When Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder committed to getting the Braves on track in the late-1980s, there was one priority. It was a commitment to building the Braves through pitching, even though most believed that philosophy would never work.
Remember that in the 1980s the Braves played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. There was no Coors Field back then, but the Braves’ stadium had a similar reputation. Most believed the Braves could never win with pitching because of how the ball traveled out of the old ballpark.
That’s why in the 80s the Braves were built around Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, two sluggers who routinely knocked balls out in home games. But that strategy didn’t work, as the Braves suffered through losing seasons with lackluster pitching staffs.
So Cox and Snyder pretty much threw conventional wisdom in a ceiling fan and decided that focusing on pitching might instead actually work.
We all know what happened. They focused on pitchers in the draft. They got a pitcher back in every trade. And in time, the Braves accumulated perhaps the deepest pool of pitching talent in baseball history.
Along the way, the Braves had to specialize in an area of baseball scouting that is often overlooked: self-scouting (or internal scouting), the ability to properly scout your own talent. We all know about scouting other teams’ talent, but what about having scouts that make sure the talent in their own farm system is correctly evaluated?
Cox, Snyder and later on John Schuerholz were pretty good at doing that. They made a lot of correct decisions along the way in making the Braves perennial contenders. For example, Cox (as general manager) could have traded Tom Glavine to the Red Sox for Wade Boggs, who at the time was the best hitter in baseball. He resisted, believing Glavine would one day be a star even though his numbers didn’t always indicate that early on in his career.
But it was the accumulation of talent that was crucial for the front office to not only create rosters each and every year, but to also give Schuerholz the talent to use in trades to regularly help the roster. They had to have talent in the farm system that other teams would want, and even after players that graduated to the big leagues became stars, the assembly line of talent rarely dried up.
Amateur scouting had a lot to do with it, but scouting that talent once it got into the system was crucial. When Schuerholz took over before the 1991 season, he inherited a rich farm system. Glavine and John Smoltz were already in the rotation. Steve Avery was perhaps the best young pitcher in baseball, having debuted the previous summer.
But there were others. Pete Smith and Kent Mercker were two young pitchers with great talent. Ben Rivera, Turk Wendell, Matt Turner, Mike Stanton, Paul Marak, Pat Gomez, Andy Nezelek, Armando Reynoso and a young reliever named Mark Wohlers were also on the 40-man roster.
The year before, Cox had already decided to pull the trigger on trades that involved Derek Lilliquist and Tommy Greene, two heralded prospects that were simply expendable due to the depth. Lilliquist never really did much as a starter after leaving Atlanta, while Greene did well for the Phillies for a few years (including a no-hitter) before having arm issues.
Cox had also traded away other pitching prospects in the late-1980s, guys like Kevin Coffman, Kevin Blankenship and Gary Eave. When Braves prospect lists were made back then, these guys were right there with bigger names like Glavine, Smoltz and Avery.
But decisions had to be made on which ones to keep and which ones to trade. It’s not a perfect science. Ask Schuerholz about this topic and he’ll likely bring up Adam Wainwright, a prospect that some in the Braves’ organization believed in the winter of 2003 would only be a number four or five starting pitcher. And with decent depth at that point, Schuerholz felt that type of prospect was expendable when the Braves needed a starting outfielder.
Jason Schmidt bit Schuerholz to some extent, but Schmidt was used to get a veteran starter (Denny Neagle) when the Braves had a surplus of pitchers. With Kevin Millwood coming into his own as a prospect in 1996, the Braves were fine in trading Schmidt when they had a chance to get a solid veteran arm.
There were plenty of trades made by Schuerholz that included pitching prospects that did not come back to bite the Braves, players (like Rob Bell, Bubba Nelson, Jung Bong, Jose Capellan and Kyle Davies) that were used to help the big league team and were somewhat expendable because of solid depth.
Now, in 2015, the Braves have also done a tremendous job in accumulating pitching talent. This organization was broken, but the new front office prioritized pitching in its retooling project that began last October. Trades were made with pitching as the focus, and the results are starting to show that progress is being made.
Atlanta’s rotation includes two players acquired in those trades – Shelby Miller and Mike Foltynewicz. There are three homegrown pitchers in the rotation – Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Williams Perez. All five are below 25 years old to form the youngest rotation in the game. And they are all under control for at least three more years.
But the depth doesn’t end there. Matt Wisler and Manny Banuelos, two more pitchers acquired in last offseason’s deals, are doing tremendous work in Triple-A Gwinnett. They could likely get big league hitters out now, but it is not going to hurt them to continue their development for the rest of the season.
Next spring, however, when Wisler and Banuelos show they are ready, what’s going to happen when the Braves already have a loaded, young rotation?
That might be taken care of this offseason when the team is bombarded with calls from other teams who see this building talent. They will know the numbers and know that the Braves are loaded in pitching. They will know the Braves might be able to afford trading a young arm for a bat because of the depth.
What if the Braves want to add a veteran pitcher to the rotation, to compliment the under-25-year-old pitchers? They have around $45 million coming off the payroll, so they can pursue a pitcher like that (David Price or Zack Greinke). Then that will be even more talent and more depth.
