When the Braves began the process of tearing down the team following their disappointing 2014 season new general manager John Coppolella made one thing abundantly clear: Pitching was the Braves future. Everything the team did during his time in Atlanta revolved around grabbing and stashing as much arm talent as possible while sprinkling in a bit of hitting to fill holes. Four and a half years later and the Braves find themselves scrambling to find arms to put in their bullpen and a logjam of talented but underperforming pitchers that have dampened what could be a historically good season with their record-setting offense driving the way. What went wrong along the way for Atlanta and what is the path forward to finally getting a rotation that can go head-to-head with the Los Angeles Dodgers and other top Major League teams?
Coppolella’s early tenure as Braves GM felt almost rushed, as he was flipping his entire roster as quickly as possible to clear out dead money and the legacy of Frank Wren. His focus was acquiring lower-ceiling, nearly major league ready talent out of a whirlwind of offseason trades. It seemed as if he wanted to make the rebuild as short-lived as possible and get the Braves back into winning form in just a couple of years. His first trade was a big one as he dealt fan-favorite Jason Heyward to get former top prospect pitcher Shelby Miller. Miller turned in a fantastic season on an awful Braves team in 2015, but he was not part of the Braves long term plans and ending up being flipped himself after the season for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair. This was the blockbuster deal of Coppolella’s time in office and will be the one most remembered for, but for a while it seemed it could be headed in the direction of many. Blair struggled with inconsistency and injury and Swanson struggled in his early time in Atlanta leading to signs that maybe the trade wasn’t as incredible as it originally seemed. Swanson turned things around this season and Inciarte was a god send in center field for a few seasons and although the trade is clearly a massive win in the Braves favor it ultimately would have been sweeter if Blair could have had any meaningful impact in Atlanta.
Coppolella continued to ramp up the action as his tenure went along. The Braves made more big trades, gathering arms like Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Ricardo Sanchez, and Andrew Thurman. Just six months prior to the Swanson swap he swindled the Diamondbacks for the first time when he effectively bought Touki Toussaint for $10 million in June of 2015. The biggest trade of that first 2014 offseason came mere days before the opening of the season, with Craig Kimbrel going to San Diego for a mass of players centered around Matt Wisler and Cameron Maybin, but with the 41st overall pick in the draft an important piece that ultimately turned into the biggest piece of the Braves offseason. The next year the Braves traded for Sean Newcomb and then got another draft pick in exchange for Alex Wood in the disastrous Hector Olivera deal. Wood went on to be a solid starter in Los Angeles while no one on the Braves end of that trade has yet to become anything of note in the Major Leagues. The Braves have also acquired relievers aplenty in players such as Luke Jackson, Jesse Biddle, Adam McCreery, Arodys Vizcaino, Thomas Burrows, and Ian Krol.
The Braves focused almost exclusively on drafting arms in all of Coppolella’s drafts, much to the chagrin of many fans, and they came away with handfuls of prospects to fill out the system. In the early rounds they grabbed Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller, and AJ Minter. In the later rounds they piled on even more arms, with names like Josh Graham, Patrick Weigel, Evan Phillips, Tucker Davidson, Jeremy Walker, Corbin Clouse, and Matt Withrow turning to gold in the system. The draft pick they swung from the Dodgers trade, which was actually the Marlins pick, turned into another top pitching prospect in Joey Wentz. The talent in the Braves system was obvious and they were universally seen as the top farm system in baseball and possessed the deepest pool of talent overall. They’ve kept the team stocked even as players graduate and move on, and even this year had five pitchers on Baseball America’s preseason top 100 prospect list.
