Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Spring Training Preview: Starting Pitching

Though the season is 83 days away and the hyper-active Braves could possibly deal and/or sign a starter, which seems likely, I have to start the spring training previews some time so here we go.

While they lacked the star power of past rotations, the Braves had a nice and productive starting staff in 2014. When compared to the rest of the league, the Braves had the fifth best ERA, the sixth lowest FIP, and were tenth in xFIP. They even provided innings that took away some of the need of the bullpen by throwing the second most in baseball. They did it with eight pitchers and endured a massively disappointing season from one starter and an injury-shortened year from a guy who looked like he was coming into his own. Oh, and two other starters saw their 2014 end before it even started.

What will 2015 possibly bring? Let's dive in.

Before we start, let's say goodbye to...Brandon Beachy, Gavin Floyd, Aaron Harang, Kris Medlen, Ervin Santana...You read that right. The Braves lost an entire starting rotation this offseason, though they apparently still have some interest in the one who has yet to find work - Beachy, who along with Medlen, missed the season after yet another Tommy John surgery. Beachy wasn't counted on quite as much as Meds was for 2014, but both were loses for a rotation that was missing two starters even before the season started. That left Frank Wren to cobble together a competent rotation and to his credit, he did just that with Santana and Harang. The former posted a 2.8 fWAR over 196 innings with 8.2 K/9 and a solid 3.39 FIP. It took a bit of luck to get him to Atlanta. The market had to go to crap on him last offseason and the price tag on a one-year deal had to become prohibitive for other clubs, but he was ultimately a Godsend. It wasn't too much of a surprise, though, as Santana had been recently successful in the majors. Harang, on the other hand, was an ultimate find for Wren and his team. Cast off by the Indians before the season, the Braves signed him with no high expectations that he would even pitch more than a month for them. They had guys on the mend and simply needed a dependable placeholder for several weeks to open the year. What they got was 204.1 innings, a 2.5 fWAR, and one of the better under-reported stories in baseball. Recently, the Phillies signed Harang to a one-year deal, which was a bit surprising considering his success last year. Finally, Floyd was a nice bargain find for Wren and it looked like a masterstroke before Floyd's elbow sought to escape his body. He was showing glimpses of the good Floyd from his White Sox years. But...oh well.

What's left? Who's new? Is all hope lost?

At the top of the rotation is Julio Teheran and that's a damn good thing considering he's signed long term _and_ turns just 24 in two weeks. Teheran is a study on why you trust the process sometimes over the results. A lot of people grew skeptical of him after a 2012 season with Gwinnett where the K's fell, the homers sky-rocketed, and his FIP neared 6.00. But that's why prospects deserve time to tinker and try to better their overall game. It's not really known if that lost year truly helped Teheran, but after a 2.5 fWAR in 2013 and 3.2 fWAR last year, I think it's safe to say he's not any worse for wear. Teheran continues to try to improve a fourth pitch, a run-of-the-mill change-up and it appears if he does that this year to go along with his steady low-90's heat and plus breaking pitches, he'll take another step forward. Sure, people will write that the Braves lack a real ace. But we can't help that people are idiots.

Behind Teheran is Alex Wood...at least, in my book. At a certain point, we have to stop worrying and learn to love the delivery. Sure, it's quirky, but Wood did throw 171.2 ING last season and when you add his minor league seasons, 139.2 ING the previous year. The Braves can still try to limit innings when they can, but we are talking about a guy who has a 2.84 ERA in 212.1 ING as a starter over his career with 205 K's along with a 1.19 WHIP, 3.18 FIP, and 3.32 xFIP. Seriously, he's good and yes, the delivery still boggles the mind, but it doesn't mean he won't be very successful in the majors.

Shelby Miller takes up the third spot and splits the lefties in the staff. After a rather productive rookie season in 2013, Miller was the opposite of Teheran in 2014 as he simply got worse across the board. On the plus side, a late season switch toward throwing a high fastball more effectively to set up his curveball led to positive results. He walked two less per nine innings in the second half, saw a minor increase in K%, and cut his WHIP by 50 points. It still wasn't great as his 4.20 FIP suggests, but it was getting him moving in the right direction. Miller is limited in that he basically has just two pitches so keeping the batters from making a lot of contact is paramount to his success. He's not going to live on putting the ball in play considering deception's not his strong suit. Basically, he needs to change the batter's eye level to set up his plus-plus curve and get swinging strikes. He only got 7% of them last year. For him to get back to 2013 Miller, that number needs a good increase.