But beyond those seven pitchers (and possibly even an eighth if a free agent were added) there are others. Tyrell Jenkins is doing great in Double-A. While all on the disabled list right now, three pitchers in Carolina (Lucas Sims, Steve Janas and Andrew Thurman) have shown great potential. And Rome has Ricardo Sanchez, Caleb Beech, Alec Grosser, Max Povse and Chad Sobotka as young but legit prospects.
Oh, and let’s not forget (I almost did) about Max Fried, a top prospect who was acquired in the Justin Upton trade. He was a top prospect before he had Tommy John surgery last year, and the Braves believe he has the ability to bounce back and regain that prospect status. He could skyrocket to the top of the prospect list when he proves he is healthy. The same goes for Danny Winkler, a Rule V pitcher also coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Plus, the draft is a week away. You can imagine the priority in this draft, particularly with top scouting evaluator Roy Clark back in the organization, will be pitching. Those will be names that in a few months we can add to the prospect list.
All of these pitchers are like legs on a table – the stronger they are, the more there are, the better the foundation for the top of the table. The old notion of “You can never have too much pitching” is more than just a cliché; it should be the foundation for every organization in roster construction.
And obviously, the fear of injuries must keep the assembly line moving. You almost have to count on pitchers getting hurt, so consider that when selecting pitchers to project for future rotations.
For the Braves the key will be self-scouting. They are going to have to make tough decisions moving forward. Let’s look at a potential scenario this winter.
Let’s say they do use part of that excess money to invest in a top veteran starting pitcher. Remember, Cox brought in Charlie Leibrandt from Kansas City, who was 33 at the time, to help the young pitchers in 1990. Many of those pitchers will tell you how valuable Leibrandt was in helping them become mature major leaguers.
We can dream for a Greinke (who will be 32 next season) or Price (who will be 30), both of whom have expressed desire in pitching for the Braves one day, but let’s leave out a name for now and just hope it’s one of them. So that would give the Braves eight pitchers – the veteran, Miller, Teheran, Wood, Foltynewicz, Williams, Wisler and Banuelos – who could be in the Atlanta rotation on opening day 2016.
Keep in mind that in spring training next year, we could believe Jenkins may not be too far away from being ready to contribute. Plus, pitchers like the ones in Carolina this season could be a year away. Who knows if one of the drafted pitchers next week could be like Alex Wood and simply not take long, either.
So what if teams that have excess at positions on the diamond want some of the Braves pitchers? Let’s say the Dodgers, who (according to Vin Scully last week) love Alex Wood, want him in a deal for an outfielder. The Dodgers have plenty of outfielders. Would the Braves feel comfortable trading Wood? Would they be worried about his arm motion to feel he would be the one who could be expendable? Would they believe that if Wood were traded they could depend on Banuelos, another lefty, to step in and replace him next season?
Teheran is obviously struggling right now, but if he gets back on track, would another team inquire about him? As long as he is pitching well, Teheran has tremendous value. He’s under control through 2020 with a very team-friendly contract. Would the Braves feel comfortable enough that even if Teheran continued to be a 12-15 game winner, they’d have enough pitching to compensate for his loss?
It’s hard to imagine the Braves even listening to any offer for Miller or Foltynewicz. They just got here. They are young and they throw hard. The Braves may take some of that money coming off the books this offseason and offer it to Miller in a Teheran-like contract. But while teams may ask for those two, would the Braves trade them that quickly after just getting them?
Then let’s say Perez continues to do well in the Atlanta rotation. There are four months left, so Perez could get about 20 more starts. Wisler might have 15 or so left for Gwinnett. What if he continues to do well? What if the Braves are asked about one of those two pitchers in trade discussions? Who would they pick?
This is where the self-scouting comes into play. These next four months of the season are crucial to the future of this franchise. The front office may know, or simply have preferences, for who they may trade when the time comes to use a pitcher in a deal. But more than likely, the scouts and executives will use the rest of this season to fully evaluate which of these impressive young pitchers can be long-term major league pitchers.
Some won’t make it. Some, like Kevin Coffman and Derek Lilliquist, will fizzle out. Some will get hurt. But the numbers the Braves have created are also forming potential tough decisions, which are the types of difficult decisions organizations dream about.
The Braves don’t need to stop adding to the pipeline just because the numbers are getting interesting. Sure, there are organizational needs at positions on the diamond, but they need to have a recurring problem of asking “What are we going to do with all of these pitchers?”
Maybe the Braves should hire an old-fashioned super scout, a man with an impeccable track record that can know the farm system and the major league team up and down and provide analysis and evaluations on Atlanta’s talent. So that when a decision must be made about which pitchers to keep, that scout can provide an expert opinion.
They already have great scouts in the organization, people who have evaluated pitchers for years. And they will earn their money this year, as it likely won’t be easy to determine which of these pitchers to keep and which ones should be used in trades. There’s a lot of talent in the organization to choose from.
Self-scouting is not something we think about, but it will likely be the highest priority for the Atlanta Braves for the rest of this season.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internal scouting will be key for the Braves
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