Bill Shanks

Braves could have more pitchers than jobs later this season

Sean Newcomb is one of a group of talented young pitchers on the staff of the Atlanta Braves.
Sean Newcomb is one of a group of talented young pitchers on the staff of the Atlanta Braves. AP

When the Braves started the rebuild three years ago, former general manager John Coppolella focused on pitching. It worked well back in the late-1980s, the last time the Braves started over, so Coppolella followed that formula.

Now, in season four of the process, we are seeing the young pitching talent bubble to the top. By the end of this season, we could even see a logjam of pitchers trying to get into the Atlanta rotation.

Nine different Braves pitching prospects were ranked in top 100 lists by separate publications and websites. The pitchers are coming quickly, knocking on the door trying to get to SunTrust Park as quickly as possible.

Sean Newcomb, Max Fried and Luiz Gohara debuted last year. Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright could be ready this year. And there are already three others with experience in the Atlanta rotation.

How are these pitchers going to get into a rotation with only five spots? It usually works itself out, but the numbers don’t add up. The Braves have more prospects than jobs, and that’s a great problem to have.

Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz lead the rotation to start off the season. They must produce, or their jobs will be in jeopardy. Teheran could be traded, while Foltynewicz could move to the bullpen.

Veteran Brandon McCarthy is there for now, but he’s injury prone, in the last year of his contract and could be moved if necessary. If he does well, McCarthy will be traded by the All-Star Break, opening another spot.

Newcomb is back after 19 starts in his rookie year last season. The 24-year-old left-hander has had a great spring, and he’s fully aware others are already wanting his job.

“It started last year when a good amount of us got up,” Newcomb said before a recent Grapefruit League start. “I think it’s just the beginning. We’re all here, and we’re going to put our best effort out there. I know there are a lot of young guys. They can join us or try to take our spot, but I know that we’re going to be doing pretty well. It’s starting to fall into place.”

The Braves hoped the 21-year-old Gohara would join Newcomb in the rotation, but injuries will delay his 2018 debut. It will be a shame, with Gohara’s great stuff, if his propensity for being on the disabled list keeps him from realizing his potential. But if someone gets out of the line, someone else will be there to take their place.

Soroka is the one to watch. The Braves were dazzled by his time in big league camp, and some even believed he could be Atlanta’s best starter right now. They’ll send the 20-year-old to Triple-A to begin the year, but a June or July promotion, which would be before Soroka can legally drink, is not out of the question.

Fried is also close, after getting nine appearances in Atlanta last season in his audition. The Braves think a little more time in the minors will refine Fried’s game, and he could become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

The Braves could keep Allard and Wright down all season, to give them more time and because they may not have the room. If Soroka and either Gohara or Fried join Teheran, Foltynewicz and Newcomb in the rotation, that’ll be five starters right there. Where would Allard or Wright get their innings?

Just think if those eight pitchers go to spring training next year to fight for five starting jobs. A trade will probably take care of that, but it shows you how crowded it is now. And, there are more pitching prospects behind this group.

Forget about what the Atlanta rotation will be on Opening Day. What will it be like once the season ends? That will be the real drama this year, and it could signal that the rebuild has been successful as the Braves pick their best five starting pitchers.

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