Around the Horn: Starting pitching

Mound questions abound for Braves as Spring Training nears

January 20th, 2016

ATLANTA -- Over the past month, the Braves have been lauded for the significant return they gained in exchange for Shelby Miller. But now they will have to spend the next few months dealing with a suspect starting rotation that includes Julio Teheran and a whole lot of uncertainty.

If shortstop Dansby Swanson, outfielder Ender Inciarte and pitcher Aaron Blair all live up to the expectations that were set when they were acquired from the D-backs in exchange for Miller, then this will be a trade that will be celebrated in Atlanta for many years to come. But the immediate consequences could prove painful for the Braves as they spend the next couple of seasons watching their top prospects endure inevitable growing pains.

• Braves Spring Training info

The Braves' rotation will likely assume many different looks this year as they take advantage of an opportunity to test some of their young starters. Some of the pitchers who debuted last year might be weeded out at some point during this summer to make room for the next wave of starting-pitching prospects, which includes both Blair and Sean Newcomb.

Newcomb (acquired in the November trade that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels) and Blair became Atlanta's top two pitching prospects after they were acquired this offseason. There is a strong possibility that both could join Atlanta's rotation at some point this year. Of course, the same could also be said in reference to Chris Ellis, Tyrell Jenkins and Lucas Sims.

Before evaluating their next wave of starting pitchers, the Braves need to get a better feel for some of the young pitchers who were introduced to Atlanta's rotation last summer -- Matt Wisler, Manny Banuelos, Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez.

As things stand, it appears the Braves will begin the season with a rotation that includes Teheran, Wisler and Bud Norris, whose one-year, $2.5 million deal positions him to become a potential trade piece at some point this summer. Teheran entered August with a 4.71 ERA and then produced some hope as he pitched to a 2.95 ERA over his final 12 regular-season starts. Norris was released by the Orioles after he produced a 6.79 ERA in 11 starts. Wisler was briefly moved to Atlanta's bullpen before ending last year's rookie season with a few encouraging starts.

Obviously, there are reasons to be concerned about each of these three starters. But as things stand, they provided a little more certainty than any of Atlanta's other pitchers who will be Major League-ready at the start of the regular season.

The Braves were hoping to spend last September evaluating whether Foltynewicz should be used as a starter or a reliever. They were unable to do so when the hard-throwing right-hander had a portion of his rib cage removed after he was hospitalized with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition that affects the nerves or blood vessels of the lower neck and upper chest.

Foltynewicz is still attempting to regain some of the weight and strength that he lost while recovering from this ailment. Thus, he'll come to camp surrounded with some of the same uncertainty that surrounds Banuelos, who showed some promise last year but also created more concerns about the durability of his left elbow.

If Banuelos is healthy, the Braves could put him in the rotation with the understanding that an innings limit will prevent him from serving as a starter over the entire season.

Though Perez does not possess the upside of Foltynewicz, Banuelos, Wisler or any of the club's starting-pitching prospects who could debut this year, he might provide just enough certainty to gain one of the last available spots in the rotation. One of the other spots could go to either Jhoulys Chacin or Kyle Kendrick, a pair of veterans who will come to Spring Training with a Minor League contract.

It's hard to predict how Atlanta's rotation might look at the beginning of the year and even harder to project the different looks it might assume throughout the summer.

But with Newcomb, Blair and so many other talented prospects on the horizon, the Braves are starting to get excited about the opportunity to get back to those more comfortable days, when they could project the makeup of their rotation with far greater certainty.