There is a proverb that goes like this:
Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket: in one pocket “For me the world was created.” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.” When we have moments of self loathing take out the first; in moments of grandiosity the second. Our souls are poised between greatness and nothingness; in knowing both are we blessed.
(The story is famous; this particular paraphrase was written by Rabbi David Wolpe, but there are many similar variants.)
As baseball fans who follow a team chock full of players who are barely old enough to drink, we should probably keep two quotes in our pockets. First, fantasy guru Ron Shandler’s famous line, “Once a player displays a skill, he owns it.” And second, Gary Huckabay’s even more famous line, “TINSTAAPP: There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect.”
So, who were the 2018 Braves starters? No, really: who were they?
- First: Foltzie. What with luck and everything, it’s possible that 2018 could turn out to be a career year for him, at least in turns of ERA. But the tall northpaw took the leap forward that I think a few of us may have given up hoping for, as the man who could always throw four good innings to start a game finally figured out how to throw three more good ones after that.
Second: Kevin Gausman. Look, I like him. He probably isn’t an ace and he probably doesn’t have to be, with all the twentysomething prospects we have knocking on the door. His ERA as a Brave was stellar. His K-rate as a Brave was crappy. His velocity was down a little over a mile per hour in 2018 compared with previous years, and that was all part of the plan, as he was working on improved command. Indeed, his walks did drop as a Brave, but so did his HR/FB and BABIP and strand rate and all the numbers that make you think he wasn’t nearly as good as his ERA suggested.
All the same, for right now, I’m going to believe my lyin’ eyes. But at the end of the day, if Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson push Gausman out of the rotation, it’ll be for all the right reasons.
Third: Sean Newcomb. And where you stand really depends on where you sit. The square-jawed sinistral sure looks like a starter, and for more than half a year, he looked like a front-end bulldog. Of course, for some of us, I think it will be impossible to ever watch a Sean Newcomb start without thinking of the Jadeite Jewel.
For many outside analysts, he’s still a 3rd/4th starter who will never be as good as he should be because he just can’t quite command his pitches. And for some, he’s a player who had turned a Foltzie-like corner until management foolishly let him toss 134 pitches on July 29. Well, here are some numbers:
Apr. 2-July 29: 3.23 ERA, 1.93 K/BB, .244 BABIP.
July 30-Sept. 30: 5.68 ERA, 2.08 K/BB, .355 BABIP. You be the judge.
A few years ago, Jackie Chan made a biopic about Sean Newcomb’s career. In case you didn’t see it, here it is:
Fourth: Julio Teheran. At this point he’s less enigma than archetype: top prospect comes up, does quite well, loses the bloom off his fastball, and tries to remake himself as a slop-thrower, and sometimes he gets by and sometimes he gets bombed. Hey, Livan Hernandez managed to do it for a decade and a half, but not everybody is Livo.
What happens right here is the hard part, halting the decline to stay just this side of playable. Teheran isn’t doing any present harm at the back end of the rotation, but if trends keep going the way they’re going (increasing walks, sky-high home run rate, and belt-high BP fastballs) he’ll be a Long Island Duck in three years.
Fifth: Anibal Sanchez, a Leo Mazzone reclamation special nearly a decade after Leo last rocked in an Atlanta clubhouse. Anibal just put together a rejuvenation year every bit as good as Jaret Wright, John Burkett, Javier Vazquez, or Kim Jong-Il. (Or, to a lesser extent and in partial seasons, Andy Ashby in 2000 and Ben Sheets in 2012.)
Anibal’s been making noises that he might want to retire, and why would we let him? If he can be persuaded to lace up his cleats one more summer for another $12 million — that’s what we were willing to give Bartolo — then I’d think it money well spent.
Will he be that good again? Of course not. The nice thing about handing a one-year contract to a veteran is that he can’t truly block a deserving youngster. If one of the rookies or sophomores forces his way into the rotation, the team won’t hesitate to give him Sanchez’s spot, and Sanchez is at a position in his career to understand that.
Whether the Braves keep Sanchez or choose to bring in another veteran or two on a one-year trial, almost all of the the biggest questions from 2018 remain the biggest questions for 2019: of all of our young pitchers, which of them will grow into true rotation anchors?
