In the year of our Lord 2018, the Atlanta Braves are just out of first place in the NL East. Despite an offseason that pointed mostly to 2019 as the most likely year for the Braves to contend, the guys who actually play the games didn’t get the memo. Offensively, Freddie Freeman has been his typical MVP self. Ozzie Albies is on something like a 50 HR pace. Nick Markakis thinks it’s 2010 and Ronald Acuna Jr has held his own as 20 years old at baseball’s highest level. The bullpen, while starting a little shaky, has rounded into form of late – last night notwithstanding. With surprise seasons from Dan Winkler and Shane Carle and strong seasons from A.J. Minter and Arodys Vizcaino, you can start to see the makings of a playoff relief core.
But what we’re talking about today is the starting rotation. Atlanta’s starters are 10th in all of baseball in ERA and 13th in FIP according to Fangraphs and have done with a combination of experience and young talent. The rotation has been lead by the growth of Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz but has also seen contributions from Mike Soroka, Brandon McCarthy, Julio Teheran, Anibal Sanchez, Luiz Gohara and Matt Wisler. And with young players like Kolby Allard, Max Fried, and Kyle Wright not far away, the Braves have some options for both this year and years to come.
And those options are what we’re talking about today. Who should be in the rotation now? Who shouldn’t be in it? Should they consider a 6-man rotation or potentially trading away some guys to fill other holes? We’re going to go over all of it.
If you’re unfamiliar with how our WalkOff Talks go, we pick a general topic, like the rotation, and let all the members of our blog give their thoughts on the different aspects of that topic. It used to be Tommy Poe, Ryan Cothran and myself, but since our last WOT, we’ve added a new member. Brittni Swanson has joined the blog so for this one, we’ll have four different opinions throughout this piece. Hope you guys enjoy.
So with all that out of the way, let’s jump in.
With things in-flux a bit, what do you think is the current rotation? Who do you think should be in it?
Ryan: In my mind, the current rotation is Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Brandon McCarthy, and Luiz Gohara. Yes, Gohara is on bereavement leave and he might miss 1 start while gone but he’s likely inserted directly back in after returning. If we’re to believe FIP and/or xFIP as indicators of future production, then 4/5 of our rotation will regress (Teheran, Folty, Newk, Gohara) while only 1 will improve (McCarthy). For me, I can likely agree with most of that assessment with the exception being Teheran whose ERA has given FIP and xFIP the middle finger every year. Even with some regression, Newk and Folty will be better than their 2017 versions and will round out a good rotation. If Braves stay internal, I think there’s got to be room made for Soroka in some fashion when he’s ready to return from the DL. Of the 5 above, I’d first shop McCarthy but would be willing to listen on offers for Teheran in a “need for a need” trade.
Tommy: To piggy-back on what Ryan said, I don’t feel much can be done with the rotation without a move or, and hopefully this doesn’t happen, an injury opens a spot. When Mike Soroka returns and – with any luck – that will be soon, he obviously slots into a spot in the rotation Ryan discussed. Likely, that would be for Gohara. I really like Gohara and remain convinced he can be a big player as a starter, but I am just not convinced that time is now. It’s charitable to call his changeup a work-in-progress. It’s just not a good pitch – yet. I see no reason Gohara can’t get there, but if Soroka was healthy, Gohara’s headed to the pen or Gwinnett to start.
There are other options, sure. I’m not as big of a believer in Kolby Allard as others. I know his ERA is microscopic, but the BABIP and LOB% are prime for regression. As hard as it might be to believe this, I truly believe Matt Wisler has earned next-guy-in status. Max Fried may get there, though. All of these guys are still behind Gohara, though.
But as I look at the options, I see no reason to go in a different direction than Ryan brought up. If Soroka is healthy, slot him in over Gohara. All of this is why I am a firm believer in the Braves making a move with the rotation.
Brittni: In my opinion, I think the rotation is Teheran, Folty, McCarthy, Newk, and Soroka. Gohara is good but quite frankly I don’t think he is good enough for a starting position; I like him better as a reliever. Plus, if he continues in the starting rotation, I don’t think he will be there for long. He would likely be sent back down to Gwinnett and a more consistent starter brought up or just stick to a four-man rotation. The Braves have plenty of good pitching in the minors, so if someone is struggling in the majors, job security is not a guaranteed thing as it has been in years past. I agree with Ryan in that McCarthy should be traded away. His last few starts have been ok, but not extraordinary. Of the guys who have started for the Braves this year, Newk is by far the best and I consider him to be the Braves ace right now.
