This longtime ace leads Braves' rotation race

March 3rd, 2020

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Félix Hernández looks like he might have something left and Sean Newcomb is intent on taking advantage of another chance to be a starter. But with Opening Day a little more than three weeks away, the Braves still do not know how they will fill the two vacancies within their starting rotation.

One of those vacancies was created by Cole Hamels, who has not thrown a baseball since he began battling left shoulder inflammation in late January. The Braves still don’t know when Hamels might be cleared to begin simply playing catch again. So, there’s a good chance the 36-year-old lefty won’t make his season debut before the end of April.

Here’s a look at how Hamels’ absence and a few other factors could influence the Braves’ rotation decisions:

The favorite
: Long separated from his days as an annual AL Cy Young candidate, the 33-year-old right-hander had to settle for a Minor League deal that will earn him $1 million if he’s placed on Atlanta’s roster. This is a cost the Braves would gladly pay if Hernández continues to indicate he is healthy.

He has recorded six strikeouts while allowing just one run over 4 2/3 innings during his first two starts. These February results against lineups filled with Minor Leaguers might not seem like a big deal. But he allowed six runs through his first two exhibition starts (4 1/3 innings) last year and was healthy enough to make just two spring starts in 2018.

If the Braves opt to put Hernandez in their rotation, they don’t need him to be the guy who averaged 226 strikeouts per season from 2009-16. They just need to be confident he won’t be the guy who posted a 5.46 ERA while totaling just 59 starts over the past three seasons.

Top challengers
: Because right-handers Luke Jackson and Chris Martin were so effective against left-handed hitters last year, Braves manager Brian Snitker said he could opt to carry Will Smith as his only lefty reliever. But there might be a push to add another lefty, who also wouldn’t be limited by the new three-batter minimum rule.

Newcomb seemed to find a suitable role as a reliever last year. But it makes perfect sense to use him as a starter to stretch out during Spring Training and possibly remain in the rotation, at least until Hamels returns. Newcomb improved his bid by throwing three scoreless innings against the Phillies on Monday.

But other than the first few months of the 2018 season, Newcomb has not shown consistent command of more than two pitches. But his presence in the rotation could prove beneficial if Kyle Wright needs a little more time at the Minor League level.

: He retired 15 of the 17 batters faced through two Grapefruit League appearances, with seven strikeouts over five scoreless innings. His impressive start validates why many believe this 24-year-old right-hander has more upside than any other current Braves pitching prospect.

After cruising through the early part of last year’s exhibition season, Wright struggled when injuries forced him to be part of last year’s season-opening rotation. He has totaled fewer than 300 innings since being selected with the fifth pick in the 2017 Draft. But if he continues to impress over his final four spring starts, it might be easier to argue the Braves would be at their best with him in the rotation and Newcomb in the bullpen.

The preference would be to keep Wright at Triple-A until there is confidence he would not need to be sent back down. But with Hamels likely to miss at least a month, the Braves have to go with who is the best current fit for the rotation.

The underdog
: All of the promise Toussaint possessed at this time last year evaporated as he struggled as a big league reliever and Triple-A starter. But the 23-year-old right-hander has cleaned his delivery and he showed encouraging signs when he tossed two scoreless innings against the Orioles in last week’s spring debut.

He followed that up Monday by retiring the first six Phillies he faced, then issued consecutive walks to begin his third inning.