Bill Shanks

Newcomb could be key piece of Braves’ rotation in 2017

For Mississippi in 2016, Sean Newcomb was 8-7 in 27 starts with a 3.86 ERA.
For Mississippi in 2016, Sean Newcomb was 8-7 in 27 starts with a 3.86 ERA. Mississippi Braves

Sean Newcomb has a lot of positive qualities. He’s left-handed. He throws hard. He doesn’t give up a lot of hits. He’s durable.

There seems to be just one thing holding him back — his occasional bouts with control. Newcomb walks too many people, and for many that can be like a beauty pageant contestant walking down the runway with an ugly scar.

But after a solid season in Double-A for the Atlanta Braves organization, how close is Newcomb to making his debut in Atlanta? Can the Braves count on Newcomb as a possible starter next season?

For Mississippi in 2016, Newcomb was 8-7 in 27 starts with a 3.86 ERA. He allowed 113 hits in 140 innings, with 71 walks and a Southern League-leading 152 strikeouts. It was the second straight season the now-23-year-old Newcomb made 27 starts.

Newcomb started off strong, with a 3.16 ERA in his first six starts. He struck out 32 batters in 31 13 innings, with 18 walks. Then in his next 14 starts, Newcomb had a 5.22 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 69 innings. He then rebounded to finish well, with a 2.04 ERA in his last seven starts, with 51 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings.

A first round-pick out of the University of Hartford in 2014, Newcomb now has 290 1/3 career innings in pro ball. Many believe high school draft picks need between 400-500 innings in the minors, while college pitchers can get by with around 300 if they’re really good. So Newcomb is approaching that number.

The fact Newcomb strikes a lot of hitters out is great, and so is the fact he does not give up many hits. But there’s no doubt the walks hurt him. If Newcomb can simply keep his walks down, or at least improve that number, he has a chance to be special.

Newcomb’s walk per nine innings ratio did improve this season, from 5.0 last season to 4.6 this year. That’s only a slight improvement, but it’s trending upward.

It’s not fair to compare Newcomb to a Hall of Famer, but let’s do it anyway. He’s not the first hard-throwing lefty to have control issues. Randy Johnson’s BB/9 ratio was 8.2 when he pitched for the Jacksonville Suns in 1987 as a 23-year-old. Of course, Johnson was a remarkable pitcher but he did improve his control through the years.

Jon Lester, a pitcher Newcomb is often compared to, had stretches with control issues as he was coming up with Boston. But Lester also got better with more time. The hope is the same will happen with Newcomb.

The Braves will have Newcomb in big league spring training. They’ll see how he does and then more than likely let him start the 2017 season in Triple-A Gwinnett. But he could tempt them for a promotion if he does well in the International League by midseason.

That’s why the Braves have to be careful with their offseason pitching plans. Certainly, the team needs help with the rotation. Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz are the only starters guaranteed a job for next season. Others (Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair the main two) must compete for a job. Josh Collmenter has a shot at coming back as a veteran option.

But do the Braves go for the long-term pitchers to join the rotation? Newcomb is just one of several pitchers who could be ready at some point next season. Patrick Weigel, Lucas Sims and even Max Fried are mentioned as possibilities if they do well early on in 2017.

So it might be better for the Braves to bring in pitchers from free agency on short-term (one or two years) contracts or to trade for pitchers who have only a short time remaining under control. Then if the bubble rises with numerous options from the farm system, the Braves will have a number of possibilities for the starting rotation.

Newcomb is someone the Braves could envision being in Atlanta’s rotation the middle of next season. If he continues to make strides with his control, Newcomb could be the lefty ace the Braves have been looking for in this rebuilding project.

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