with Grant McAuley

  • Grant McAuley

Braves searching for answers in starting rotation

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

It's safe to say that things have not gone according to plan for the Atlanta Braves' starting rotation this season. This turn of events is incredibly on-brand for 2020, a year in which stability has been in short supply by and large.

All of this pitching-related misfortune played out during an unforgiving stretch in which the Braves played 20 games in 20 days to open to season.

Upon watching the latest developments, I quipped on Twitter:

The worst part is, I was only half-joking.

That friend could be Brian Snitker, or Alex Anthopoulos, or perhaps Max Fried, or any of a number of Atlanta relievers attempting to bridge the gap as the club searches for answers.

The Braves are currently without five of the arms they'd hoped could provide innings to the rotation this season. Even if there was some uncertainty entering spring training, Atlanta was banking on quantity providing enough quality to get through the season.

What happened next was a series of unfortunate events.

Veterans Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez have been complete non-factors. General ineffectiveness forced the club to demote both Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. All of that pales in comparison to Mike Soroka's season-ending injury.

It was one setback after another for this group, leaving Fried as the last man standing.

How exactly can the Braves weather the storm and contend this season? It may depend largely on internal options and unproven commodities. But that's exactly what the club has been stockpiling for a number of years, steeping its rebuild in pitching prospects.

We've already seen Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Huascar Ynoa get opportunities. Those results have been mixed, but the club needs all four to make some level of contribution until reinforcements arrive. Where those reinforcements come from is another matter entirely.

What about using an "opener" for a while?

That's a concept that could benefit the Braves, whose relievers have combined for a 3.22 ERA through 86.2 IP. Doing a bullpen game once a week or once every turn through the rotation would be manageable, perhaps even preferable for the time being. The problem comes with the sheer amount of variables currently in the rotation. The shortage of innings from the starters could overtax the bullpen on days Fried is not on the mound. It's also worth pointing out that even Fried is likely to have a bad outing or two; it's just part of the game.

Tyler Matzek has been a great comeback story. It took the lefty five years to return to the majors and he has provided Atlanta with quality relief thus far. He would be an interesting opener candidate. Meanwhile, veteran righty Josh Tomlin established himself as the club's long reliever in 2019 and earned another shot this season. His encore has been even better. Though Tomlin has the most major league starting experience, there's an argument both for and against asking him to change roles again. Obviously, serving as an "opener" wouldn't demand a traditional starter's workload (for either man), but it could alter the bullpen dynamics considerably. Those innings will have to come from somewhere and it's hard to manage when multiple spots in rotation could require extra arms to cover nine innings.

What about down on the farm?

The Braves have top arms Tucker Davidson and Ian Anderson working at the club's alternate training site in Gwinnett. Both men reached Triple-A in 2019 and may represent Atlanta's best chance to upgrade its rotation in the short term. One of the unique issues the 2020 season presents is the lack of true minor league competition. With no regular season, prospects must instead get all their developmental work in through scrimmages and sim games.

That's hardly an ideal scenario, but it's the hand all 30 clubs have been dealt.

Davidson, 24, is already on the 40-man roster. He rose to prominence last year with a breakout campaign. Davidson posted a 2.15 ERA with 9.3 K/9 across 25 starts between Mississippi and Gwinnett. He allowed just five home runs in 129.2 IP as well, though he outperformed his FIP and xFIP by a full run or more at both levels. That said, his entire arsenal took a big leap forward and is worth testing at the major league level.

Anderson, 22, would require the Braves to make a 40-man move, something of a formality if they believe he's earned an opportunity and can handle the challenge. Though he struggled in Gwinnett last season, Anderson has racked 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, but Anderson has all the tools to become a top-flight starting pitcher.

Atlanta also has Patrick Weigel, Jasseel De La Cruz and Kyle Muller at the alternate site. Each has starter's experience, though none entered 2020 as a heavy favorite to take over a spot in the major league rotation. Weigel's career was derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2017, but he showed flashes back in spring training and could join the major league staff in some capacity. De La Cruz and Muller would have benefited the most from development time in the minors. Neither have pitched above Double-A and the results, while encouraging, were mixed at times.

How about making a trade, or two, or three?

Anthopoulos is currently looking for help to bolster the rotation. He said that search was ongoing before Soroka went down for the year. However, making trades may turn out to be be far more challenging than a normal season. It remains to be seen how much salary any club may be willing and able to take on given the game's current economic climate. That includes the uncertain nature of actually completing this season due to COVID-19 concerns and, of course, the drastically diminished revenues. Setting all of that aside for a moment, the expanded playoff field may prevent some fringe contenders from selling off pieces. To make things even more complicated, teams can only trade players and prospects from their 60-man pool during this 60-game season.

Add all of that up and you have 30 general managers in uncharted territory.

There are still a few weeks before the trade deadline arrives, but the Braves need help now. It seems almost unrealistic for Atlanta to contend without making a trade or two. They already needed at least one starter before losing Soroka. With Hamels still on the shelf, Newcomb out of the equation, and Foltynewicz a longshot to return, the Braves are leaning heavily on the young arms to hold the line.

Anthopoulos is creative, but 2020 has been dealing from the bottom of the deck for a while.