It’s early. It’s just April 22. The baseball season is barely two weeks old in the minor leagues. But something is happening in Triple-A Gwinnett that already requires serious attention.
Four starting pitchers, all legit prospects, are doing really well in Gwinnett. Wednesday night right-hander Williams Perez allowed two runs (one earned) on six hits in seven innings, with no walks and five strikeouts.
Perez now has an ERA of 1.69. He’s allowed 15 hits in 16 innings, with seven walks and 11 strikeouts. Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos and Matt Wisler have also done well so far this season. The four Gwinnett starters have made 11 starts. They are 2-3 with a combined ERA of 2.54. They have allowed 53 hits in 56.2 innings, 16 earned runs, 24 walks and 57 strikeouts.
Eric Stults pitched well for Atlanta Wednesday in New York, to hopefully quiet the fears of many who worried about his immediate future. Trevor Cahill was better Tuesday, and should have had a better fate if not for the error at second base by Phil Gosselin.
But make no mistake about it: the combination of the prospects doing well in Triple-A and the fourth and fifth starters in Atlanta struggling could present a story if those trends continue.
And really, it’s not a question of if one or two of the Gwinnett starters will be promoted to Atlanta, but when.
The best case scenario is that Stults and Cahill do well and not make it where the Braves have to bring up one of the Gwinnett starters. Instead, the preference should be to make sure those young pitchers develop as much as they can and are not rushed to Atlanta because of a need.
Plus, the Braves probably secretly would love for Stults and/or Cahill to pitch well enough that another team would think they could help them down the stretch. Then the Braves could perhaps trade Stults and/or Cahill and continue to improve the farm system’s talent.
Then if the veterans were traded, the Braves could then call up the pitcher in Gwinnett they deem most ready to stick. Of course, Mike Minor is a wildcard in this. If he returns, Minor would get a priority for a rotation spot. But that’s very much up in the air right now.
If Stults or Cahill struggle, the Braves will in turn gauge the readiness of the four young pitchers in Gwinnett to see if any of them are ready to make the jump. But they probably want the pitchers to be able to stick, so they can avoid being on a see-saw between Atlanta and Gwinnett and instead can get a full-time chance at being a major league starting pitcher.
Foltynewicz may be showing he’s the closest to being ready. He’s the only one of the four with big league experience, as Foltynewicz pitched 16 games out of the Houston bullpen late last season. Foltynewicz had a tremendous performance Monday (8 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K) and has a 1.62 ERA in his first three starts with Gwinnett, with 21 strikeouts in 16.2 innings pitched.
Foltynewicz was in contention for a big league rotation spot last month in spring training, so the Braves know he’s close. They wanted him to work on his command and to simply harness his breaking stuff, and it seems he is doing that under the watchful eye of Gwinnett pitching coach Marty Reed.
Foltynewicz, who is still just 23 years old, reportedly was still throwing in the upper-90s late in the game Monday. If he continues pitching this well, the Braves may have to make room for him somehow, someway, regardless of how Stults and Cahill are doing. This strong start by Foltynewicz is only supporting the belief that he has top-of-the-rotation potential.
Wisler, the 22-year-old right-hander who pitches Thursday afternoon in Norfolk, is also almost ready. He wasn’t as sharp in his second start of the season last Friday, but there’s little doubt Wisler might be ready sometime later this season.
Banuelos, the elder statesman of the quarter at 24 years old, has 14.1 innings in three starts, and the reports of his stuff have been positive. The real thing Banuelos needs is innings. It’s that simple. Remember, the Yankees were careful with Banuelos last season, in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. Let Banuelos stay in Triple-A this entire season and get innings, and then let’s see how close Banuelos is to being ready for Atlanta.
And Perez is someone that not many people are talking about, but that’s a mistake. The burly right-hander turns 24 next month. He has a 3.12 ERA in his 50 starts since the start of the 2013 season in Rome. Perez is a legit prospect. Coaches have thought for several years that Perez has the potential to be a middle-rotation starting pitcher.
What happens when these four are ready? What happens if all four are ready at the start of next season, which is a real possibility?
Well, let’s make one assumption – that Foltynewicz and Wisler will end this 2015 season in the Atlanta rotation. That is a good bet to happen, unless the Braves are doing way better than expected and Stults and Cahill are too valuable to trade (which is unlikely). So the rotation would include Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Shelby Miller (all three are 24 years old), along with Foltynewicz (23) and Wisler (22).
This scenario might spell the end of the line for Minor in a Braves uniform. If he fails to show he’s healthy, Minor will likely be non-tendered this offseason. If he comes back and shows he can still pitch and does well, the Braves might be able to get something for him, since they wouldn’t have to trade him if they didn’t want to.
Of course, the five starters could be in the rotation to start next season. While that would be a very young rotation, it would potentially be very good. Would the Braves consider trading one of the starting pitchers for a bat? What if they believe Banuelos or Perez were also ready to contend for a rotation spot next spring as the fifth starter? Could that make Teheran, Wood or Miller available to get a position player the Braves may need?
Well, Teheran is under contract through 2019 and the Braves have a team option for 2020. It would be one heck of a big trade if he were involved, since Teheran is the ace of the staff. That makes a deal unlikely. Wood is under control through 2019, and you can bet if he continues to do well the Braves will want to sign him to a long-term, team-friendly deal like the one Teheran signed a year ago. And then Miller is under control through 2018.
Put two rookie pitchers with that group and you have a young rotation that would be under control for the next several seasons. That would give the Braves tremendous options moving forward. It would allow them to give their other young pitchers time to develop. There would be no need to rush any young pitching prospect, which is a great luxury that not many other teams have.
And there would be the possibility that one of the young pitchers, either in Atlanta or one in the minor league system, could be used in a trade to acquire a position player that might be needed.
Think about this. The Braves likely hope that not only Banuelos and Perez could be ready sometime next season to knock on the door, but also pitchers like Tyrell Jenkins (now in Mississippi) and perhaps even four pitchers in Carolina this season (Lucas Sims, Steve Janas and Andrew Thurman and Yean Carlos Gil).
And let's not forget about Max Fried and Dan Winkler, two pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery who will be in this conversation a year from now. Plus, there's the June draft. The Braves will likely draft a couple of pitchers who might also be worth mentioning in the next few years as possibilities.
Things happen. Pitchers have to stay healthy. They have to develop and get better. We probably can’t expect all of these young pitchers to become stars or even all to become major league starters. But when you accumulate depth, as the Braves are doing, you can think about these types of scenarios. You can think about these “best-case” situations that might make the Braves better.
That’s why we need to keep an eye on what’s going on in Gwinnett. It is early. But the fine work of the four legit starting pitching prospects could start a chain reaction that could give the Braves front office more options than it has had in many years.
Options are what can help make a team better, and the accumulation of pitching prospects could make that happen for the Braves sooner rather than later.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at email@example.com.
Gwinnett pitchers creating options
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