Only Foltzie is a certainty. And even Newcomb’s prognosis is far more certain than that of his younger staffmates, none of whom were quite able to grab and hold a rotation spot and take it for their own.
First: Bryse Wilson showed flashes. Another 20-year-old phenom who leapt multiple levels to force his way into the majors, he didn’t take the league by storm the way Ronald Acuna did, but Wilson’s going to have several more opportunities he wants to establish himself as a 2019 rotation mainstay. He’s earned that.
However, he’s going to have to prove that he’s more than just a babyface with two good pitches. If he wants to get past the sixth inning, he’s going to need a third pitch. (Either that, or the Braves will start bullpenning the regular season the way they did the Division Series. Well, we’ll see.)
Second: Touki Toussaint looked really good at times. The book on him was always that he was raw, a live arm who still needed polishing. He’s added a lot of polish in the last couple of years, and looks very nearly ready, and that wipeout curveball is as gosh darned pretty a hook as you’ll see. But as Sean Newcomb could tell him, you cannot fake your way to fastball command. (To paraphrase Animal House: “Son, 6.52 BB/9 is no way to go through life.”)
You can bluff your way past most minor leaguers with pure stuff, but in the majors, you’ll meet veterans who know how to spit on a curveball. The Braves staff was overly magnanimous with free passes this year, and it cost the pitching coach his job. We’ll see if Touki can get his strike percentage high enough to protect the next guy’s job.
Third: Mike Soroka might have taken a rotation spot and run off and hid with it, had the injury bug not gotten in the way. But that’s a sentence conclusion you could write about any pitcher: Stan Musial might have been a damn fine hurler if he hadn’t hurt his arm, and if I took a bit more time, I might come up with the best historical metaphor that’s ever been written.
So, all bets are off. But still, Soroka just lost a year. He’ll get another bite at the apple. He won’t turn 22 until August 4. Yes, that’s right: he was born exactly fourteen years to the day after Dave Winfield was arrested for killing a seagull with a throw.
Fourth: Max Fried looked quite good at times, and he’s done that for a while. As a lefty with a fastball and a pulse, he’ll probably be drawing a major league salary for another decade, but he needs to stay healthy. He’ll turn 25 in January, and while that’s still young, he’s in danger of missing his chance.
The Braves are certainly going to have to trade SOME depth, and for the Tommy John survivor with fewer than 60 major league innings under his belt, Max may be under the gun to persuade the Braves he’s worth building around.
- Fifth and
- Sixth: Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard lost a year, too, and they couldn’t blame the injury bug. They’re young enough to get more chances, but they’re going to have to pitch their way off the schneid: there are too many others hungry for an opportunity.That’s all the guys who made a start in 2018. But there’s one more key member of the 40-man roster who will likely make his starting debut very soon:
- Seventh: Kyle Wright, who made four appearances out of the pen in September. He’s really good, according to everyone who has studied him, and really really good, according to Stu.
And then there are the rest of the guys. In addition to being a knighted Scottish flautist, Ian Anderson could be 2019’s Bryse Wilson, a helium guy who blazes through multiple levels to earn a cup of coffee, but he’s got a LOT of people to leapfrog before he becomes a difference-maker. And he’s still just 20 — he was born exactly 27 years and 364 days after the US release of Aqualung.
The Bottom Line
It’s a good thing the Braves have all these prospects, especially since the federal government appears to be investigating improprieties in human trafficking of baseball players apparently related to Hector Olivera. We are more or less barred from the Latin American market for the next few years, and, considering the federal investigation, the status quo is literally the best-case scenario for us right now.
So we’d better hope Alex Anthopoulos has a few tricks up his sleeve. One of those tricks might be a knack for sweet-talking corporate management into coughing up a little bit more dough, which is something he managed to do in Toronto even after his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, horrifically bungled the free-agent signing of B.J. Ryan and extension for Vernon Wells.
But even if we have money to spend, we won’t spend it on the rotation. Not with our three billion prospects. We’ll spend it on the bullpen and the starting lineup. It stands to reason that one or two or three of our precocious twirlers will actually demonstrate the ability to complete 30 starts without getting killed. Right now it’s looking like Wilson, Soroka, and Toussaint. But will they actually make the leap, like Foltzie did? Will one of the others leapfrog them?
And if they do make the leap, will they manage to stay consistently good for longer than Julio Teheran did?