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Part one of a look at the Braves organization as we turn to 2016

Bill Shanks takes a look at the Braves pitching as we head into 2016.

It’s that time of the year – the last day of the year – when I take a look at the Atlanta Braves organization. The state of the Braves is the name of the feature. What is the state of this organization as we head into a new calendar year?

Well, if you’ve ever read anything I’ve ever written, or if you’ve ever heard anything I’ve ever said about organization construction, you know what I believe in. Pitching. I know others (Theo Epstein?) may prefer a different course, but I’ve just been brought up on believing that pitching depth is the key to any team’s chance at being consistently successful.

Therefore, I love the state of this organization. I love what’s been done in the last 14 months to fix what was badly broken. I understand that others may be skeptical. I know others believe the Braves have already accumulated too much pitching. But I don’t believe that is possible.

You can never have too much pitching. Never. Pitching is the best currency you can have from a value perspective, and if you don’t believe that go back and look at the details of the Shelby Miller trade.

General Manager John Coppolella is not finished. There is still work to be done. More trades will be made, and before opening day 2016 on April 3 there will likely be more new names on the roster that are not on there today.

Coppolella has been active and aggressive and creative in rebuilding this organization. It’s in great shape. Will the Braves be better in 2016? Yes, I think so. But truthfully, I really don’t care.

This is a rebuilding process. This takes time. Sure, I want the Braves to win more than 67 games in 2016, but if they don’t that will just mean they’ll get another good draft pick in 2017. The most important thing for this organization is to continue to accumulate talent, through trades, signings and the draft.

So here we go. This will be comments about players, thoughts on how they might do in 2016 and how the Braves will do moving forward. Yes, this will be in two parts, since the pitching section might be as long as a script for a TV mini-series.

PITCHING

Julio Teheran is now the number one pitcher in Atlanta’s rotation with Miller in Arizona. He needs to rebound in 2016 to show he’s still a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Teheran did do better late last season, and the hope is he continues to do well heading into the new season.

Here’s my prediction on Teheran: he will do well in the first half, be Atlanta’s all-star rep and then before the July 31st deadline be one of the most sought-after starting pitchers on the trade market. Teheran will have a lot of value if he’s pitching well. Will he bring in as much as Miller? Well, maybe not, but if he’s doing well it might not be too far off that price.

Remember, Teheran is signed through 2020 with that option year. That’s five seasons at a total of $40.6 million bucks. That’s a bargain, and it won’t be awful if the Braves keep him around. But if they get a great offer that might include a top pitching prospect (like Aaron Blair was) and a top young position player (like Dansby Swanson) they might trade Teheran.

There is a fear that Teheran’s first five months of last year are an indication that he’s going down the Jair Jurrjens’ road. But let’s hope he can be the Julio Teheran of September last year and do well – so the Braves can either trade him for a big haul or have him continue to be a cornerstone of the rotation.

The Braves have brought in Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick, three veteran starters, to be in the rotation. They don’t cost much and if they do well they can eat innings and then be trade bait in July. I’m glad the Braves got one-year, inexpensive options compared to blowing money on a big-time veteran free agent that really wouldn’t be necessary in the type of season the Braves are expected to have in 2016.

I hope the rotation includes Matt Wisler (a lock), Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos. Wisler looks like a solid number two or three starting pitcher. Remember, Wisler is still just 23 years old. He’s going to be so much better in a couple of years. I like Wisler a lot, and for me he can really be a significant piece in the rotation both now and later.

I’m a huge fan of Folty. I seriously hope the Braves give Mike a legit chance – a long chance – to be a starting pitcher. I hope they are patient with him and give him a full season as a starting pitcher. Let him learn how to be a starter, and if he gets knocked around a bit don’t throw him back in the bullpen. Don’t panic. Let’s see if Folty can be a starter. Okay, if he can’t, then throw him in the pen in 2017. But I love this kid’s stuff. I like his demeanor. I want to see what he can do with at least 20-something starts. If he fails, then move him to the pen in the last six weeks to prepare him for the next season. But Folty needs a full shot as a starting pitcher.

If Banuelos is healthy, he should make a run in spring training for a rotation spot. From a stuff perspective, Banuelos has what it takes to get big league hitters out. It’s all about his health. He should be ready to have a full season, since the Braves continued the careful approach to his workload last season.

Williams Perez might be in the rotation, but with Norris and Chacin around Perez might only have a shot as the long reliever in the bullpen if he has a good spring training. Perez has just got to be more consistent to clearly define his role. But if he stays inconsistent, Perez will be nothing more than a fringe pitcher.

There are several young pitchers who will try to make an impression in March, and don’t be shocked if by mid-March we are wondering if one or two of them could actually make the Atlanta rotation. The talent is there; it’s just a question of who will step up and be in the conversation.

Aaron Blair, Tyrell Jenkins, Ryan Weber and Casey Kelly are the four to keep an eye on. Blair might be ready now, and Jenkins could make a strong case after his impressive showing in Triple-A late last season. Weber is more of a fringe pitcher, while Kelly has to turn things around after falling apart following Tommy John surgery.

