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The Braves Are Already Playing Catch-up Again

With the other NL East contenders making moves, defending champion Atlanta needs help keeping up. Offseason acquisition Josh Donaldson and phenoms Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies will get the headlines, but the Braves will go only as far as their young pitching staff can take them in 2019.

Ronald Acuña Jr., Josh Donaldson, Sean Newcomb  Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Atlanta Braves won the NL East by eight games last year. And even though they went 72-90 the year before, Atlanta’s success in 2018 wasn’t some one-off fluke like the 2007 Diamondbacks, who outperformed their run differential by 11 games, but didn’t win more than 82 games in either the three years prior or the three years that followed. Last year’s Braves were the turning point of a multiyear rebuilding project, a club that had spent the past five years stockpiling talent and finally unleashed it in force on the National League.

It’s important to say all that off the bat, because five months later it’s easy to forget. PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus projection system, has the Braves pegged to finish fourth in the NL East this year. It’s not a distant fourth; the Phillies, Nationals, Mets, and Braves are all within five games of each other in PECOTA, and depending on whose odds you’re looking at, Any Specific Team But The Marlins is about 3-to-1 to win the NL East. Even if they haven’t been surpassed, last year’s NL East champions have definitely been caught.

Atlanta will be counting on continued development from 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. and 2018 All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies (both born in 1997), among other youngsters. To supplement their homegrown stars, the Braves signed 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract. Albies and Acuña are the best-known products of Atlanta’s rebuild, and among the first to make an impact in the majors, but the Braves have poured substantial resources into pitching prospects who are still developing. The Braves’ past six first-round picks, and nine of their past 11, have been pitchers, and they’ve acquired numerous other talented young arms in trades.

Even those young Braves pitchers who have major league experience, like Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint, are still developing. And while Atlanta’s position players are good enough to stay in the division race, the Braves won’t be able to defend their division title without a big step forward from their young pitchers.

On paper, the Braves are probably better this year than last year, but Atlanta has the misfortune of playing in a division with teams that had three of the splashiest offseasons in all of baseball. Last year’s Braves benefited from the rest of the division falling apart around them; this year’s Braves will have to contend with the opposite. The Phillies, who led the NL East into August last season, traded for All-Stars Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto and picked up some solid veteran role players like reliever David Robertson and outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Then they topped it all off by handing Bryce Harper the biggest contract in the history of North American team sports. The Nationals, who lost Harper, turned around and reinvested in left-hander Patrick Corbin, whose six-year, $140 million deal was the third-largest handed out this offseason. The Mets pulled off a blockbuster trade to pry eight-time All-Star Robinson Canó from Seattle, and Canó might not be as impactful an acquisition as closer Edwin Díaz, who saved 57 games for the Mariners last year.

Even counting Donaldson, the Braves got outspent by their direct competitors; Atlanta’s payroll heading into 2019 is a hair under $110 million, which is fourth in the division and almost $50 million less than the Mets and Nationals are spending. It’s not impossible for a team to contend on a $110 million payroll, and not even particularly difficult for a club that’s as rich with young talent as Atlanta is. The Braves might be the least predictable of the NL East’s four contending teams because, for as transcendently talented as some of their position players are, they’ll go only as far as their young pitching staff can take them.

The Braves don’t have that much to worry about on the position-player side. First baseman Freddie Freeman is one of the best hitters in the game, while Donaldson is just a season removed from posting a 151 wRC+. Donaldson’s reputation took a hit when he spent most of 2018 injured or ineffective, but even last year his wRC+, 117, was higher than Charlie Blackmon’s, Kyle Schwarber’s, and José Abreu’s. Donaldson can still absolutely mash. Right fielder Nick Markakis will probably not repeat last year’s All-Star performance, but he can get on base and, by extension, score runs: Markakis has posted an OBP of .340 or better in 12 of his 13 seasons in the majors.

Not every Braves hitter can mash, but the few below-average hitters are solid defenders or better at up-the-middle positions. Behind the plate, the Braves have pitch-framing god Tyler Flowers. Center fielder Ender Inciarte took a step back offensively (.325 OBP in 2018 after posting a combined .347 mark over the previous three seasons), but provides enough defensive value to make up for it. And Dansby Swanson’s 80 wRC+ in 2018 is disappointing from a former no. 1 overall pick, but it’s not the end of the world from a good defensive shortstop. And if anyone gets hurt or goes into a slump, Atlanta can call on Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson to fill in the gaps. The 25-year-old Camargo played three positions last year and hit .272/.349/.457, while the 29-year-old Culberson hit .270/.326/.466 while playing seven positions, including one inning at pitcher. Few clubs, if any, can call on two utilitymen of this caliber.

Most of all, the Braves need Acuña and Albies to continue to develop, which sounds obvious but is important enough to say anyway. Acuña and Albies have shown Hall of Fame potential in their brief big league careers, but it’s not a given that they’ll continue to perform at the level they’ve displayed so far, much less improve.

