Sean Newcomb is struggling mightily on a warm Saturday evening at SunTrust Park. After being given a 4-run lead by his offense, Newcomb surrenders the lead to the Mets in the second inning on an RBI single by Jeff McNeil.
Brian Snitker has a dilemma. Newcomb has only recorded four outs but appears besieged by his command against a division foe in a very winnable game. Touki Toussaint warms up in the Atlanta bullpen after being recalled earlier in the day, a day in which he was slated to make a start for the Gwinnett Stripers.
Having a talented young pitcher able to pitch as many innings as required, Snitker ends Newcomb’s night early and hands the ball over to Toussaint. The decision works out beautifully. Toussaint pitches six innings of scoreless ball while striking out seven and allowing only four hits in what essentially becomes a spot-start out of the bullpen in a winning effort. Toussaint’s stuff was devastating enough to make one of the league’s hottest hitters look silly:
Touki made Pete Alonso bend the knee last night. Twice. pic.twitter.com/pY2HJQU1g9— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) April 14, 2019
The following day, Newcomb is optioned to AAA, and Toussaint replaces him in the rotation.
Welcome to the Braves’ Pitching Carousel! The ride will be full of ups and downs but can be awfully entertaining when it works like it did on Saturday night.
The Braves have a plethora of young, talented pitchers. As each of them adjusts to major-league hitting, there will inevitably be growing pains which result in valuable lessons learned. Newcomb will likely look at the tape from Saturday night and compare it to his near no-hitter in 2018. He will see that he is at his best when he has confidence attacking the zone instead of trying to make hitters miss repeatedly on pitches out of the zone. The Braves hope that some time in Triple-A will build his confidence in his repertoire of pitches.
The great thing for the Braves, though, is that there will be another talented arm waiting in the wings in case another one falters or is injured. We have already witnessed this in the first 15 games of the season. With Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman starting the year on injured list and Toussaint struggling in Spring Training, the Braves opened the season with hot young starters Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson in the rotation. While Wright and Wilson exhibited some raw talent, it was clear that both needed some polishing in Triple-A, where they have not pitched much in their young careers.
Yet for every falter so far, there has been someone to pick up the load. Max Fried has yet to surrender an earned run in 13 2/3 innings and has looked like a front-of-rotation starter so far. Gausman returned from IL and has a 2.84 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in his first two starts. As mentioned, Toussaint picked up Newcomb and guided the team to victory after a treacherous start.
Don’t expect things to stay static any time soon, either. Foltynewciz will make one more rehab start in AAA before returning to the rotation, likely this weekend. Mike Soroka holds a 3.86 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over 9 1/3 innings while rehabbing in Triple-A so far. Most importantly, he has not had any setbacks with his shoulder. He will be knocking on the door to the rotation very soon if things continue to progress well.
This is the new norm for the Braves’ pitching staff, and to be clear, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, most managers would love to have the Braves’ pitching depth. It is common that teams have to rely on 11 or more pitchers to start over the course of the season (the Braves had 13 pitchers make starts in 2018).
What makes the Braves’ situation unique is how young and talented their options are. The Braves already feature five starters who have experienced some big-league success in Foltynewicz, Gausman, Teheran, Newcomb, and Fried, and have five more starting pitcher prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. Having so many good young pitchers with options remaining allows the Braves to shuttle them from the minors to majors like few other teams can. The ability to play the “hot hand” can pay dividends and reduce wear on the pitching staff over the course of the season. Having to dig deep into your minor-league pitching depth is often a point of consternation and stress for managers. For the Braves, though, it is a strength. Stated differently, it is a feature, not a bug.
The constant changes likely will not be confined to the rotation. There has already been some turnover in the bullpen with more changes likely to come. Already the Braves have optioned Shane Carle to Triple-A to bring A.J. Minter back from the injured list. On Sunday, the Braves placed Arodys Vizcaino on the injured list and recalled Dan Winkler and Jacob Webb. In addition to Vizcaino and Darren O’Day hopefully returning from injury, don’t be surprised to see pitchers like Grant Dayton, Corbin Clouse, Thomas Burrows, Luiz Gohara, and Patrick Weigel contributing from the bullpen at some point this season. This is not to mention that some of the young starters listed above who will likely see some innings in relief.
My advice to Braves fans is buckle up. The ride will be bumpy at times and exhilarating at others. There will undoubtedly be surprise break-outs as well as disappointments along the way. One thing that will not be lacking, though, is entertainment value.