Saturday, February 11, 2017

Spring Roster Battles Preview - The Fifth Starter

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Football's done (sorry Falcons fans) and that means one glorious thing - baseball is just around the corner. In fact, in a few days, the Atlanta Braves will open spring training as pitchers and catchers report followed by the rest of the team. With all the negative in the world, spring training is a beautiful thing as it's impossible to not be a little optimistic. For Braves' fans, even as terrible as the last few years have been, it's an exciting time as this squad looks improved and a potential sleeper for a playoff slot.

If they get there, it will start with the rotation. Last season, only the Reds had a worse fWAR (4.7 to 3.1) from their starters. Unsurprisingly, the Braves rotation finished in the bottom 5 in FIP and xFIP and sixth worse in SIERA. The Braves were especially horrid in the second half. Over 72 starts, the rotation managed 0.3 fWAR. Ouch.

But 2017 promises to be different. The Braves added a trio of veterans to plug into the rotation as their younger arms continue to mature and they will join rotation leader Julio Teheran. To be fair, it's unlikely the Braves will compete with the Nationals and Mets as far as top rotations in the East, but it should be good enough to be closer to the league average, especially as 2017 opens. Presumably, a young gun or two will get a chance to push a veteran out of the mix from there.

Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, R.A. Dickey, and Teheran make up four. Who will join them? Let's take a look at the contenders.

The Presumptive Choice - Mike Foltynewicz

Folty's step forward in 2016 appeared to make him safe from needing to reclaim his rotation spot, but the additions of the three veterans - plus further flirting with Chris Archer and the like - meant that the Braves were not convinced that the hard-throwing righty had done enough to deserve an easy path onto 2017's roster. To be fair, Foltynewicz clearly has a foot in the door here. His work down the stretch makes that clear. After a 5.09 FIP during the first half, he finished the second half with a 3.68 FIP. That's promising though his xFIP shows a much smaller 18 point difference.

Looking at some of the changes in the second half versus the first half, one thing that stands out is more confidence in his changeup. It has given him a better weapon against lefties as a strikeout pitch. He doesn't use it much against righties, but it could be a weapon as he refines it. All in all, Foltynewicz certainly took a step forward and will be given an opportunity to do the same in 2017.

The Replaced - Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler

With the three veteran additions to the rotation, Blair and Wisler were put on notice - produce or enjoy Gwinnett. For Blair, it was much-needed after a poor first run in the majors. He struggled with Mike Minor Disease, a condition that forces pitchers to nibble around the strike zone to the point that they fall behind and are forced to throw strikes in hitter's counts. For example, Blair threw a first-pitch strike 4% fewer than the average pitcher and was in the zone 5% less. Subsequently, hitters swung more at pitches in the zone and made more contact because they were able to narrow their batting eye rather than be defensive in pitcher's counts. Blair has the potential to be an effective major league pitcher, but only after he trusts his stuff.

Matt Wisler was easily Atlanta's most disappointing pitcher last year. After a strong five-game run with the big league club over the final few weeks in 2015 (34.2 ING, 9 BB, 24 K, 2.34 ERA), Wisler was tabbed to slot into Shelby Miller's #2 spot. That mistake explains why the Braves were so anxious to bring in some more established pitchers for 2017. Wisler's numbers over the first couple of months looked great from a basic ERA standpoint, though a deeper look shows some questionable trends (.232 BABIP, xFIP near 5.00). In the second half, those trends pushed his ERA as high as 5.16.

Wisler is similar to Blair in many ways. Neither pitcher will rack up the strikeouts and instead, both will depend more on getting ahead and fooling the hitter into making soft contact. Wisler has struggled to do that. Despite solid walk numbers, he's thrown a first-pitch strike 58.8% of the time, about 2% below average. With his stuff and control, he needs to be above average with his location to be effective because we know hitters are going to make contact.

The Veteran - Josh Collmenter

At this point, we have a good idea who Collmenter is. He won't strike out many batters, won't walk many batters, and will surrender a fair number of gopher balls. His control was actually iffy last year before a 19-inning run with the Braves seemed to help. Surprisingly, he was brought back for 2017, though his chances to rejoin the rotation are minimal. Still, Collmenter has a good chance to break camp as the long guy out of the pen and be in line for some emergency starts as needed.

The "He's Still Around?" Minor Leaguers - Joel De La Cruz, John Danks, and Kris Medlen

This trio received minor league deals since the end of the season. De La Cruz is a Gordon Blackley special - a guy with Yankee minor league ties who the Braves later brought aboard. They haven't had much success with these longshots and De La Cruz wasn't anything special last year (5.19/5.03/5.09 FIP/xFIP/SIERA). That said, the Braves are comfortable with him and he gives them more starting pitching depth to stash at Gwinnett in case they need an emergency start and don't want to press a kid into the role.

