Braves biggest need for 2016

The Atlanta Braves have spent the past year trading away hitters, dealing nearly an entire lineup — Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Jose Peraza, Kyle Kubitza, Tommy La Stella, Chris Johnson. By far the biggest subtractions the team made have been in the hitting department, and so it figures that the 2015 offense has scored the fewest runs in baseball. Therefore their biggest need must be hitting, right?

While they certainly need another good bat or two (something I wrote about last week), their biggest need is actually in the starting pitching rotation, and this offseason is the perfect time to make a move in that department.

jteheran3The Braves have just three pitchers they can count on for their rotation next year, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler — and Wisler might be a “maybe.” Mike Foltynewicz could be an option, but the jury is still out on his ability to go through a batting order more than once. Manny Banuelos is a possibility, but his velocity has not been what was expected, and he looks like he still needs more time to build arm strength and extend himself deep into games. Williams Perez started out hot in the majors, but has regressed harshly, though there weren’t many people outside of the Braves organization who believed the soft-tossing sinkerballer could be an effective major league starter.

There is actually not much immediate help in the Braves pitching-rich minor league system either, with most of their top pitching prospects two or more years away. Tyrell Jenkins is close, but was shut down late this year with a dead arm. He likely needs at least a few more months of triple-A. Lucas Sims has ascended to double-A this year, and will pitch in the Arizona Fall League, but he’s still a year or more away from reaching the majors.

There’s no one else in the Braves system who appears ready to make the jump to the majors and for which we can expect a reasonable amount of success. So that leaves Atlanta with two, maybe three starters, and a few other potential candidates who are uncertain to last in that role. If this year has shown us anything, it’s that uncertainty and inexperience in the rotation can hurt other areas of the team.

The Braves need at least three starters who can go deep into ballgames on a regular basis. Without guys like that in the rotation the bullpen must take on more and more of the workload. While they rank in the middle of the pack this year in innings pitched in relief, the terrific Braves bullpens of the past two seasons had some of the lowest innings totals in the majors — because the starters had some of the highest innings totals in the majors. The added stress and workload on an already depleted bullpen this season is part of what has led to so many losses.

smiller2The easiest way for the Braves to remedy this problem is to add at least one, preferably two, experienced starters who can give the team lots of quality innings. A quick look at the list of free agent starting pitchers this offseason reveals a wide range of options from expensive (Price, Cueto, Zimmerman) to mid-range (Kazmir, Leake, Gallardo) to possible bargains (Kendrick, Anderson, Fister). The Braves should have the money available to make a significant investment in at least one big or mid-range starter, while still being able to afford two or three years of another innings-eater.

Acquiring two more good starting pitchers will take the pressure off their bullpen, and the Atlanta pen should be much better next year as Jason Grilli, Paco Rodriguez, Shae Simmons, and Chris Withrow return from the disabled list. This also highlights the vital importance of lowering the workload for a bullpen with a majority of relievers returning from injury.

The Braves front office has their work cut out for them if they are to put a competitive team on the field next year. They need to get their relief corp healthy, they need to find a catcher and a second baseman and at least one more power hitter, but most of all they need two more quality starting pitchers.

If starting pitching is the genesis of “The Braves Way,” then money will need to be spent. There is no immediate help to be found in their system.

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