan hit an immediate snag when Foltynewicz experienced elbow discomfort in his first exhibition outing. Shut down for the spring, he made four rehab starts for Gwinnett and returned from the minors in late April. It was a rough ride over the 11 outings that followed. Foltynewicz went 2-5 with a 6.37 ERA and allowed 16 homers in 59.1 innings. It left Atlanta with no choice but to send him back to Triple-A in hopes that he could figure things out.
The bone spur in his pitching elbow may have taken a physical and mental toll on the hard-throwing righty over the first few months. Even when the soreness abated, it affected Foltynewicz's ability to simply trust his elbow and get back to pitching. Fastball velocity was down a tick on the radar gun and his slider was not biting. After a month in the minors, Foltynewicz returned to be one of Atlanta's best starters down the stretch. He closed the season by going 6-1 with a 2.65 ERA over his final 10 starts.
Though his overall numbers included an 8-6 record to go along with a 4.54 ERA (4.97 FIP – 4.73 xFIP), it was definitely a tale of two halves. That night and day difference was somewhat of an unfortunate theme for the righty. It continued in the NLDS when Foltynewicz limited the Cardinals to three hits in a masterful seven inning performance in Game 2, only to record just one out on 23 pitches as the Braves were blown out in Game 5. The 10-run first inning was a perfect storm for St. Louis, one that washed Atlanta right out of the postseason. It left Foltynewicz understandably "embarrassed" in his own words. While it may take a little time to move past that disappointment, a healthy, motivated and effective Foltynewicz would go a long way toward getting the Braves a shot at October redemption.
Sean Newcomb | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration
While I covered Sean Newcomb in the bullpen preview, it's worth revisiting his case as a starting pitcher here. Newcomb lost his spot in rotation after an ineffective April and a demotion to Triple-A. That came as a surprise to some, considering how short the stays were for Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. Not to bury the lede, but there was quite a bit of turnover on the pitching staff as a whole. Regardless, the Braves will have to determine what role the big lefty is best suited for this season.
Newcomb went 12-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 2018 and was one out away from a no-hitter against the Dodgers at one point. Atlanta won his first three starts of 2019, but Newcomb owned a 4.38 ERA after allowing 15 hits and eight walks in just 12.1 innings. Only one of those starts resulted in more that four frames. Atlanta sent Newcomb to Gwinnett for three weeks, but he returned to post a 3.04 ERA (4.26 FIP – 3.99 xFIP) across 51 relief appearances. Outside of a two week stretch at the end of July and early August (11 runs, four homers in eight outings), Newcomb enjoyed overall success out of the bullpen. He held opponents to a .215 AVG across 53.1 IP in relief, though he was sometimes homer-prone (eight HR in 223 PA out of the pen).
Given the new faces in the bullpen, it’s easy to see why they Braves were open to stretching Newcomb out to compete for the fifth spot in rotation. However, with lefties at a premium and two already in the starting rotation (Cole Hamels and Max Fried), we could see Newcomb slotted into the bullpen when the club breaks camp. That move would add yet another layer of quality depth to a group that should be one of the club’s biggest strengths in 2020. For his part, Newcomb performed well in three spring training starts, posting a 2.00 ERA with just two walks against 11 strikeouts in his nine innings of work.
Felix Hernandez | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1 million
It's not often that a soon-to-be 34-year-old non-roster invitee gets a significant writeup. There are few, if any, who boast the resume of Felix Hernandez. He signed a minor league deal with Atlanta just hoping to get his career back on track. A former Cy Young Award winner who is one of the best pitchers of his generation, "King Felix" was dethroned by American League hitters over the past three years. He went just 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA (6.00 FIP – 5.17 xFIP) in 15 starts in 2019, the final season of the 7-year, $175 million contract extension he inked with the Mariners back in 2013.
Unfortunately, 2019 also marked his third consecutive subpar campaign. To make matters worse, it was also marred by a strained lat which cost him half the year. With his velocity trending down, Hernandez's signature changeup, an elite pitch, has also regressed. His fastball dropped from the mid-90s to the high-80s as the decade wore on, but his changeup was still a force to be reckoned with. However, this version of Hernandez is going to have to make significant changes if he wants to prolong his career and continue pitching in the major leagues. That proved to be quite challenging in his final years in Seattle. Hernandez struggled with fastball command, which undermined some of the changes he instituted in 2019. He threw his curveball about three times more often while cutting his changeup usage in half compared to his prime years. This was a very different King Felix, but it was not enough to crack the code and find success.
If he can command his fastball, then the effectiveness of Hernandez's other offerings should be elevated. Hitters would still have to respect the changeup while preparing for the curveball. The Braves have enjoyed successful reclamation projects in recent years. Anibal Sanchez emerged from a three-year slide to find success in Atlanta. For the first time since he was a teenage phenom, Hernandez will come to camp motivated to earn a spot in rotation. There will be no shortage of competition in camp. Hernandez showed up ready to pitch this spring, getting the ball in the Grapefruit League opener and turning in a 1.98 ERA across four starts (13.2 innings). If he can make the squad and get his career back on track, Hernandez could find himself pitching in the postsesaon for the first time.
Down on the farm:
The Braves have been stockpiling arms for years. Some have graduated into the rotation while others are still climbing through the ranks or attempting to get to the big leagues to stay. Atlanta has four top arms who could factor into the club's plans at some point in 2020. That could mean winning the fifth starter's job outright in spring training or stepping in for an injured or struggling pitcher at some point. Right-hander Ian Anderson is at or near the top of the Braves' prospect list and a consensus Top 100 prospect in the game. Anderson, 21, was the club's first pick in the 2016 draft and arrived at Triple-A during the second half of 2019. Though he struggled in Gwinnett, Anderson has been racking up strikeouts (10.7 K/9 IP career) while limiting both hits (7.0 H/9 IP) and home runs (0.4 HR/9 IP) on his way up the ladder. He'll have to get his walks (4.0 BB/9 IP) under control before taking the next step, but Anderson has all the tools to become a top flight starting pitcher.
Both Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson made the opening day squad in 2019, but neither man was able to hold onto a roster spot. Walks were surprisingly an issue in the handful of big league starts for both men, but they were able to put together strong seasons in Triple-A. Wright sparkled in the spring (2.03 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13,1 IP) while Wilson was optioned to Gwinnett in the first wave of cuts. Meanwhile, lefty Tucker Davidson emerged as one of the top arms in the Atlanta system. He's a dark horse candidate for the fifth starter's spot but came to camp with more buzz than any young arm outside of Anderson. Also on the 40-man roster are Touki Toussaint, Phil Pfeifer, Huascar Ynoa, Patrick Weigel and Jasseel De La Cruz. Those men are knocking on the door along with big left-hander Kyle Muller, who is also expected to be part of a very deep and talented Triple-A rotation. Weigel pitched well in relief this spring (2.45 ERA in six appearances) and may move to the bullpen to help alleviate that crowded rotation and blaze a path to Atlanta. Even with that move, the waiting room is getting rather crowded. With all of these men converging on Gwinnett and Atlanta, the time is now for the Braves to figure out who can contribute to the big league club and who may be the trade assets to help land the missing pieces to a World Series winner.