As a lefty, Danks is likely around to compete for a bullpen slot, but with Teheran and Colon in the World Baseball Classic, there are innings to fill and a guy like Danks will have an opportunity. He hasn't been good since 2011 and was cut four starts into 2016 by the White Sox. As I wrote about Danks before, "consider that the Braves turned Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, and Lucas Harrell into future assets last year." Does that mean they will do the same with Danks? Probably not.

I mentioned Medlen, but he won't be able to contribute until summer - if at all - and might only be a relief option. However, I wanted to mention Medlen in case you hadn't heard about it.

The Top Prospects - Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims

Both of these top pitching prospects will be in camp. Both have put up big strikeout numbers. Both have garnered Top 100 prospect status in the past. Both struggle to fire consistent strikes.

Newcomb is the higher ceiling guy here. Some have soured heavily on him while others, like me, believe there was enough progress in the second half of last season to justify the high praise. In fact, with only five prospects remaining to be revealed as part of my Top 50 Prospects, Newcomb is one of the special handful still in the running for the top spot. I mean, you can probably guess who's #1 and you might be right, but Newcomb's still alive here.

For Newcomb, his season's lowest point came on July 8th when he threw 45 pitches and couldn't get out of the first inning. Despite his epic failure of an outing, he only allowed one hit. Yikes. In the ten starts to follow, he K'd 34% of the batters he faced while keeping his walk rate at an acceptable 11%. Despite an ERA a good run-and-a-half higher than 2015, his FIP was roughly the same.

Newcomb is a longshot to push Foltynewicz. For him, it's more about impressing the coaches enough to move up the depth chart when - not if - but when a spot opens up. While the Braves have a lot potential ace-quality pitchers below Double-A, Newcomb has more upside than any Braves pitcher vying for a spot on this year's roster. He'll have to show he can dominate again like he did down the stretch, but if he does, he'll be in the bigs this summer.

As for Sims, he came in at #18 on my Top 50. He was in a similar place last year as Newcomb is this year. After a so-so first half in 2015, Sims finished the season on a hot streak with Mississippi that had fans and coaches alike hoping that the light had turned on for the talented righty. After a brief cameo in a return trip to Mississippi to start 2016, Sims headed to Gwinnett in late April and his first two starts went well (12 ING, 3 R, 16 K). The wheels came off from there as his ERA hovered over 9.00 over the next nine games. By mid-June, he was demoted back to Mississippi and finished with nearly a K-an-inning and a 2.83 ERA over his final 14 starts.

Sims' walk rate has steadily gotten worse over the last two years as hitters at the advanced levels are better equipped to handle his heater and force him to throw quality breaking balls. He's still going to get his strikeouts, but without consistent secondary offerings, he can't show the batter something new the second-and-third time through the order. That alone might make him destined for the bullpen.

The Braves will try to give Sims time to change course and improve his chances to remain a starter, but with plenty of reinforcements coming in "waves," the time to get back on track is now for the young righthander. If it doesn't click by midseason, a potentially permanent move to the bullpen might be in the cards.

The Sleeper - Patrick Weigel

With just one full season under his belt, this 2015 7th rounder is an ultra longshot, but he did receive a non-roster invitation for a reason. By the end of last season, Weigel was pitching in the playoffs for Mississippi, which tells us a lot about both his maturity level and his performance considering his relatively brief professional career.

Weigel was a closer in college, which limited expectations for him once he was drafted. Now, though, after the season he had last year (over a K-an-inning, 2.47 ERA), the expectations are sky high for Weigel. A return to Mississippi to start 2017 is likely for the righty considering the depth at Gwinnett, but don't be shocked to see Weigel receive a lot of press this spring.

To Sum Up...

One spot, ten pitchers. Oh, and likely, it's more like zero spots because Foltynewicz would probably have to experience a miserable spring to get bumped from his spot. Short of injury, this article looks like a lot of words written to come to a simple conclusion - it's Folty's to lose.

But as I mentioned throughout, for the younger pitchers on this list, this might not be a battle to open the season as the fifth starter, but to claim the sixth starter spot. Another word for that is "next guy in." Consider this: Colon and Dickey are in their 40's and the body likes to break down frequently at that age while Garcia has rarely been healthy the last five or so years. The Braves may balk at bringing up a kid for a spot start when they can rely on a veteran like Collmenter or Quad-A depth like De La Cruz, but the chances that each starter makes 30 starts in 2017 is astronomical. There will be a need for a guy for at least a few weeks to step in. Who that is will depend some on whose schedule lines up the best to replace the downed pitcher, but it will also rely heavily on the depth chart. Who's Gwinnett's #1? That guy has the best shot to get a promotion when the need arrives.

The Braves used 16 different starters last year, including Casey Kelly, Roberto Hernandez, and Ryan Weber. The year before, they called on ten different starters and used Trevor Cahill and Eric Stults. That's the difference between those years and this season. The additions of three veterans and continued development of pitching prospects has given the Braves a chance to plug-and-play a number of interesting arms.

Who's your pick for fifth starter? Is it Foltynewicz short of an epic spring collapse? Did I leave a pitcher out of the discussion? Let me know below.

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