A recent article by USA Today ranked the Atlanta Braves starting rotation as the very worst in baseball. Yikes. Is it really that bad, or is name recognition really hurting how the Braves look in the eyes of sports journalists and casual sports fans? Here is my take: Is it a good rotation right now? No. Is it the worst in baseball? You could make the argument either way. In any ranking, it’s hard to be the unanimous No. 1 or the unanimous worst in anything without some sort of debate. Today we will look at the candidates for the starting rotation and the best-case and worst case scenarios for the season.
Julio Teheran was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2013 and 2014. Teheran struggled in 2015, but he has had one bad year out of three. If numbers are on your side, Teheran reverts back to the pitcher he was in the last two months of the 2015 season and the pitcher he was in 2013-14. I recently wrote on Teheran here.
Matt Wisler will have a full-year to compete in the rotation and is a pitcher who did very well in the last month of the season posting a 3.76 ERA and averaging just over six innings per start. If you factor out a bad seven start stretch that started in August in ended in September, Wisler was 8-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 12 starts and was averaging more than six innings per start. Was that seven-game skid a growing pain for the 22-year-old? He looked pretty good otherwise.
Bud Norris was brought in to serve as some veteran depth and was very respectable prior to his 2015 season, in which he spent time in Baltimore and San Diego. Norris isn’t going to step-in and serve as a Cy Young Award candidate or even be a great pitcher. What the Braves hope Norris will be is a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, when compared to the rest of Major League Baseball this season. At his best, he’s been slightly above average. The soon-to-be 31-year-old should find some success with Atlanta. Look at what the Braves did with Aaron Harang in 2014.
Jhoulys Chacin, believe it or not, is just 28-years-old and, when healthy, has been a top-flight starting pitcher. Chacin had a four-year period pitching for the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field where he put up a 3.58 ERA, with a 3.93 FIP. Pedestrian numbers in any other ballpark, yes, but those are fantastic numbers for a Rockies pitcher. An ERA+ for a league average pitcher is 100. Chacin had a 127 ERA+ in those four seasons, which would put him a much better-than-average mark compared to the rest of the league. He does have a tendency with home runs, but the Coors effect could have something to do with that as well. Yes, there are questions here, but Chacin could be another low-risk, high-reward for the Braves if healthy.
Mike Foltynewicz‘s career path is still in limbo. Will he start? Will he be converted to a reliever? It’s really anyone’s guess at this moment. He has shown moments of dominance, but can also show moments of pure vulnerability. He leaves too much stuff in the zone, or it doesn’t break, because Folty has a hits per 9 innings ratio of 11.5 in his career and nearly two home runs per nine innings. He does generate a lot of strikeouts and doesn’t walk much, but everything else looks worse than pedestrian for the young 24-year-old.
Manny Banuelos is a former top prospect for the New York Yankees and he got his first look at the big leagues last year. Like Wisler, Banuelos was great in a five game stint in July but a sore arm later in the year no doubt contributed to his poor numbers in the second half. He has just seven games of big league experience under his belt, so you’re still not sure what you have in the 25-year-old left hander. Banuelos might have an inside track to break the Braves rotation in 2016 due to the fact that he is out of options and is the only left hander available.
Williams Perez set the world on fire in his first 11 games, but, like Wisler and Banuelos, endured a rough six game stretch that even saw him demoted to the minors in July and August. Again, if you take out those games, Perez pitched pretty well. The only thing that should worry anyone about Perez is that he tends to pitch himself into trouble. He has a very high hit rate, slightly high walk rate and a slightly high home run rate. Perez doesn’t strike out many batters either, which means he needs to keep the ball on the ground in order to be successful. With Andrelton Simmons no longer manning the shortstop position for the Braves, Perez could see his numbers take a dive.
Kyle Kendrick was recently signed, but he projects as a cheaper version of Bud Norris. Kendrick, who already had a problem with a high WHIP rate and low strikeout rate was punished while playing in Colorado last season. It would be one thing to point out the one bad year, but the past three years from Kendrick have left much to be desired. Kendrick at his best was a high end No. 3 or low end No. 2 starter for the Phillies. Poor peripherals caught up with him however and at the age of 31, he might simply be organizational depth at this point. The Braves are hoping the same thing with Kendrick that they are with Norris. If he can put up No. 4 type numbers for their rotation, the signing will be justified. Personally, I don’t see it happening.
These are the top seven candidates for the rotation. Sure guys like Tyrell Jenkins, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims will get a chance to prove they belong in the spring, but the Braves aren’t going to rush any of them. If they pitch phenomenally to convince Braves management that they belong on the club.
The best case is easy to explain. All that has to happen is some development and everyone pitching at their career norms. If Teheran reverts back to his 2013-14 seasons, Wisler shows that the six start stretch was just growing pains and Chacin pitches like he did when he was healthy, then the Braves have a pretty formidable 1 through 3 in the starting rotation. If Norris can be the No. 4 pitcher that he has been for the majority of his career and Banuelos can show that he can turn into a strong option, then the Braves rotation is set and stable. That is the most likely of the best-case scenario as I have seen nothing from Foltynewicz that I find pleasing and think that Perez benefited from some strong defense last season.
Sure someone like Foltynewicz could show he’s ready for the big league rotation and someone like Wisler, who I’m very high on, could show that he isn’t. Really the success of the Braves rotation will depend on how good Teheran and Chacin are. If both pitchers perform like they have in the past, then the Braves will have a solid 1-2 punch in their rotation. Will it be the best? No, but it also won’t be the worst. After that, you would look for one player to take a giant step forward in performance and consistency (i.e. Wisler) to be a No. 3 starter for the club. After that, it’s all relative considering the amount of pitching depth the Braves have.
This one’s easy. The worst-case scenario is that Teheran continues to struggle, Chacin isn’t healthy, Norris doesn’t pitch well and the younger guys prove that they still need some extra seasoning.
Most Likely Case
I think Teheran rebounds and I honestly think that Chacin will pitch well, if he’s healthy. I might be a little higher on Wisler than most, but I do think he can be the No. 3 starter for this team. I think asking any of the less experienced guys to step in and be the No. 2 starter is a tall task and something that isn’t very realistic. I’m not sure what to make of Norris. I’ve heard he’s a competitor and is going to pitch with something to prove in 2016, but he’s never been anything more than a No. 3 starter at the MLB level. I suspect that if he doesn’t pitch well in the spring, the Braves have enough depth to let him go before Opening Day. That leaves the fifth starter, which looks to go to Banuelos, but he is also an option for the bullpen. If that’s so then look for Foltynewicz or Perez to get the nod and look for them to pitch well at times and disastrous at others.
So Are They the Worst?
No, not in my opinion, but they could be. With all the question marks you have to put them in the bottom half of the league, the Brewers, Phillies and Rockies all seem to be similar, if not worse, than the Braves in 2016 when you factor in performance and questions with the unit. This Atlanta rotation could approach the middle-of-the-pack, but a lot of things would need to go right.