Atlanta amassed a number of top pitcher yet we still find ourselves here. Over the last four seasons the rotation has been a revolving door outside of veteran Julio Teheran, the much-maligned bullpen has improved in recent weeks but is still messy, and every player the Braves have tried to plug in has not worked out. Of the Braves current starting lineup only one was drafted and developed by Coppolella’s regime, and that is the name we did not mention earlier. That 41st pick in the draft, the one that will ultimately wildly swing the trade in the Braves favor, was Austin Riley. Even the Riley pick was met with skepticism at the time as most viewed him more favorably as a pitcher, but he proved Brian Bridges and the staff correct almost immediately as he blossomed into a star in the Braves system. Everything else for Atlanta was just about holding onto the right guys. The Dansby Swanson deal was of course massive and netted the Braves two starters, and though it is clear at this point that Swanson is the only one who will actually contribute to Braves postseason contention, he is a borderline all star shortstop that anchors a fantastic middle infield.
John Coppolella did the best thing he could have done, and what was ultimately his biggest move as a General Manager was holding onto Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Johan Camargo as other teams came calling to try to get them. The Braves have been fortunate that their top hitting prospects have panned out at an extraordinary rate and they now have an MVP contending young superstar in Acuña and two solid all star caliber infielders up the middle. Throw in fellow superstar and organizational keystone Freddie Freeman and the Braves quickly built a torrid offense. On the other hand the pitching, despite all of that depth, has only produced two of the Braves current starting rotation and a couple of their key relievers. For a rebuild centered on pitching that has been a source of frustration, perhaps rightfully so, as the young players haven’t yet produced at the level they were hyped to be. Former top pitchers like Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, and Lucas Sims struggled in their only time with Atlanta, and many of the recent prospects showed some of the same signs as those players.
Now back to the question posed earlier-where did this all go wrong for the Braves pitching? In short, it hasn’t. At least not yet. John Coppolella and his staff understood the volatility of pitching as a whole and knew the only way to reliably get any arms to the major leagues was to hoard a seemingly unhealthy amount of them. They created log jams, they created competition, but out of that they were able to get major league talent like Max Fried and Mike Soroka. There is simply no reliable way to predict the path for pitching prospects and the team had to take a number of shots to get enough talent to work with. That the Braves have what they have already is actually impressive, given that most of their current rotation contenders were in A ball just two or three years ago and have rocketed through the system. Coppolella’s aggressive approach to promotions accelerated the timeline more than choosing high floor talent ever did. That first wave of players was disappointing, and the early problems seemed to lie in Coppolella’s approach to prospects as a whole. Rather than targeting risky, yet high ceiling prospects he opted to gather as many safe choices as he could even if he didn’t get any players out of it. The high floor guys never got above that floor, and nearly the entirety of Atlanta’s first wave of pitchers busted and are no longer around. That list comes with one notable exception.
Perhaps no player has been as polarizing in his Braves tenure as Mike Foltynewicz, and his inconsistency as a starter has given plenty of reason to lose confidence in him. He’s a player that shows flashes of brilliance and was a step away from being the ace of the staff last season, but he seems destined to get in his own way. At this time last year it seemed like he would be the headliner of a key young trio going into 2019 along with Soroka and Sean Newcomb, but his early season injury set him back and he just hasn’t recovered. He has not panned out this season and as he’s lost confidence the Braves have lost one of the driving forces of their 2018 NL East Championship team. A key Alex Anthopoulos trade at the deadline netted Kevin Gausman, and while he was integral in getting the team to the playoffs in 2018 he has pumpkin-ed in 2019 and left yet another hole in what felt like a solid rotation coming into the season. Sean Newcomb was simply not a good starter at the beginning of this season, but his turn around in the bullpen has been a godsend to a group that has made marked improvements and has actually been very good as of late. The book is not closed on Newcomb’s starting days, but the confidence he has shown in the bullpen gives the Braves reason to believe they have at least one reliable guy in relief even if it never does pan out fully for Newcomb. Julio Teheran has had a resurgent year, and without him the Braves would have struggled to fill out a rotation this season. The former top prospect has been instrumental to keeping the Braves in first place.