Stephen: The two wild cards, in my opinion, are Julio Teheran and Brandon McCarthy. I say this because Atlanta’s money problems have been well documented in 2018 and moving either one of these guys could free up some much-needed cash. It’s also not clear that either one of these guys is among Atlanta’s 3 best starters. Newcomb and Foltynewicz have shown the most growth this year, and while I can make a case McCarthy is next, I can also make a case that Soroka is next in line. And while I’m with Tommy a little bit on Allard being due for some regression, I’m not sure he or Gohara or Fried couldn’t do better, or at least as good as Teheran the rest of the season. But as we stand here today, I agree with the blog. When Soroka comes back, Gohara goes to the pen and the rotation becomes Newcomb, Folty, McCarthy Teheran, Soroka.
Should the Braves explore a 6-man rotation?
Tommy: I used to think of the 6-man rotation was a ridiculous fad or buy into the old “if you have two quarterbacks, it’s because you don’t have one” thinking. But I will say that I’m coming around on this one. However, here’s my problem: to make this work, you need to get innings out of your rotation. A lot of them. And while people complain relentlessly about the Atlanta starters not going deep enough, they are right at the league average in innings per start and pitches per start. Do we really expect even more out of them?
And honestly, what are the Braves going to a six-man rotation for? Allard? Gohara? Anibal Sanchez? Matt Wisler? The rotation is decent, but not so good that making the move really makes a lot of sense in my opinion. Yes, you give your younger starters more rest and potentially limit their innings. But at what cost? Do you make the team less effective to use a sixth starter rather than go with your best five? Give me five really good starters and then ask me if the Braves should add a sixth.
Brittni: I see the benefit of having a six-man rotation: more rest before each start, more opportunities for the pitchers in the minors and lessening the likelihood of injury. I really like the idea of more rest for the pitchers and I am sure they do too but at the same time, it also limits the number of starts each pitcher has, which means each start is worth a lot more. To be honest I think the only reason that a team should ever go to a six-man rotation is if they have five phenomenal arms that are all consistently producing successful outings and if they have one more guy waiting in the wings in the minors. Otherwise what would really be the need?
The Braves started the season with a 4-man rotation and that seemed to work out just fine for a while, would having a six-man rotation be any different from a four or a five one for the Braves? I don’t think so and I think this goes back to what Tommy said about the starting pitching being decent. As long as you have decent pitching, I don’t really see the need other than the obvious health benefits for the pitchers. If the Braves decided to go to a six-man rotation just for the heck of it or to just give more guys opportunities, I think you bring up Kolby Allard or stick with Anibal Sanchez now that he’s off the DL.
Ryan: I’m no baseball traditionalist (in the roster sense) so I could be down for a lot of things. I mean, I could be down for a 4-man bench if 3/4 of that bench wasn’t the backup catcher and 2 guys that can’t hit. Sorry, had to get that shot in there. So yes, I could get down with a 6-man rotation, 4 of which being Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, and Sean Newcomb. However, I don’t even want to see Anibal Sanchez in a 5-man rotation, so my answer would be no for him. But if this 6-man idea is purely for limiting innings and rest, there’s a way to do this and keep Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler out of the bullpen (we’ll use numbers for this exercise, not people):
- 1st time through the rotation, starters 1,2,3,4,5 pitch & 6 is in the bullpen.
- 2nd time, 1 is removed sent to the bullpen, 6 is inserted: 6,2,3,4,5.
- 3rd time, 2 is removed sent to the bullpen, 1 is inserted back in, 6,1,3,4,5.
- pattern continues…
The pitcher inserted back into the rotation’s spot could be shuffled based on off days or last appearance out of the bullpen (and this also helps with Tommy’s problem: If a SP craps the bed, the SP removed from the rotation could throw 3+ innings on that day). Speaking of off days, that’s something else to consider when discussing a 6-man rotation as there are more off days this year which means some guys would be getting not 1 but 2 extra days of rest should a straight 6-man rotation be put in place and I’m not sure how that would affect the veterans as they’re likely used to routine at this time. Lots to consider…but if it’s considered, I like the idea above.
Stephen: 6-man rotations in baseball have basically gone extent and there’s one main reason for that. A 6-man rotation takes starts away from your best SP and gives them to your 6th best SP. The easy example here is if your best starter is Max Scherzer and your 6th best starter is AJ Cole then, of course, you don’t want a system in place that takes away starts from Scherzer to give to a lesser pitcher. You want your ace out there more, not less.
