Around the Horn: Folty tops uncertain rotation

Righty broke out as ace, but rest of staff a mix of talented youth and inconsistent vets

January 17th, 2019

ATLANTA -- With the start of Spring Training less than a month away, it's time to look at what the Braves' roster might look like on Opening Day. First up is the starting rotation, which potentially could gain an external addition before the regular season begins.

Over the past six weeks, gaining a frontline starter, an outfielder and bolstering the bullpen have been described as needs for the Braves. But it would be more accurate to describe these as "wants." If necessary, could serve as Atlanta's third outfielder, and there are plenty of internal options to fill both the rotation and relief corps.

But after assessing the stalwart rotations of the Mets (, and Zack Wheeler) and the Nationals (Max Scherzer, and ), the desire to defend the National League East crown creates the need to enhance Atlanta's rotation, which currently counts Mike Foltynewicz as its only frontline starter.

Whether the Braves acquire or upgrade their rotation via another trade remains to be seen. But for now, we'll simply look at the candidates for a rotation that will be influenced by the strides made by and the Major League-ready prospects who should be given more chances to prove themselves at the game's highest level.

The ace: Foltynewicz

The decision last offseason to simplify his windup proved quite beneficial for Foltynewicz, who improved from a 4.79 ERA with a 4.33 FIP in 2017 to a 2.85 ERA and a 3.37 FIP last season. The 27-year-old right-hander earned his first All-Star selection and concluded his breakthrough season by posting a 2.55 ERA over his final 10 starts.

Per Statcast™, among the 61 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 four-seam fastballs last year, Foltynewicz ranked fourth with an average velocity of 96.3 mph. His .325 xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-base Average) against this pitch ranked 25th and was higher than his overall .274 xwOBA, which ranked eighth among all NL pitchers.

Foltynewicz's ability to consistently command his fastball enhances the value of his slider, which limited hitters to a .197 xwOBA, the seventh-best mark among pitchers who threw the pitch at least 500 times. His swing-and-miss rate with the slider improved from 15.1 percent in 2017 to 18.5 percent in '18.

Though there is room for improvement, Foltynewicz possesses the physical tools necessary to maintain his status among the game's elite.

No. 2: Newcomb

With just 49 starts in his career, it remains hard to project Newcomb, who produced a 4.32 ERA over 19 starts in 2017 and a 3.90 ERA over 31 appearances (30 starts) last year. The 25-year-old southpaw nearly no-hit the Dodgers on July 29 and then exited his next start (his 22nd of the season) with a 3.15 ERA. But he slumped over his final eight starts, producing a 6.45 ERA that tainted an otherwise strong first full season in the Majors.

Newcomb made strides last year by essentially doubling the usage of his changeup, making him less predictable than in 2017, when he primarily used his fastball and curveball. The .215 xwOBA produced on the curve ranked 21st among the 76 pitchers who threw the pitch at least 250 times. His 8.4 percent swing-and-miss rate ranked just 65th within this group, creating further reason to minimize the potential value of this pitch.

It's always been about command for Newcomb, who produced the second-worst first-strike percentage (53.9) among qualified starters last year. He certainly needs more time to develop, but this will be an important year for the hurler, who Braves fans will always remember as the guy who was acquired for .

No. 3:

While Gausman might not be a frontline starter, the Braves will hope that his performance down the stretch after being acquired from the Orioles at last year's July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline is predictive. The 28-year-old hurler had a 2.87 ERA in 10 starts he made for the Braves, who supplied him with a much stronger defense than the one that backed him in Baltimore.

During his time with the Braves, Gausman had a .278 wOBA and a .324 xwOBA. The difference of -0.046 was the third-highest produced by a pitcher (min. 750 pitches) after July. This signifies he was the third-most fortunate pitcher over that span. The veteran starter has completed at least 179 2/3 innings in each of the past three seasons and he posted a 3.61 ERA while pitching in the American League East in 2016.

No. 4:

This will likely be the final season in Atlanta for Teheran, who has never lived up to the promise showed when he posted a 2.89 ERA in 2014. His 3.94 ERA last year was a slight improvement in comparison to the 4.49 ERA in 2017. But his career-high 4.3 walks per nine innings extended a troubling trend that began the year before, when that mark jumped from 2.0 (in 2016) to 3.4.

Teheran posted a 2.97 ERA over last year's final 10 starts, generating a .248 wOBA and a .300 xwOBA. The difference of -0.052 made him the second-most fortunate in that span, a credit to the Braves' strong defense.

Fifth spot

If 's right shoulder proves to be healthy and the Braves expect he will be durable, he should be considered the favorite to open the season as Atlanta's fifth starter. If the Braves want to take a cautious route and monitor his innings at the Triple-A level, Touki Toussaint, , , and Bryse Wilson stand as other worthy candidates.

Toussaint impressed over five starts last year, but his 6.5 walks per nine innings creates some concern about his readiness. Gohara and Fried could prove valuable in either the rotation or the bullpen. Wright and Wilson may benefit from more time at the Triple-A level.