The 2019 Braves aren’t exactly the Big Red Machine, but they’ve got a solid lineup with four players—Acuña, Donaldson, Freeman, and Albies—who could end up getting MVP votes without shocking anyone. The key to their season will be the young pitching staff, which has as much boom-or-bust potential as any unit in baseball.

This year’s Braves pitching staff has enough question marks that it’s fair to say they’ll probably miss Aníbal Sánchez, who waltzed off the scrap heap and into Atlanta’s rotation in 2018. The former Tiger and Marlin posted a 5.67 ERA in 415 2/3 innings from 2015 to 2017, then had a 2.83 ERA and struck out nearly a batter an inning at age 34 for Atlanta last year.

Sánchez’s departure leaves the Braves with a young and talented, but relatively untested rotation. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz was a capital-A Ace in 2018, with a 2.85 ERA in 183 innings. The 27-year-old Foltynewicz, who is one of the rare pitchers to return successfully from thoracic outlet syndrome, finished eighth in NL Cy Young balloting in 2018. The bad news is that four of the top five pitchers in last year’s NL Cy Young race—Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, and Corbin—are now in the NL East too, in addition to Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, and Sánchez, who signed with Washington as a free agent. Particularly compared with the Nationals and Mets, both of which have multiple reliable top-end starters, Atlanta is thick on pitchers with lots of potential but only a year or two of big league success. Even Atlanta’s veterans are relatively young. Left-handed reliever Jonny Venters, a former All-Star for the Braves in 2011, returned to the club in 2018 after missing five full seasons due to multiple Tommy John surgeries. The 33-year-old Venters is the only pitcher older than 28 who figures to play a significant role for Atlanta this season, either as a starter or a high-leverage reliever.

Apart from Foltynewicz, the Braves’ rotation will feature Julio Teheran, who’s been a solid big league starter since 2013, but has been merely league-average the past two seasons and couldn’t crack last year’s playoff rotation. Kevin Gausman pitched well after coming over from the developmental purgatory that is the Baltimore Orioles last July, but has been inconsistent over his five-year career. And Sean Newcomb, the jewel of the trade that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels in 2015, has pitched effectively over the past two seasons, but his walk rate (11.5 percent) was sixth-worst in baseball last year among starters with at least 100 innings pitched.

But it’s not fair to dwell on the inexperience of Atlanta’s pitching staff without pointing out their immense potential. In 2018, seven former first-round picks, age 25 or younger, made at least one appearance on the mound for the Braves: Newcomb, Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Lucas Sims, Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright, and Touki Toussaint. That doesn’t include left-handed Brazilian fireballer Luiz Gohara, now 22 years old, who was a consensus top-100 prospect heading into 2018, or 25-year-old A.J. Minter, a former second-round pick who saved 15 games.

Some of Atlanta’s young starters have lost a little bit of their shine since their peaks as prospects. There were questions about Allard’s size and Gohara’s command, for instance, and both have justified those concerns in limited big league action. Left-handed reliever Jesse Biddle, a 27-year-old former first-rounder, arrived in Atlanta via waivers in 2016, needing Tommy John surgery, after missing critical developmental time when he was hit on the head by a hailstone and suffered a concussion.

But others are making good on their previous promise. Toussaint, a 2014 first-rounder whom the Braves acquired from Arizona in exchange for taking on Bronson Arroyo’s salary in 2015, figures to be first to get a crack at the fifth spot in the rotation. Toussaint saw his first big league action last year at age 22 and featured a true four-pitch mix: four-seamer, sinker, mid-70s curveball, and a splitter that acts like a hard changeup, coming in around 85 miles per hour with sink and arm-side run. Despite walking 21 in just 29 regular-season innings, Toussaint made the postseason roster last year and picked up Atlanta’s only win of the NLDS.

If Toussaint falters, the Braves could call on 23-year-old Kyle Wright, the no. 5 pick in the 2017 draft out of Vanderbilt, where he played with Swanson and Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler. Like Toussaint, Wright is a tall right-hander with a smooth three-quarters delivery, mid-90s fastball, and plus breaking ball. Atlanta could also go to Soroka, a 21-year-old Canadian command and control artist, once he returns from shoulder soreness. And if not Soroka, then Allard or Gohara.

Atlanta has so many good starting pitching prospects that some of them are bound to turn into reliable big leaguers just by sheer numbers. The risk is that it won’t identify that no. 5 starter early enough in the season to stay in the hunt, or that Foltynewicz, Newcomb, or another of its top four starters misses significant time or takes a step back. And it’s likely that at least one of them will; Foltynewicz is already a question mark for Opening Day thanks to an elbow injury, and Gausman has battled shoulder soreness and is yet to make his first Grapefruit League start. Another hole in the rotation could stretch Atlanta’s army of talented youngsters who don’t remember Y2K beyond its ability to soak up innings.

And these are substantial risks. Atlanta’s stable of young pitchers is impressive, and exciting, and gives the Braves immense upside, not just this year but beyond. But the kids must perform this year if the Braves are going to contend for the division. The Mets, Phillies, and Nationals brought in so much outside help that Atlanta has to improve from within in order to keep pace.