2017 Braves Preview Series: The Rotation

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

Julio Teheran (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Julio Teheran (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Julio Teheran | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 3-years, $26.3 million

The Braves will rely on Julio Teheran to set the tone for a rotation that is sturdier than it was a year ago, but still very much in transition. Teheran’s name has been the subject of trade speculation for much of the past two seasons, but the Braves hold one of the best value contracts for any young starter in baseball – 6-years, $32.4 million with $12 million option for 2020, his age 29 season. Teheran held up his end of the bargain last season, though a stint on the DL in the second half cost him a handful of starts. The righty posted a 3.11 ERA in 188 innings. Both of those numbers were by far the best on a starting rotation that employed 16 different starting pitchers in 2016. His 7-11 record was a byproduct of receiving just 3.37 runs per game from his offense – tied for worst run support among all qualified pitchers in baseball last season. Quite a few statistical indicators serve as encouraging signs as well. He topped 8.0 K/9 for just the second time in his career and first since his rookie season of 2013. Additionally, he finally enjoyed sustained success away from Turner Field, a park where his ERA was nearly a full run better over the course of his career – 3.02 at home vs. 3.80 away. Last season, he recorded a 2.69 ERA in a dozen road starts and did a much better job of limiting the damage by opposing hitters despite the occasional home run. Overall, Teheran was stingier against opposing hitters. His 7.5 H/9 was a career-low as was his 2.0 BB/9. Those two numbers fueled a career-best 1.05 WHIP. While the home runs do haunt Teheran from time to time, he’s hardly alone in that regard and he kept that total in line with his career rate (1.1 HR/9). Once runners get on base, they’d better keep alert. Teheran has picked off 23 runners in his young career and  serves as an excellent stolen base deterrent.

When it comes to Teheran’s arsenal, there is no doubt that he is a pitcher who relies on command and deception in order to be effective. Gone are the days of a 95 mph fastball that helped him rank among the elite prospects in the game five years ago. He sits in the low-90s now, but can reach back for a little extra when the situation calls for it. Location is a major component in Teheran’s success, because he does not have the velocity to get away with frequent mistakes. That said, he has shown the willingness to adapt and the work ethic to elevate his game. Teheran moved to the first base side of the rubber late in 2015, which has allowed him to have more success against left-handed batters in particular. His delivery helps his stuff play up, while his slider has improved to the point where he can rely on it to keep hitters off his fastball. Being able to throw his breaking ball for a strike gives the pitch an added dimension. To that end, he keeps a nice little overhand curveball in his back pocket to add an extra wrinkle. Teheran’s changeup is an offering that I would expect to see him continue to refine as his career wears on. While it’s perfectly acceptable now, it could benefit from a bit more fade. Keep in mind, his changeup was another calling card of his super-prospect days. While he may never be a true front of the rotation type starter, he has the ability and the drive to be a very good pitcher for years to come.

Bartolo Colon Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images)

Bartolo Colon Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images)

Bartolo Colon | RHP | Age: 43 | Contract Status: 1-year, $12.5 million

The Braves added one of the most dependable starters in baseball by signing Bartolo Colon. Despite his advanced age, Colon has been a valuable member of the Mets rotation in recent years and was a National League All-Star in 2016. He finished 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 191.2 innings, walking just 32 while striking out 128 batters. It’s no secret that quality innings were hard to come by for Atlanta last season. Julio Teheran’s 188 IP led the staff, while Matt Wisler (156.2 IP) was the only other Braves pitcher to eclipse the 150 IP mark in 2016. Colon has averaged 195 innings per season since 2013 – all after turning 40. On top of that, his control has gotten better with age. Colon has led the NL in fewest walks per nine innings in each of the past two seasons, another key to his success. That pinpoint control and a reliance on the fastball – which he threw a major league-leading 89 percent of the time last season – have led to a career renaissance for the big righty. After winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, Colon battled injuries and made just 47 starts from 2006-2009. Considering that he was all but out of baseball seven years ago, it’s amazing to see what he has accomplished since. And he’s done it in what would be considered the twilight of one’s career. Now sitting on 233 career victories, Colon is chasing history as well. He trails only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (243) in wins among pitchers from the Dominican Republic and is only 13 wins away from surpassing Dennis Martinez (245) for most wins all-time by a Latin American pitcher. Breaking those records is a goal that has motivated Colon to keep pitching.

