With the season just around the corner, there are rumors (some of which have been proven inaccurate) about the Braves interest in Jose Quintana of the White Sox. The purpose of this post is not about Quintana specifically, but rather the overall strategy of the Braves moving forward with regard to upgrading their starting rotation in the future. Some of this will detail analysis of prospects and the rest will pertain to options the Braves have with their starters other than simply letting them grow and develop through the system.
The big thing to notice is that, of the Braves top pitching prospects, most are rather far from contributing to the major league club. Here is brief overview of the top Braves pitching prospects and their highest level from last year:
Kolby Allard: A-ball
Ian Anderson: Rookie League
Max Fried: A-ball
Luiz Gohara: A-ball
Mike Soroka: A-ball
Sean Newcomb: Double-A
Touki Toussaint: A-ball
Patrick Weigel: Double-A
Joey Wentz: Rookie League
Of those, the only three who could reasonably make it to the majors this year are Newcomb, Weigel, and Fried if he proves to be healthy. The only reason Fried would be an option is that he is older for his level due to his past injury history. There is a chance he could perform very well in double-A and move up to the majors midway through the season or as a September call up.
The other potential youngsters that the Braves could call up to start would be Aaron Blair, Matt Wisler, and potential Lucas Sims if he is still viewed at as a starter (he most likely will end up being a reliever at the Major League level). We have seen the first two, and to say that their results have been overwhelming would be a massive understatement. Consider that the Braves opted to sign 42-year-old R.A. Dickey coming off of a 4.46 ERA, 5.00 FIP season rather than letting Wisler and Blair compete for the fifth start. At this point in their development, having seen what their stuff looks like, their success should be viewed more as a cherry on top rather than something to be expected. The Braves will not be building the future of their rotation around Wisler and Blair, unless one or both of them makes drastic strides this season.
The Braves current rotation has three spots that will almost certainly be open next year, and it is difficult to suspect that the top pitching prospects will be ready. Newcomb is the most likely to be ready to step into a rotation spot next year, but his lack of command is very concerning and he has dropped on most prospect lists from last year to this year. Weigel offers some potential, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio at double-A left much to be desired. He still has a lot of grooming to do and is far from a sure thing.
The likelihood is that the Braves will be looking to add to their rotation again next season from outside of the organization. John Coppolella stated earlier this week that the Braves will not be the type of team giving $200m contracts out to starting pitchers, which is a wise decision. Having money tied up into age 30+ starting pitchers is a recipe for disaster for a smaller to middle market team. So the Braves will have to either let their prospects develop in the minors and see their debuts out, find short term filler deals ala the signings and trades they made this offseason, or go for big time acquisitions via trades.
My opinion is that the Braves should be trying aggressively for the latter. While the Braves have a number of high impact arms, as stated above most of them are far from the majors and things can certainly go awry between now and their debuts. Just ask Sean Newcomb.
It is reasonable to say that the Braves have four to five top 100 prospect arms in their system, based on FanGraphs (5), BPro (4), and Baseball America (4) stating so. The Braves did a great job in drafting (Allard, Anderson, Soroka) and trading (Newcomb, Gohara, Fried) for these assets, but moving some of them now for a proven big league starter under contract for four plus seasons, ala Quintana, makes a ton of sense.
Not all of these prospects will pan out as starters. Some may make excellent relievers. Some may get injured, and others may never reach their potential. With nine starters previously mentioned that all have quality trade value, the likelihood is that each of the aforementioned possibilities happen over the next few years. It is, unfortunately, impossible to predict which will be which. Some have higher likelihoods of reaching a certain destination than others, but a rotation of Teheran, Foltynewciz, Newcomb, and two short term signings will have a difficult time being a top rotation in the majors. The Braves do not have to make trades for the sake of making trades, but cashing in on some of the value of a few of these prospects allows the team to deal from depth, still have one of the strongest — if not the strongest — minor league systems in the game, and take some risk off the table in terms of having an overly aggressive investment in high risk players (starting pitchers).
While this post will of course create questions about which prospects should be coupled for which potential trade targets, the point of the post is more to open up the idea that the time to make a turn from adding and hoarding prospects is arriving, if it has not already arrived. The Braves have the best farm system in the league by basically all accounts, they have a core of young players (Inciarte, Teheran, Foltynewicz, Freeman, Swanson, and Albies) under contract for a number of years, and they have enough depth in their system that they can trade from that depth without giving up the high valued position player prospects like Swanson, Albies, Acuna, or Maitan. If the Braves are going to build the type of long term winner that the team is targeting, making aggressive moves from their depth of minor league starting pitchers seems like the best way to push the competitive curve up without sacrificing the long term success of the franchise.