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What to know about Braves' rotation upgrade

In competitive NL East, Atlanta needs boost behind Foltynewicz, Newcomb, Gausman
MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- If you're wondering why the Braves should make acquiring a starting pitcher a priority, recall that the Mets produced the National League East's best record after June.

Let that soak in and remember we're not talking about a freakish six-week stretch. It's more like a sample size that accounts for three months -- or half a season.

ATLANTA -- If you're wondering why the Braves should make acquiring a starting pitcher a priority, recall that the Mets produced the National League East's best record after June.

Let that soak in and remember we're not talking about a freakish six-week stretch. It's more like a sample size that accounts for three months -- or half a season.

If you're wondering how the Mets could produce such a successful stretch and still end up 13 games behind the first-place Braves, you can focus on their 12-32 record while Noah Syndergaard spent nearly two months on the disabled list.

Though there's reason to wonder whether Syndergaard is physically capable of remaining healthy for an entire season, the Mets certainly have reason to feel good about placing him in a rotation with NL Cy Young Award finalist Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and a healthy Zack Wheeler.

It might be even more far-fetched for the Nationals to expect to get 30 starts from Stephen Strasburg. But the possibility of having a healthy Strasburg, a rejuvenated Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer -- also an NL Cy Young Award finalist -- gives Washington hope for an effective rotation.

The Phillies' attempt to fortify their rotation, led by third NL Cy Young Award finalist Aaron Nola, will be significantly influenced by their efforts to improve what was an MLB-worst defense.

Again, if you're wondering what set Atlanta apart from division opponents this year, it's important to remember that the Braves ranked second among all NL teams in starters' ERA (3.50) and third in Defensive Runs Saved (59). The bottom three NL teams in terms of DRS were the Nationals (minus-55), the Mets (minus-77) and the Phillies (minus-146).

Even if the Braves were to lose both NL Gold Glove Award-winning right fielder Nick Markakis and veteran starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez through free agency, there's reason to argue they could still upgrade the rotation and defense.

Video: Anibal Sanchez becomes a free agent in 2019

Atlanta's only needs are an outfielder to potentially replace Markakis and a catcher to fill the void if Kurt Suzuki departs as a free agent. The search may help to add power to the lineup. But there's also hope to upgrade the bullpen that currently lacks a closer, unless you're willing to gamble on the durability of Arodys Vizcaino's right shoulder.

With at least $60 million worth of financial flexibility, the Braves can make the improvements necessary to defend against the possibility that the Phillies will get better with the signing of at least one marquee free agent and the Mets will make a run next year with their formidable rotation.

But even though Mike Foltynewicz has proven he can be a front-line starter and Sean Newcomb has the tools to earn this distinction, the Braves seemingly need to add another starter to aid the rotation and maximize the potential value of any upgrades made to the lineup or bullpen.

Video: ATL@NYM: Newcomb K's 8 over 5 scoreless innings

Here are a few points to remember as Atlanta attempts to upgrade its rotation:

Repeatability
When I've previously written that Foltynewicz, Newcomb and Kevin Gausman serve as the base for next year's rotation, some readers have understandably questioned whether Newcomb should be considered a lock. But there may be reason for more concern about Gausman's ability to duplicate his initial success after being acquired from the Orioles at the Trade Deadline.

In his first full season at the Major League level, Newcomb produced a 3.92 ERA and a 4.09 Fielding Independent Pitching. The lefty struggled down the stretch, and his command remains a concern. But if he's able to develop his changeup, he still has the potential to live up to expectations set when he was one of baseball's top prospects. With this in mind, Foltynewicz is the only pitcher the Braves can project to perform like a front-line starter in 2019. There's a chance Newcomb could make a similar rise this year. But for now, it's best to look at Gausman and Julio Teheran as back-end starters for a postseason contender.

Video: ATL@PHI: Gausman freezes Hernandez to strand a runner

Options
Patrick Corbin is arguably the most attractive free-agent pitcher, but some team executives think it's a near-certainty he'll sign with the Yankees. A reunion with Charlie Morton is also appealing, but you'd be buying high on a 35-year-old hurler who battled right shoulder soreness in September.

Dallas Keuchel is another intriguing free-agent option, but it may make more sense for Atlanta to use its talent-rich pipeline to acquire a starter. Outside of including Ender Inciarte in a deal that could compensate for Cleveland potentially losing Michael Brantley via free agency, I don't necessarily see a fit with the Indians, who will likely require MLB-level talent to be included in a deal for any of their top starters.

Given his health history, Michael Fulmer might no longer be considered a front-line starter. But the Braves showed definite interest last offseason, and they will likely continue communicating with the Tigers over the next few weeks and months.

The wild-card option is Madison Bumgarner, whose potential availability will not be known until the Giants hire someone to run their ship. Bumgarner might no longer be Bumgarner. But his presence could certainly positively impact Foltynewicz and Newcomb.

Video: NYM@ATL: Soroka retires deGrom to keep no-no alive

What about the prospects?
Much of the positive talk during the Braves' rebuild centered around their abundance of pitching prospects. But as we've watched many of these hurlers reach the Major League level, we have also been reminded why it may be more appropriate to refer to prospects as suspects.

We've known all along that not all prospects live up to expectations. Teams simply attempt to guard against the sudden value drop experienced this year with Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard. In fairness, Gohara must prove he's willing to dedicate himself in a more disciplined manner away from the field. Allard is a 20-year-old who may simply have to experience natural physical growth.

Teams also have to be patient with prospects like Mike Soroka, who burst on the scene with Atlanta in May and then battled a right shoulder ailment that limited him to just five starts. Soroka has the potential to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation piece when healthy, but the caution the Braves showed this year certainly enhances concerns about his future.

Soroka is one of seven Braves pitchers on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list. Some of these hurlers could be used to acquire Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto or some of Atlanta's other potential trade targets this offseason. A couple may end up aiding the rotation as early as next year.

But none of these starting-pitching prospects stand as that difference-making piece the Braves could add to their rotation next year and suddenly enhance their World Series aspirations.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

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