Atlanta had previously pursued Colon in 2014 and was able to lure him away from New York shortly after free-agency began with a $12.5 million deal last November. That was a raise of more than $5 million over his 2016 salary. His ties to the organization actually date back to 1997, when Braves president of baseball operations John Hart, then GM of the Indians, signed Colon as an international free agent. He spent the first five seasons with Cleveland and has gone on to enjoy a 19-year career. Atlanta committed a total of $20.5 million to Colon and fellow veteran R.A. Dickey, with nothing on the books guaranteed past 2017. The free agent market was pretty underwhelming this winter, so the club took special care not to block the path of numerous prospects in the pipeline by signing some mid-level pitcher(s) to a multi-year deal. This short-term arrangement with Colon is beneficial to both parties. He received a nice bump in pay, while the Braves bolstered their rotation with a capable veteran for 2017. Both Colon and Dickey are former Cy Young Award winners, giving the Braves a pair of those on the staff for the first time since 2008, when Tom Glavine reunited with John Smoltz. Unfortunately, those two combined for just 18 starts that season. Atlanta is hoping to get considerably more out of its veteran duo in 2017.

R.A. Dickey (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

R.A. Dickey (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

R.A. Dickey | RHP | Age: 42 | Contract Status: 1-year, $8 million

The Braves made the first free-agent signing of the winter when they agreed to a one-year deal with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on November 10. It was the first of two veteran starters that Atlanta would add in short order. The 42-year-old is itching to get back in rotation after losing his spot with Toronto during the postseason. He will make $7.5 million and the club has an $8 million team option with a $500,000 buyout, bringing his total guarantee to $8 million. With his track record for durability and the fact that knuckleballers have a different expiration date than most pitchers, Atlanta may choose to retain his services beyond 2017. Of course, that will depend on Dickey’s ability to capably eat innings and provide quality starts. Like Colon, Dickey is a former Cy Young Award winner. He went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 230 strikeouts when he earned the honors with the New York Mets in 2012. Dickey has spent the last four seasons with Toronto, where he went 10-15 with a 4.46 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts) for the Blue Jays last season. Few pitchers have the kind of story that Dickey can tell of his 14-year career. Originally a first round pick by the Rangers way back in 1996, the club found that Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow (the ligament that is replaced in Tommy John surgery). It was nothing short of a minor miracle that he’d established himself as a pitcher given that condition. Of course, this was long before he learned the art of the knuckleball. Like many pitchers, injury and inconsistency worked against him during the early portion of his career. He was never able to carve out regular work and spent a decade toiling in the Texas system before transitioning to a full-time knuckleballer in 2006.

It took a few years and quite a few sessions with other knuckleball pitchers (including Hall of Famer and Braves great Phil Niekro) for Dickey to eventually gain control of the most uniquely inconsistent pitch in the game. He enjoyed his first major success at the age of 35 for the Mets and baffled NL hitters during his three-year stint in New York. He was not a dominant force in Toronto, but remained a dependable starter over the past four years. Over the last seven seasons, Dickey has averaged 206 innings. That is something the Braves found themselves in desperate need of in 2016. As discussed at length with Colon, who was signed right after Dickey, Atlanta chose to hedge its bets on dependable veterans with a history of going to the post and covering innings rather than dabble with a longer-term arrangement with younger starters who simply lacked the ceiling to warrant either the years or the money. In doing so, the door is left open for several of the young starters in Atlanta’s system to have an opportunity in 2018. Among those displaced by the signings of Dickey and Colon are Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, both of whom figure to begin the season in Triple-A. Joining those two in Gwinnett will be lefty Sean Newcomb and right-hander Lucas Sims. While others could press the issue with a break-out season, those four men are the most likely to earn starts in the big league rotation this season. If all goes according to plan, however, the Braves would like to see Dickey and Colon cover at least 350-375 innings this season. That means, barring a trade, the opportunities may be much more limited than in recent years. Though the situation with the rotation remains fluid for the immediate future, it appears much more stable in 2017. For Braves fans, this will be the first chance to see an Atlanta starter relying on the knuckleball since Niekro called it a career some 30 years ago.

Jaime Garcia (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)

Jaime Garcia (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)

Jaime Garcia | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $12 million

With two veteran starters on board, many wondered if the Braves would add another arm to the mix. It was a fair question considering the plethora of younger starters already in the stable. The trade rumors were rampant, many linking Atlanta to various front-line starters like Chris Sale, Chris Archer and Sonny Gray. That kind of deal never materialized for one reason or another, but it did not stop John Coppolella from adding another experienced arm to the rotation in Jaime Garcia. A talented pitcher who has not been able to stay healthy over the course of his career, Garcia adds a much needed lefty presence to the rotation.  The Cardinals chose to exercise his option and dealt him to the Braves for a pair of mid-level pitching prospects – righties Chris Ellis and John Gant – and speedy, light-hitting infielder Luke Dykstra. Garcia joins Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey in Atlanta’s revamped rotation, one that has added 916 starts worth of experience to its ranks this winter. These moves were designed to create some much-needed stability in 2017, while leaving the door open for the numerous pitching prospects lining up in the Braves system.