But for Atlanta, they are uniquely set up to try it. For one, they don’t have an ace. They don’t have a Max Scherzer or Corey Kluber they have to worry about stealing starts from. Their best starter is Sean Newcomb. Newcomb is very good, young pitching prospect but he’s not one you feel you have to hurry out their every 5 days. In fact, Atlanta has set up a system this year where they want him getting extra rest. They’ve taken every chance they’ve gotten this year to give him more than the standard 4 days rest and he’s thrived. A 6-man rotation would help this.
The other reason they might be set up to try it is eventually, this rotation is going to feature some combination of Newcomb, Soroka, Gohara, Fried, and Allard. That’s a lot of young arms in one rotation and limiting workloads will be the name of the game. The Braves, like the Dodgers last year, have used the DL to accomplish this to some degree as Soroka is recovering from an “injury.” A 6-man rotation just helps keep everyone fresh while limiting the number of innings for all their young arms. You do lose a guy out of the bullpen as the others have stated and it would put more pressure on the guys to go deeper in games. But it’s an interesting way to get more rest for your young pitchers while also giving more of them a chance at a major league rotation.
Do they need to add a front-line starter or wait and see what all these kids can do?
Stephen: I’ll start this one. The short answer here is it depends. The biggest variable is the team’s performance. If they’re still in first place come trade season, then I think you absolutely explore adding an elite starter. Post-season baseball is so much about big-time starting pitching and if you’re making a serious run at October, you have to explore it. Maybe Chris Archer is available and pitching a bit better. Maybe Seattle falls on hard times and listens on James Paxton. Unlikely, but you have to explore it. If you fall on hard times yourself, then you can probably afford to just see what your guys can do.
The other big variable is are there any signs any of your own prospects are becoming that ace? This one is tough because of the current timeline. I think, in time, a couple of these guys can be elite starters. But can you count on that in a division race this year? I don’t know but I lean towards no. I think you want to be very careful how many 20 or 21-year-old rookies you want to be counting on in September, and if you’re lucky, October. If you’re in a position to win the division and there are options out there, use some of that prospect currency to go chase a pennant.
Tommy: I would definitely like to add a frontline starter to the mix. The Braves starting staff has done remarkably well despite the issues with the bottom of the staff and its youth. How long can that be expected? For the Braves to become bigger contenders, they need more success from their starting rotation. Right now, they simply aren’t getting it.
You can’t settle in baseball. You can’t assume that things will continue to go well and you’ll compete forever. Look at the Mets, who thought they had the next great pitching staff. You just never know what will happen and when you are this close to being a playoff team, you make the run. No, I’m not saying you trade Mike Soroka, but if you can get a guy like Paxton in a deal headlined by Kolby Allard, you really need to consider it. This team could use an ace-caliber starter to slot in front of Sean Newcomb. It would go a long way to improving their chances to make some real noise this October.
Brittni: At the beginning of this season, I was on board with having a big name, veteran pitcher come in, and even still it would be nice to have a guy like that, but after seeing what the starting lineup has done, despite so many setbacks, I think they could go far. I totally agree that if the Brave end up going to the playoffs that they need someone with a little more experience to back up Newk. The last thing the Braves want is for their guys to choke, but honestly, I am really interested to see where these guys go. Are they perfect? No, by no means, but something is working no matter how dysfunctional it may be. There is no perfect rotation, but I wanna have faith in these young pitchers that are emerging. Bring up Allard and between Soroka, Allard, and Newcomb I think there is real potential for one of those to be the guy the Braves rely on. Newcomb already sort of assumes that role, so maybe he could go the distance. I wouldn’t mind someone great coming in to help, but I have faith in the farm, even if they don’t make it to the playoff this year.
Ryan: The short answer for me is that it all depends on who it comes at the expense of and the price. In my opinion, the Braves really cannot trade from their depth of “real” prospects at this time but have many that likely don’t have spots on the team and I’d no doubt be willing to do a quantity for quality trade to acquire a front-line starter. Also, it’s my opinion that the next great starting rotation is headed by Soroka, Gohara, Newk, Folty, etc., and not by Teheran. If Braves could flip Teheran for some prospects and use those prospects plus a few already in the system to grab an anchor, sign me up yesterday. Guys like Wisler, Blair, Sims, Ruiz, and Dustin Peterson likely have no long-term home for the Braves, but putting some of them in a trade with 1 elite prospect would, in my opinion, be a great use of resources.