In the four spot is Mike Minor, who is a year removed from looking like a possible front-of-the-rotation fixture. After a 3.37 FIP and 3.5 fWAR campaign during the 2013 season, Minor struggled through injuries and just bad play, posting a 4.39 FIP. Unlike Miller, we can't look at anything in particular and say "hey, he was turning it around" except that maybe he was unlucky to a degree (3.90 xFIP wasn't that much worse than 3.64 the previous year). One thing that really stands out is hitters were making an exorbiant amount of contact on pitches outside the zone. In 2013, it was 63.6%, about three ticks below the league average. In 2014, it was about nine points higher. In addition, they connected on 91% of all swings in the strikezone, an increase of four percent. This screams to me that Minor's stuff was either mediocre, predictable, or both. If you watched him last year, he saw a return of 2011-12 Minor...the guy who nibbles and hopes for the best, not the 2013 guy who pitched with confidence. It's a make-of-break season for Minor. He can't survive in baseball getting just 7% of swinging strikes. Hitters will brutalize him.

The fifth spot...well, that's where things get more interesting than just discussing the question marks with Miller and Minor. By not re-signing Harang and with no veteran replacement in house, the Braves are left with a group that currently lacks a real leader. The way I'll preview each is in how I rank them right now, which might not match the Braves. So, take this with a massive grain of salt.

Our first contender is Manny Banuelos, who the Braves acquired on New Year's Day for a pair of relievers. Banuelos is only a couple of seasons removed from being a pretty good prospect. In 2011, he struck out over 8 K/9 while moving from AA to AAA, but his next season was cut short by Tommy John and it was a slow recovery process to get him back into the picture. He threw less than a hundred innings last year as the Yankees took a conservative approach with him and while the velocity was starting to return for the left-hander. As we can probably expect, his control, especially with his fastball, was suspect and he gave up an unusually high amount of homers, which I would guess was from elevating his fastball too often. Atlanta probably doesn't want him to open the season in the majors if they can help it, but right now, I'd label him their best option. For what it's worth, Banuelos has only one option left so sending him to the minors would use that up, but for a team that is unlikely to compete the next couple of seasons, they can certainly deal with that.

If the Braves don't go the veteran route and want to handle ManBan with kid gloves, David Hale would appear as the most likely option to handle the fifth spot. Hale spent all of 2014 in the majors, logging 87.1 ING and starting six of his 45 appearances. He posted a 3.30 ERA and 56% groundball rate. And I hate him. Actually, I don't. He's probably a great guy who is simply trying to make the most out of a limited skill set. I hate that many believe he's a capable major leaguer based on that 3.30 ERA despite a FIP that was a run higher. There is some evidence, though in a pretty short sample size, that Hale would make a better starter than a reliever (6 K/9, 1.30 WHIP, 3.65 FIP) but I would caution not to put too much value into that. Most of those starts came in the first month of the season before batters readjusted for him. The real thing to be concerned with is that Hale lacks a plus pitch.

Though he was unprotected in the Rule 5, Cody Martin would appear to have a good shot to get into the discussion for the fifth spot. Martin appears to have the minor league vet label even though he's only been around four years. He's put up fairly impressive stats at each stop, though he's never cracked a Top 20 prospects list. He's probably a tick worse than Hale and would struggle to hold down a job in the majors. But...I guess we'll never know if he never gets a shot.

James Russell started the season's final game and was a former starter. With his reverse splits from last year and Mark Bowman reporting that he might be stretched out early in spring training, plus the signing of Josh Outman, why not Russell? If he fails, he's a proven major league reliever and can fall back in that role. If it's between Hale and Russell, I'd give the latter the chance. If he surprises for a few months, you could easily turn him into a prospect at the deadline.

It's early, but why not Tyrell Jenkins? Yes, he only pitched, with the AFL included, 98.1 innings last year and yes, he has yet to appear in AA. But if he has a tremendous spring and impresses everyone while mowing down hitters...he'll still head to the minors. Who are we kidding? This is a rebuilding process and starting Jenkins' clock early doesn't help anyone. Same goes for Jason Hursh, the 2013 first rounder who logged 148.1 ING at AA and didn't really impress anyone. Why start his clock early when you need to find out what you have? Especially when we already have Chien-Ming Wang, who signed a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. That's an option, I guess. Funny story. Last year, at AAA, Wang struck out 73 batters. He walked 57. That rate shouldn't exist in 2014, but there it was. While we're at it, why not mention Daniel Winkler? Because he'll miss most of the season and this is a spring training preview, that's why.

The 2015 rotation could easily surprise some people and could easily be a dumpster fire. Of course, I could end nearly every preview article like that. There is promise and the youth is exciting, but it's easy to think the Braves rotation will be worse next year than it was in 2014. And it could be better. But probably worse.

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