Garcia has battled arm injuries over the course of his eight-year big league career, but has displayed plenty of promise as well. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008, he returned to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, when he went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. He followed that up with a 13-7 season as St. Louis won the World Series in 2011, but shoulder injuries cost him time over each of the next three seasons. He underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2013 and again to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in 2014. After making just 36 starts from 2013-2015, Garcia was 10-13 with a 4.67 ERA in 32 games (30 starts) for the Cardinals last season. He turned in a career-best 7.9 K/9, but also allowed a career-worst 1.4 HR/9. His fastball velocities sat just above his career norm, while some of his secondary pitches seemed to drop a tick in 2016 (per FanGraphs). If both healthy and effective, Garcia could be the left-hander this rotation has been without for much of the last two seasons. In fact, Atlanta did not receive a single start from a lefty in 2016. When it comes down to it, the Braves are operating under the theory that there are no bad one-year deals. If Garcia has a good year, he could not only help the Braves every fifth day, but could also become an attractive trade chip. This franchise is built on the foundation of great young pitching that is being developed in the system, giving Coppolella little reason to expend funds on an underwhelming free-agent on a multi-year deal.

Mike Foltynewicz (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Washington Nationals/Getty Images)

Mike Foltynewicz (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves have spent two years stocking the farm system with young arms in hopes of building a brighter future. While the results have been mixed, hard-throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz has shown flashes of potential in his short time with Atlanta. He was part of the first wave of arms to reach the major leagues and earn a baptism by fire of sorts. While he has battled injury and inconsistency the past two seasons, Foltynewicz showed signs of turning the corner in 2016. His season was interrupted by a DL stint in June for bone spurs in his elbow, so his numbers may not jump off the page or vault him into top starter’s status just yet. Despite that setback, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that Foltynewicz can build off the progress he made in 2016. He finished the year 9-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 35BB/111K in 123.1 IP across 22 starts. He not only led the staff in victories, but also with 8.1 K/9 – a total that would have been top 15 in the National League had he qualified. Foltynewicz cut his ERA by nearly a run and a half from his rookie season and really appeared to get comfortable with his pacing last season. He admitted that when he has gotten in trouble in the past, he tended to want to get the ball back and immediately fire the next pitch. After gaining experience, he’s come to the realization that executing the game plan and locating his pitches will always trump relying on pure velocity to escape jams. This is a big step in the development of a pitcher who has the best stuff in the entire Atlanta system and one of the best arms in the game. While the team may discuss the competition they hope to see among young starters for the final spot in the rotation this spring, there’s no question that Foltynewicz is far and away the favorite in this derby. Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are among those who appear bound for Triple-A in order to find some answers that eluded them in 2016.

Just how live is that right arm, by the way? Foltynewicz ranked seventh in MLB with an average fastball velocity of 95.2 mph in 2016 (FanGraphs Leaderboard). That was just a fraction of a mph behind Jose Fernandez and ahead of the likes of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. It’s a known fact that Foltynewicz throws hard, but it’s what he started doing with his entire arsenal that began to take root over the final three months last season. The most notable improvement was in the home run column. After surrendering 11 home runs over his first 42 innings, he allowed just seven over his final 81.1 IP (14 starts). The next big step will be finding ways to neutralize hitters on the third and fourth time through the lineup. Opponents are slashing .240/.287/.404 in their first plate appearance and .226/.313/.405 in their second plate appearance, but that jumps to .342/.367.542 upon their third time seeing him in a game. The ability to make continual adjustments will unlock the door to becoming a dependable big league starter. He maintains his velocity late in starts thanks to above average arm strength, but exploiting hitters’ weaknesses through pitch sequencing appears to be the final piece of the proverbial puzzle for this young starter. It’s a big piece, however. Last season, he did an excellent job of getting ahead of hitters, but that is only step one of an at-bat. Foltynewicz went back to his slider and relied on it heavily as he and the team searched for the right breaking ball to pair with his high-octane fastball. He also throws a slower curveball from time to time. The changeup is there to keep hitters honest, but could ultimately be the pitch that allows him to put everything together.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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