The Atlanta Braves are rebuilding. This is a long-term project. We may not see the impact of what’s being done now for 3-5 years. So that makes it difficult for many to understand why certain things are happening, or why the Braves are doing what they are doing.
It also makes it tough for some to understand why they are using pitching as the primary focus of the rebuilding plan.
Let’s fast forward a few years and try to peek inside the mind of the Braves’ front office.
For this exercise, let’s just imagine the Braves have a total homegrown rotation. Chances are there will be a trade or free agent added who could be in the rotation in 2019. But let’s just use five pitchers who are currently in the organization and place them in the starting rotation three years from now.
This will be a very young rotation. Here are the ages of these five pitchers in 2019:
Wisler (26), Gant (26), Newcomb (26), Weigel (24) and Fried (25). But if those four are established starters in the rotation, the Braves would be in pretty decent shape, right?
Then let’s assume of all the pitching prospects currently in the farm system, in three years we’ll see four emerge as top prospects. They will be knocking on the door of the big leagues
Let’s say those four are:
Kolby Allard (21 years old in 2019)
Mike Soroka (21)
Joey Wentz (21)
Ricardo Sanchez (22)
We are leaving out a lot of guys who are prospects right now. Plus, between now and the 2019 season, there will be two more drafts and two more international signing periods that will produce more pitching prospects.
If those four guys are almost ready in 2019, and at the same time the Braves have an established starting rotation, there will be a backlog that will give general manager John Coppolella options.
If there are even two young starting pitchers who may be close in 2019, then the Braves can determine whether to:
a) Trade a current member of the starting rotation
b) Trade one of the prospects
The Braves hope to not have too many needs in 2019. They are trying to make it where around 2019 they also have a number of position player prospects who are on the cusp of being ready.
But let’s just say the Braves need an outfielder in Atlanta. They could take one of the established starting pitchers, or one of the top pitching prospects and use them as the centerpiece of a trade to get that needed outfielder.
Now hopefully, the Braves will have other internal options knocking on the door in 2019. Maybe Austin Riley and/or Kevin Maitan are close to joining the major league roster by then. Maybe Brett Cumberland is ready to take over as the catch. Maybe Ronald Acuna has emerged as a top prospect and is ready to take over an outfield spot.
But if there is a hole, it could be filled by using the pitching depth to make an acquisition.
A lot has to happen for this scenario to play out. First, the Braves must continue to bring in pitchers in the draft, in trades and in the international signing period over the next three years. That will support the depth by giving more long-term options for the early-mid-2020s.
Also, they must have several pitchers emerge. In this scenario, Newcomb, Weigel and Fried have emerged at some point over the next three years to take a rotation spot and have stuck. The “and have stuck” part is important. It’s one thing to graduate pitchers to the big leagues. It’s another thing to have a pitcher stick.
Young pitchers are like fish in the sea. The fish are trying to make it to the surface of the ocean. Julio Teheran, for example, has not only made it to the surface. He’s sitting in a yacht watching the other fish try to reach him. Wisler has his head above water, while Foltynewicz is gasping for air trying to stay above the surface but he’s occasionally dipping below into the ocean.
These other young prospects are swimming toward the light they see at the surface of the water. Some may make it to the surface, but how many will stick? How many will wind up sitting on that yacht, like Teheran is now?
So having several of the pitchers stick is crucial to the plan. If all of these guys fail to stick, by struggling and not establishing themselves as Teheran has and as Wisler is in the process of doing, this plan is tougher to implement.
But once the Braves are able to get the pitchers to stick, as, for example, the Mets have done with their young rotation, then the depth behind those pitchers becomes very important. Some of the prospects will get hurt. Some will get traded. Some will simply not make it and not be good enough. But if you have enough, if you have the quantity, then you should have the options to have flexibility to make moves that can make the major league roster better.
All prospects don’t stick. There are likely a few top pitching prospects on the Braves’ list right now who will not make it, for one reason or another. But it’s like Braves’ legendary scout Paul Snyder has always said, “You need 10 pitching prospects to get one.” So the more the Braves have, the better.
This is not easy to see now – on July 10, 2016. The Braves have graduated a number of pitchers to the big leagues in the last season-and-a-half. Wisler has done well for the most part. Foltynewicz has been good and bad, the typical results that most young pitchers have when trying to establish themselves. Williams Perez has not been able to stay healthy. And John Gant looked like he was on his way before he was injured a few weeks ago.
But look at Aaron Blair. He was a top prospects when acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Shelby Miller trade. Coppolella said when he made the trade several general managers called him and said they’d prefer to have Blair over Miller. But Blair has struggled. His ERA, between Gwinnett and Atlanta, is 6.46 this season. That’s awful. Blair may get another shot, but he might be one of those who fail to keep his head above the surface of the ocean and drowns.
The key to surviving that loss of a prospect is to have more options behind Blair that can simply take his place. So if Blair doesn’t make it (and we’re just using him as an example – the hope is he can get his feet under him and do well), the Braves will need Chris Ellis or Lucas Sims or Rob Whalen or Newcomb take his place.
Pitching is the best currency to have. The Cubs have gone the other way, by using position players as their core to rebuild. They are currently one of the best teams in baseball. They used their big money to buy pitchers (Jon Lester, John Lackey) and even had to spend big on a position player (Jason Heyward). But the Braves have used pitching at the forefront of a rebuild before, so they know how to do this.
It would be nice, obviously, if some of these young pitchers emerge into stars. No one can expect any of these kids to develop into the next Tom Glavine, or the next John Smoltz. At some point, they’ll need these young pitchers to become what Teheran is today – an established, experienced major league pitcher with solid numbers who is set for the long-term as a starter in the big leagues.
Once that happens (and it may take a few more years) then the impact of what is in place can be felt. It’s difficult now because we’re still in the early stages of the rebuild. It’s so hard to see it now, but this exercise was to present a scenario the Braves’ front office likely would love to see play out moving forward.
Patience is required, and that’s the toughest part – especially as we have to watch the big league team struggle this much on a daily basis. But this is what a rebuilding process is all about.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.