The Braves have actually had some surprising luck with injuries during this rebuild, but those that do get injured seem to make key impacts. Guys like Patrick Weigel and Arodys Vizcaino would be contributing for Atlanta right now, but Weigel’s long road back from surgery and Vizcaino’s inability to ever stay on the field opened up two more holes that the Braves have not filled well. Luiz Gohara was expected to be a main player, but for a cascade of unfortunate incidents he just isn’t able to stay on the field and may never play for the Braves again. The Braves simply don’t have enough healthy major league ready arms to fill all of their major league roster spots. It’s not for lack of talent though. It’s for the lack of time. The immediate success of Albies, Acuña, and Riley as well as an overall increase in production all around the diamond have thrust the Braves into contention a couple of years earlier than they might have anticipated. They built on high school arms starting just 4 years ago, and these guys really aren’t supposed to be ready yet. When they opted to pass on making any major offseason acquisitions they effectively put their faith in a handful of young players, and it has not entirely worked out.
The rapid ascent of Fried and Soroka has been staggering and is keeping the pitching staff afloat, but you’ve still got players like Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Wright who aren’t completely ready but are being forced into action. The Braves are contending, but those players may not be in this position if the team had stayed on track. This isn’t a bad thing, the Braves very much want to win more games than they lose, but in the present day it puts players in positions they aren’t completely comfortable in and has overall casted a lot of misplaced doubt onto talented young players. Touki here is a primary example of such a player. Toussaint should be starting, whether that is in Gwinnett or in Atlanta, but because the Braves need to win every game they can and because the bullpen hasn’t filled itself out he’s being forced into an unfamiliar role as a reliever. He has been one of the better relievers, but has not been able to find the consistent footing he had in his previous two seasons as a starter or continue to make the progress that got him to Atlanta.. Whether Toussaint is a long term starter or reliever remains to be seen, but he is expected to be a contributor in Atlanta long term and is being left to figure out a new role on a contender at the major league level. That’s a tough position for any player and has contributed to Toussaint’s lack of consistency.
This bullpen has ultimately been the biggest issue for the Braves. Players like Chad Sobotka, Jesse Biddle, AJ Minter, and Arodys Vizcaino were supposed to be solid players this season and they have not been. They should have been low risk and immediately contributed. They haven’t. Whether for lack of development, injuries, or just bad luck the Braves have been throwing pitchers into the bullpen one after another and nothing they tried will stick. This has led to players like Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson, neither of which are ready to be in the major leagues, getting shuttled between Gwinnett and Atlanta and never being able to get a truly consistent schedule, work load, or role. This makes life difficult especially for players who are among the youngest and least experienced in the major leagues and i htas contributed to their struggles. Both are talented, both may get there, but they are not reliable arms today. The Braves are a contender now, but their pitching is just a step behind and they have to wait to see who catches up. Wright, Wilson, Toussaint, and to an extent Allard are all legitimate prospects that can make an impact for a major league team in the next year or two but they unfortunately need more time than the Braves have to give. Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Jasseel De La Cruz, Tucker Davidson, and Ian Anderson are in the same boat down in Mississippi, though not as desperately. They will likely need three years to really find their footing as players and the Braves might not be able to give all of them that amount of space to develop if they can’t get guys to work out in Atlanta. Even then, these are pitching prospects and it’s realistic to only expect two of those nine to hold down starting jobs in Atlanta long term.
The Braves have decision to make and they don’t have much time to make them. Option number one is to ride with the prospects they have, live with the growing pains, and understand that it means another year or two before they are truly considered World Series favorites. The second option is that they have to take the plunge and move some of these guys to take advantage of a wide open window that the young offensive stars have shattered. Spending money in free agency will give them an opportunity, but it’s not a permanent fix. The Braves have enough offensive talent to thrive even if the pitching doesn’t all work out, but a couple of key moves and one or two guys taking the next step to being even a mid rotation starter would make the team wholly more competitive. Mike Soroka is a top of the rotation arm and Max Fried follows him as another player that should be a postseason starter if he continues to stay healthy. Having two reliable young arms sets up the Braves in a good position for the next five or six years and allows them to proceed knowing that they only really need to fill one or two spots to finish off a potentially dominant playoff rotation. There is some reason to be disappointed in the Braves pitching so far, but there’s plenty of reason to believe they are just a few small steps away from building a dynasty.