Others might make an impression, but no matter what Sean Newcomb, John Gant, Chris Ellis and Lucas Sims do the chances are more likely they’ll start in the minor leagues.

I actually am starting to like what the bullpen options are looking like. I do hope the Braves give Arodys Vizcaino a chance to be the team’s closer in 2016. I don’t know what else the kid needed to do to show he can handle the role. He throws hard and his curveball can be very good. Let him do it and see what you have.

Jason Grilli should be back, and there’s no doubt he could again get the chance to close out games. If Grilli is healthy and pitches like he did last season, he could be traded before the July 31 deadline.

So could Jim Johnson, who was brought back. He was really good last season before being traded to the Dodgers. If he pitches well and the Braves fall back, Johnson could be dealt once again. I imagine that’s a likely scenario, as Johnson should go back to doing well under pitching coach Roger McDowell.

After those main three, there’s a long list of potential relievers for the braves to choose from in March: Ian Krol, Andrew McKirahan, Danny Winkler, Chris Withrow, Daniel Burawa, David Carpenter, Evan Rutckyj, Alexi Ogando, Alex Torres, Hunter Cervenka, David Peterson, Matt Marksberry and Brandon Cunniff.

Who knows if any of those 13 pitchers could be considered locks for the other four bullpen spots. Winkler has a great chance to stick because of his Rule V status. He must stay on the Atlanta roster until around Father’s day or he has to be offered back to the Rockies. The Braves don’t want to lose Winkler, so unless he falls apart in March expect him to have a great chance.

Krol was brought over from the Tigers in the Cameron Maybin deal. He’s a lefty with a good chance at making the pen. The Braves would love for Withrow to show he’s healthy enough to make the bullpen. He was very good with the Dodgers before going down with Tommy John surgery. If Vizcaino doesn’t hold onto the closer’s job, Withrow would be a candidate to take it from him.

Rutckyj is a Rule V pick and the Braves will give him a great shot in spring training. Carpenter, Ogando and Torres are veterans who have done well in the past and the Braves have no risk with all three being non-roster invitees.

Could Casey Kelly be in the mix for a bullpen spot? Maybe. How about some surprise like Kyle Kinman? Yes, keep his name in mind.

It’s not necessarily Mike Remlinger, Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond, but the candidates are there for the setup men in the bullpen to be better in 2016 than the group was a year ago.

Okay, let’s go to the minor leagues now. Oh yes, let’s spend time in the minor leagues with these pitchers.

The Braves are LOADED. You can never have enough pitching. You can never have too many pitching prospects. And while it looks crowded, while it looks like they have too many, they don’t.

Some of these kids will get hurt. Some will get traded. Some will simply not develop and be legit major league pitchers. But that’s why you accumulate as many as possible. That’s why you never stop getting pitchers in trades or drafting pitchers.

Let’s take a look at it from what the projected rotations may be at the top affiliates. Blair, Jenkins and Gant will likely lead the Gwinnett rotation. Again, they could crack Atlanta’s roster, but if not they’ll be in Brian Snitker’s rotation.

Dansby Swanson got all the attention in the Miller trade, but don’t sleep on Blair. This is a tall kid with very good stuff. He might be ready. Blair might be a solid two or three starter in time.

I’m not sold yet on Jenkins breaking through the Atlanta rotation. The competition is even more fierce now with new guys like Blair, Newcomb and Ellis around. Jenkins has good stuff, but he may translate more to the bullpen if he is passed by these better prospects. But don’t count Jenkins out from going and showing everyone that he can compete with these big boys.

Gant is one pitcher I’m eager to see in spring training. He certainly did well after he came over from the Mets in the Kelly Johnson-Juan Uribe trade last July. The Braves think Gant might develop into a Tyler Clippard-type pitcher. That’s pretty high praise. Clippard has had a very good career. But could Gant slip through and make the rotation before some of the bigger named prospects? Maybe.

It would be such a great story if the Braves could turn Casey Kelly around. We can’t expect it, but the talent is in there somewhere. Kelly was once a top prospect, so it was worth a try to get him and see what the pitching coaches can do to turn him around.

Jason Hursh will likely be in the Gwinnett bullpen. Right now, he looks like a bad first round pick. But maybe now that he’s focusing on relieving Hursh can develop into something. Keep your eye on David Peterson. The Braves like him a lot. Brady Feigl should be back sometime in mid-summer, and remember how close he was last year before going down with Tommy John surgery.

The same can be said for Shae Simmons, who could be ready sometime in June. Simmons could be a future closer if he regains his velocity following the TJ procedure.

Sean Newcomb is going to be watched closely, obviously. He might be pushed to start in Gwinnett, but I imagine with no rush for 2016 the Braves will send him to Double-A Mississippi. Just this week two general managers named Newcomb as baseball’s best pitching prospect, so that’s why the Braves went after Newcomb in the Andrelton Simmons trade.

