When the Braves begin Spring Training on Wednesday, the most intriguing roster battle will be waged between Hernández and Newcomb, who stand as the top two candidates to open the regular season as the fifth starter. The runner-up, especially if it’s Newcomb, could also fill the final bullpen spot.
Sure, the Braves could make a trade that could alter current roster projections, or they could determine they don’t need to begin the season with five outfielders. But their hope to add another front-line starter might not be realized for at least a couple months and general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ wise approach toward preserving depth creates reason to believe the primary roster battles will occur within the pitching department.
Hernández might not be the heralded hurler he was when he won the 2010 American League Cy Young Award and then finished in the top 10 of balloting in four of the next five seasons. But the soon-to-be 34-year-old right-hander should be motivated to prove he is better than the 5.42 ERA he has produced while battling injuries over the past three seasons.
Newcomb once possessed enough promise to prompt the Braves’ former regime to acquire him from the Angels in exchange for Andrelton Simmons after the 2015 season. But most of the success he has tasted over 2 1/2 big league seasons occurred last year when he was moved to the bullpen.
So, why wouldn’t the Braves just keep Newcomb in a relief role?
Well, first of all, it makes perfect sense to give Newcomb a chance to realize his wish to return to a starting role. The 26-year-old southpaw could compile approximately 20 innings by working as a starter during the Grapefruit League season. If he was used as a reliever, he’d likely tally about half as many innings and consequently have fewer opportunities to continue harnessing his command.
Secondly, we shouldn’t forget Newcomb posted a 3.15 ERA through his first 22 starts of 2018. Yes, he faltered at the end of that season and was removed from the rotation after just three starts last year. But the experience as a reliever could benefit him much the same way it did Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, who credited last year’s success with aggressiveness and confidence he gained after being used as a reliever at the end of '18.
While posting a 4.04 ERA over 53 career starts (278 1/3 innings), Newcomb had a 22.6 percent strikeout rate and a 12.1 percent walk rate.
While producing a 3.04 ERA over 53 1/3 innings as a reliever last year, Newcomb had a 25.6 percent strikeout rate and a 8.5 percent walk rate. The use of his changeup declined over the season’s final six weeks, but he provided some indications he might be capable of relying on more than just his four-seamer and curveball, which became more effective as he consistently got ahead of hitters.
Still, it might be in the Braves’ best interests to continue utilizing Newcomb as a reliever. Will Smith stands as the only left-hander who is essentially a lock to be in the Braves’ bullpen. Putting Newcomb back in that mix might be beneficial, especially if he extends last year’s trend of being more effective against right-handers than left-handers.
So Hernández will have a chance to be a potentially valuable insurance plan. Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson are also rotation candidates. But both of these highly regarded prospects could benefit from the additional Minor League seasoning they would get if Hernández shows he’s capable of producing at least a couple months of serviceable starts.
Hernández averaged 209 strikeouts from 2009-16, but he totaled just 260 strikeouts over the past three seasons while dealing with a bothersome right shoulder. He produced a 6.40 ERA while making just 15 starts last year. The odds of him making an impact in Atlanta are similar to the ones Aníbal Sánchez faced before becoming one of the key reasons the Braves won the '18 National League East title.