So who might be in the 2017 Atlanta Braves rotation? Who might be the candidates?
The unbelievable part of this answer is that there may not even be a need for new candidates. The Braves have five pitchers right now that are controllable and inexpensive that could fill out the 2017 rotation.
It’s safe to assume Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin are likely just for 2016. If they do well, they will likely be trade bait before July 31. But the other candidates for the 2016 rotation are: Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Williams Perez and Manny Banuelos.
Those are the five guys that could win spots in next year’s rotation. The Braves believe Norris will fill out one spot, but if he were to struggle in spring training and all the others did well, it would be a tough decision for the front office.
Perez probably is the best candidate to be a long reliever, and Chacin will have a better chance to make the rotation if Banuelos is struggling with injuries. But if Banuelos is healthy and does well, it might be tough to keep him out of the starting five.
Best case scenario: let’s say those five pitchers (Teheran, Wisler, Foltynewicz, Banuelos and Perez) are set in the rotation at the end of 2016. That would mean the Braves would have significant flexibility to use some of those pitchers if the pitchers who will be in AAA and AA in 2016 may knock on the door.
So the expected development of those starters in Gwinnett and Mississippi will be crucial in giving the front office significant options for the rotation to open Sun Trust Park with in 2017.
Those pitchers include: Aaron Blair, Tyrell Jenkins, John Gant, Casey Kelly, Sean Newcomb, Chris Ellis and Lucas Sims. Yes, that’s seven pitchers who could do well in 2016 and make a case for the 2017 rotation.
Blair is likely the closest pitcher ready to crack the Atlanta rotation. He had 12 starts in AAA for the Diamondbacks last season. Blair could go to spring training and make a case for the 2016 rotation, but if he gets another full season in the minor leagues, the Braves should have a highly-rated prospect ready to knock on the door.
Blair is currently rated as the 61st best prospect in the game, so another solid season would only pop him up higher on that list. If he were, let’s say, a top 50 prospect that had a full season in AAA under his belt, Blair would likely be ready for Atlanta in 2017’s opening day rotation.
Jenkins will be under extreme pressure to do even better than he did last year in his first season with the Braves organization. Jenkins is a good pitcher, but with the competition around him he may have to be great to be a starting pitcher in Atlanta. Jenkins needs to miss more bats, and you can expect the Braves to work with him on getting more strikeouts.
At the least, Jenkins can be a decent reliever for Atlanta. And we need to remember that with the quantity of starting pitchers and starting pitching prospects, some of these guys (maybe like Folty or Williams Perez?) will be switched to the pen. Jenkins will be another candidate for this if others pass him on the list.
Gant is a wildcard that not many are talking about, but they should be talking about him. Gant is another pitcher who could wind up in the pen, with some even comparing him to Tyler Clippard, who also was a starter early in his career. But for now Gant will remain in the rotation, likely starting the 2016 season in Gwinnett.
Gant has 403 minor league innings, so from a time-spent standpoint, he’s not far off. The Braves were thrilled with how well Gant did in AA last season after the trade from the Mets. If he goes to Gwinnett and does well, Gant may become a candidate to take someone’s job if they are struggling in Atlanta.
Kelly is a longshot, but the Braves will try to straighten him out. He’s never been the same since the Tommy John surgery a few years ago. But Kelly was a top prospect at one time, and if the Braves can figure it out for him, he’s a name to at least keep in mind. There’s work to be done, but the talent is still in there somewhere. He’ll have to excel to stand above this crowd, but there is hope or they wouldn’t have acquired him from San Diego in the Christian Bethancourt trade.
Newcomb has an excellent chance at being ready for the 2017 rotation. This is a highly-rated prospect (19th best overall by MLB.com) and if he repeats his impressive 2015 results with the Braves he might be a top-five prospect. Newcomb likely starts back in AA for the Braves, as he had just seven starts in AA for the Angels last season. The Braves love Newcomb’s potential, and with his status and who they gave up (Andrelton Simmons) to get him, Newcomb will be given every chance to make a rotation when he shows he’s ready.
Ellis came with Newcomb from the Angels. He had a few more starts in AA last season (15), so he could be a bit closer than Newcomb. With just 156 career minor league innings, Ellis would benefit by coming close to doubling that number by the end of 2016. A full season, perhaps in Mississippi or split in Gwinnett, could put him very close to being ready in 2017. There’s no reason Ellis couldn’t have a fine season and be in the conversation a year from now.
Sims makes this so interesting. Here’s a homegrown kid, one of only a few it seems, that has gotten on track after some struggles along the way. Sims was great in the Arizona Fall League, and with 399.2 minor league innings he is not far away at all. There may be a push to put him in the Gwinnett rotation in 2016, which will make him very close. But if Sims stays healthy and has a full season of development, there is no doubt he will be ready to make a case for a spot in the 2017 rotation.
Here’s the best part of this story: there will be NO need to rush any of these pitchers. They can develop at their own pace and not be pushed to Atlanta before they are ready – as some of the pitchers last year admittedly were. But the best case scenario will be is if several of these pitchers can be ready for 2017 and, at the same time, the young arms in the current Atlanta rotation do well, then you’re going to have a backlog where several pitchers will simply be available for trade.
Let’s remember, as well, that behind these pitchers we’ve mentioned who should be in AAA and AA, you have these guys who could be in AA (and need more time) or in High-A who could have a full season of development in 2016 and be a step closer: Zach Bird, Steve Janas, Andrew Thurman, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint. Maybe one of those pitchers has a breakout season and gets in the conversation quicker than we may have believed they would. It’s possible.
Teheran, Wisler, Foltynewicz, Banuelos and Perez could prove they deserve to hold onto their rotation spots for 2017, but what if Blair, Newcomb and Sims also prove they are ready? Well, then you’ve got great depth. And don’t forget, the Braves could make some more trades to produce more candidates.
Let’s be honest. Teheran might be traded before 2017, and I believe he will be traded no later than July 31, 2016. Foltynewicz could show he can’t be a starter and the Braves would then move him to the bullpen to see if he’s a candidate to become the future closer. Banuelos must prove he can stay healthy, so that’s a big question. And Perez is thought of as a fringe pitcher who has to be more consistent to show he can stick.
That could open up a few spots, with the Braves using some of the other depth to perhaps get a more heralded veteran starting pitcher than Bud Norris to join a very young 2017 rotation. But the depth does make the potential for change in the future rotation very interesting, and a strength of this team the front office has coveted since taking over 14 months ago.
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