It seems like Newcomb is a year away from being in Atlanta’s starting rotation. If he’s this special, then it might not take him long and he might be ready sometime in 2016. But wouldn’t the Braves simply let him get in one more full season? That would be my preference, but if he’s this good maybe Newcomb could change my mind and make me believe he could be ready for next season.

We wonder who will be the Braves’ ace moving forward. Newcomb sounds like the best candidate. Wouldn’t it be great if he did live up to his potential and became another Jon Lester-type pitcher?

Chris Ellis will likely join Newcomb in Double-A. Most believe Ellis has the potential of a four, maybe a three. Hey, that’s not bad at all. It’ll be interesting to see where Ellis may be in a year from now.

I think the pitcher I’m most looking forward to watching this year is Lucas Sims. Fourteen months ago Sims was Atlanta’s best prospect, by default. The Braves didn’t have many real prospects then, so Sims got a lot of love as a pitcher with potential. But Sims had never really realized that potential. He had a few complete seasons, but they were unspectacular.

Last year Sims turned the corner. He was doing very well and then the wreck happened, cutting his season a bit. But when Sims returned from his hip issue, he pitched very well and got promoted to Double-A. Sims then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well, and now he’s a legit top prospect once again.

Sims could be ready in another year – like many of these pitching prospects. He could finish the season in Triple-A, and don’t be shocked if he’s in Atlanta, either. Sims has really good stuff, and I like Lucas’ makeup. He’s got a chance to be a really good starting pitcher for Atlanta.

Zach Bird is raw. He’ll go back to AA and let’s hope he gets in a full season to see what the Braves have. Steve Janas can show glimpses of being a legit prospect. And Andrew Thurman is one I continue to like. He may wind up being a bullpen piece since he continues to flash a really good fastball. But he missed a good chunk of last season with the wreck, so he needs a full season to AA as well.

A bullpen piece to watch is Kyle Kinman. I’ve been told the Braves really like his potential. Mauricio Cabrera will likely be in AA this season. He throws hard, but can he pitch?

I can’t wait to watch Carolina’s rotation, which should include Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Max Povse, Rob Whalen, Brandon Barker and Yean Carlos Gil. If Fried is healthy and he regains his stuff, the Braves may have a premium prospect. This kid was heralded as another Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw type before he developed elbow issues.

Toussaint could simply take off. I can’t wait to see how far away Toussaint is a year from now. The Braves love his potential, and more coaches fell in love with him when they saw Toussaint in the Instructional League.

Rome’s rotation should include Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Chad Sobotka and Ricardo Sanchez. Those are four pitchers with very good potential. Allard will be watched closely because of his back. But if there are no issues, look out. And Soroka, man I can’t wait to see this kid. He sounds special. The Braves still love Sanchez. He’s just very, very young, but they still believe Sanchez could be a top prospect.

Don’t count out Josh Graham as a breakout pitcher. He’ll likely join those guys in Rome.

Oh, and that third overall pick in the draft… wanna place a bet what it will be? I think it’ll be a pitcher.

Did I tell you the Braves are loaded? I know, and I’ll say it again… some will get hurt, some will not make it, some will disappoint and some will get traded. They won’t all make it. But you have as many pitching prospects as possible to try and get ones that will stick. They’ve accumulated great numbers, great options for the future.

Let’s look ahead for a minute. Let’s make a few assumptions. I’m going to assume Teheran is traded. Those veterans will be traded. We’ll be left with Wisler, Foltynewicz and Banuelos in the rotation. Blair and Jenkins will finish the season in the rotation.

Then, those five could be ready to stay in the rotation for 2017. However, they’ll be joined by several others that will make a legit case for being ready to compete for a rotation spot in March, 2017 – Sean Newcomb, John Gant and Lucas Sims. That’ll be eight young pitchers that could fill the five spots in the first rotation in the new Sun Trust Park.

Then the Braves could have the next wave – Fried, Toussaint, Ellis, Bird, Janas and Thurman not far behind.

That’s options. That’s why you should be excited about the direction of this franchise. It’s all about the pitching. At some point, there will be a trade where the Braves trade arms for a bat. It happened with Alex Wood and then Shelby Miller. They got Hector Olivera and Dansby Swanson back. And that sort of trade will likely happen again.

But as long as the pitching remains the strength, the core of this franchise, the Braves are going to be headed in the right direction. They’ve got to have prospects become pitchers, but if some of these guys hit pay dirt, the Braves are going to be in very good shape.

They may not have a Tom Glavine or John Smoltz – two young pitchers from 27 years ago that became Hall of Famers – in the farm system now. But the quantity is just as impressive as it was when those two were coming up in the late-1980s. The Braves have accumulated an impressive group of pitching prospects, and they’re not finished. There are more to come, which will make this situation even better as the Braves look to become consistent winners just like they were in the 1990s.

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 thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.


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