Monday, November 3, 2014

WOW's Offseason Look at: Starting Pitching

In Atlanta, starting pitching is kind of our thing. When we're good, its good. When we're bad, it's usually damn awful. When we're not good or bad, the starting pitching usually is what is keeping us from being bad. As was the case last season when the Braves starting pitching finished tied for sixth in K/9 and sixth in FIP while tossing the second most innings. Not that there weren't issues to speak of, but when everything was taken into consideration, the starting rotation was the biggest reason why the Braves even won 79 games last season. One thing is for certain, though. The rotation that ended the season will not be the rotation that starts 2015.

Who we got?... Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and David Hale.
Who's getting Arby?... Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Kris Medlen.
Who might be going?... Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, Gavin Floyd.

The only thing that we know right now is that when the Braves open the season in Miami on April 6th, Teheran will get the start (if healthy *knock on wood*). While "experts" were asking how far the Braves could go without an ace, Teheran took another step in becoming one. He ranked just 26th in fWAR, but he logged a ridiculous 221 innings and seemed to have that it factor when he took the ball. We knew something big could happen. Not too shabby for a guy in his second full season. He relied on his two-seam fastball and changeup more in 2014 and the more he tinkers with that change-up, the better he will become. Wood's innings were limited by a trip to the pen, but he once again surprised people who are stuck on his odd delivery over the results. In 249.1 ING in the majors, Wood has a 3.07 FIP and 8.9 K/9. He's pretty good and the Braves might take off the kid gloves and aim for 200 innings in 2015 provided his performance and health allow it. David Hale...sucks. It's not really that Hale is awful, though you can call him that. It's that his supporters were still saying he should start over Harang throughout the year. Not that Harang wasn't worrisome, but Hale's performance wasn't even good enough that he deserved to remain in the majors. I do like his groundball profile and as a long guy/emergency starter, he's not completely useless. He still sucks, though.

Minor started 2014 on the DL because of something to do with his manhood and shoulder (been there). He followed that up by crapping the bed in 2014. A 3.5 fWAR guy the previous season, Minor barely finished the year with a positive WAR as all of his numbers took a tumble. His changeup, a plus pitch in 2013, was abandoned in 2014. Without the change-of-pace and with a slider that didn't slide, Minor wasn't able to keep hitters off balance. He appeared to find his way in August, posting his best WHIP of the year, but fell apart in the final month. The Braves need Minor in 2015 because they might not even bother with Beachy and Medlen. After both were lost for the year in the matter of days last spring, the Braves were sent reeling. Amazingly, their disgraced former GM cobbled together a starting staff that kept the Braves in the playoff race, but Atlanta was counting on both Beachy and Medlen and neither were around. There is good reason to think neither will be around in 2015. Both would likely need time at the beginning of the year to build arm strength and with both arbitration-eligible, a team like the Braves that is watching its pennies might choose to devote money elsewhere. While Atlanta could theoretically try a non-tender approach while signing one to a more team-friendly deal, this blogger isn't optimistic to see either right-hander next year for the Braves. 

Which is a cause for concern because the free agents are probably as good as gone. Santana had his best K rate since his fourth year in the league, 2008, and was a quick fan favorite due to his twitter feed, unintentionally hilarious #loveshitting, and smile. He also posted his third season of at least a 2.6 fWAR in four years. He should receive a nice hefty contract this offseason and that will not come from the Braves, though Atlanta will give him a qualifying offer for draft pick compensation. Harang looked like he was headed towards forced retirement when the Indians dropped him right before the season. Instead, he reached 200 innings in a season for the first time since 2007. Some of his success was smoke-and-mirrors as his FIP (3.57) and xFIP (4.03) suggests, but a lot of it was quality pitching. While he probably won't get a long-term contract, someone will send a nice two-year deal his way and Atlanta shouldn't be that team. Last winter, I got into a twitter tift with Jeff Schultz after Floyd signed. It looked as if Floyd would prove me right before his elbow went all wonky in Washington last June. He finished the year with ratios resembling his last good season with the White Sox in 2011. He was expected to start pitching this offseason and should be ready for spring training. I wouldn't mind Hart bringing Floyd back for another go. While his last two seasons have been wrecked by two unrelated injuries, he was pretty good for 29-33 starts in the five years before that. Take a chance. It looked like it was going to work for Wren before the freak injury.

The farm system doesn't look it's going to provide much. Cody Martin has been a nice innings eater for Gwinnett since arriving to the highest minors affilate mid-way through 2013, but innings eaters in the minors rarely pan out in the majors. After all, innings eaters is just a nice way of saying "he's okay for a fifth starter" which is a diplomatic way of saying "he sucks." Northcraft was briefly in the bullpen last season for the Braves, but never got into a game. He struggled once he was finally promoted to Gwinnett last season and didn't garner much attention with a meh performance in Arizona after the season. He might be best suited for a bullpen role, though he's certainly not much of a prospect. Hursh had an okay season in Mississippi. The 2013 first rounder showed great control (2.6 BB/9) and a knack for inducing groundballs, but a 13.5 K% will hardly impress. Finally, Williams Perez is another groundball guy who, after three years in rookie ball, has been a quick mover since. He formed a nice duo at the top of the staff with Hursh in Mississippi and was actually more impressive (2.6 BB/9, 17 K%, 1.20 WHIP, 3.29 FIP). 

Depth Chart
1. Teheran
2. Wood
3. Minor
4. 
5. 

A lot of work remains for the starting staff. Medlen and/or Beachy could return. Floyd could be brought back. Hale could not suck. But none of these will bring much comfort without a more known commodity to squeeze between Wood and Minor. Unfortunately, the Braves don't have much money for that. Jason Hammel could be an option, though a thoroughly unsatisfying one. Justin Masterson on an one-year, make-good contract could be interesting. Jake Peavy has been a target before, but the cash might not be there. Maybe Ryan Vogelsong

What the Braves really need, though, is for Minor to play more like 2013 Minor and to catch some more lightening in the bottle. Roger McDowell proved to be a miracle worker last year. The Braves will need more of that if they're going to have a deep rotation in 2015. 

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