BY KEVIN McALPIN
680 THE FAN ATLANTA – With pitchers and catchers officially reporting to their brand new home in North Port today, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at the starting rotation and how things could shake out over the coming weeks between now and Opening Day. We saw some tremendous growth from guys like Mike Soroka and Max Fried in 2019, and Mike Foltynewicz definitely turned things around after a disastrous first half that saw him optioned to Triple-A to get himself right. Beyond those three who are locks, there are certainly question marks regarding how the fourth and fifth spots will shake out during camp. Here’s a cheat sheet on what to watch for during the next six weeks.
Mike Soroka: The 22 year old right-hander enjoyed a breakout campaign last season, one that saw him represent the Braves in the Mid Summer Classic. Soroka went 13-4 while posting a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts. The young Canadian hurler would eventually finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting (behind Pete Alonso) and sixth in the Cy Young voting. While his home and road splits were a bit perplexing (7-1, 1.55 at home; 6-3, 4.14 on road), Soroka is tired of trying to explain why he’s had more success away from Truist Park. Those splits were drastic enough for the Front Office and coaching staff to hold him back until Game Three of the NLDS last season, citing his success on the road as the main factor. Last year we know that Snit and Rick Kranitz wanted to take things easy on Soroka (and Fried for that matter), but I fully expect the kid gloves to come off and for the club to lean more on those guys in higher leverage and late game situations. Unless something drastic happens during camp, you can go ahead and pencil in Soroka to start Opening Day in Arizona on March 26th. The sky is the limit for this young man who has already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League.
2020 prediction: 16-5, 3.34 ERA in 32 starts
Max Fried: Much like his buddy Mike Soroka, Max Fried enjoyed a stellar 2019 season which saw him lead the team with 17 wins while posting a 4.02 ERA in 33 appearances (30 starts). Mostly known for his fastball and curveball, Fried also started going to the slider more often, a pitch he felt like really helped propel him to the next level. But there’s one obvious concern when it comes to Max Fried and that has nothing to do with his arm, shoulder, elbow, etc. It has to deal with the blister issue he’s had to deal with over the last few years. But midway through the 2019 season, Fried said he felt like the training staff had come up with a new way to treat his finger between starts to prevent moisture buildup which leads to those pesky blisters. During Spring Training last year, Brian McCann was extremely complimentary of the Braves young southpaw, comparing him to a young Cole Hamels. Well this year, Fried should benefit from having the former World Series MVP in Hamels by his side in the Braves rotation. I’d think Fried could start the season as the number two starter behind Mike Soroka and much like Soroka, I think Fried really could establish himself as a solid top of the rotation starter here in 2020.
2020 prediction: 13-7, 4.04 ERA in 31 starts
Mike Foltynewicz: In my opinion, this is an extremely important season for Mike Foltynewicz, who got off to a disastrous start to last season. Dealing with an elbow issue during Spring, Folty never really got his legs under him over the first two months of the regular season. His slider, which is such an important pitch for him, wasn’t there. He was in pain and often times afraid to let it rip. Things got so bad for him that the club had to option him to Triple-A after eleven starts with an ERA approaching six and a half. Through those first 11 starts, he had allowed 16 home runs, one shy of his total from all of 2018. But, following his demotion, Foltynewicz returned with a vengeance, posting a 2.65 ERA over his final ten starts of the regular season. Strikeouts were up, walks were down and he kept the ball in the ballpark. We all know Mike Foltynewicz wears his emotions on his sleeve. Over the last few years, he’s talked about taking deep breaths, not allowing his emotions to get the best of him, and going out there and controlling what he can control. For Folty, 33 starts of just that would be just what this team needs. Folty isn’t a “young starter” anymore. The 2020 season marks his age 28 season, his sixth in a Braves uniform. With Julio Teheran gone, the Braves need Folty to step up and become a guy they can count on to give them seven innings every five days. If he can do that, he’ll give the team something to think about when it comes to a contract extension. If not, he could end up being a non-tender candidate next offseason. But, I like what I saw from Foltynewicz (take away Game Five against St Louis) and think he’s got a legit chance of being the guy the team has long hoped he would be for them,
2020 prediction: 12-10, 4.10 ERA in 29 starts
Cole Hamels: While it still feels weird that the former Phillie will be wearing the Tomahawk this summer, Hamels provides instant credibility to a rather young pitching staff. After dealing with an oblique injury last summer, Hamels told me he feels great and is excited to join this rotation alongside Soroka, Fried and others. The 36 year old lefty agreed to a one year deal back in December to come to Atlanta after hearing good things from his good buddy and former teammate Ryan Howard who now lives in the area. Over 14 seasons in the Big Leagues, Hamels has logged 200+ innings eight times and has eclipsed the 150 inning mark in 11 of those 14 campaigns. Hamels is a four time All Star, World Series MVP and has tossed a no-hitter and started a combined no-hitter that the Phillies tossed against the Braves at Turner Field in 2014. Having the presence of a guy like Hamels will not only benefit the solidified starters but also have a positive impact on the progress of prospects like Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller and others. Hamels likely enters the season as the number four starter, but will be extremely motivated to prove he’s got something left in the tank only being on a one-year deal.
2020 prediction: 9-9, 4.20 ERA in 31 starts
There are the first four. Now the big question becomes the fifth starter. We know Atlanta is going to give Sean Newcomb a shot at earning the job over the coming weeks. We also know the team signed veteran and former Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez to a Minor League deal. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, we also know that the team has a number of pitching prospects like Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint and Ian Anderson that could all prove their ready to make the jump. I honestly don’t know how this will all play out over the next six weeks. If (and I know it’s a big IF) Felix Hernandez shows he’s got something left during camp, I could certainly envision a scenario where he wins the fifth spot as a placeholder until one of the other young arms is ready. While it’d be nice to see a guy like Newcomb step up and win that spot back, I also can’t discount the importance of the job he did out of the bullpen last season. He was a more aggressive and much more confident guy when called upon in relief. I’d honestly love to see him left in that role, especially now with the three batter minimum.
2020 prediction: Felix Hernandez breaks as the fifth starter and gives way to Ian Anderson in June.
Well there you have it, a quick rundown of what the Braves rotation could look like in six weeks. Only time will tell how this all plays out, but you can follow all of our coverage from North Port for the duration of camp on 680 The Fan and through all of our social media outlets!
Kevin McAlpin has covered the Braves since 2012 for @680TheFan and the @BravesRadioNet