In the hot stove’s infancy, the Braves made their approach to building 2017’s rotation abundantly clear; look to your elders for guidance while giving your young arms time to develop.
RA DICKEY got $8M guarantee on braves deal. 7.5M for '17, 8M team option, 500K buyout for '18— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 10, 2016
Source: Bartolo Colon is one year, $12.5 million with #Braves. Pending a physical.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 11, 2016
These aren’t your garden variety veteran starters; these are the oldest of the old. RA Dickey just turned 42, while Bartolo Colon checks in at 43. The reasoning behind these signings seems clear: both players required no long term commitment and have consistently been able to eat lots of innings despite their advanced ages.
Colon and Dickey joining the Braves also allows the team’s top pitching prospects time to further develop without creating a glut of veteran starters under contract when those prospects are ready to debut. The three top Braves pitching prospects consist of 19-year-olds Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, selected 14th and 28th overall in the 2015 draft respectively, and Sean Newcomb, the 23-year old left hander acquired from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade.
Allard is most likely a few years away from the majors. He performed well in 2016 in time split between Rookie ball and Low-A, but a history of back injuries means the Braves will rightly keep a close eye on his workload. Soroka was dynamite in Low-A in 2016 and he doesn’t have the injury history or workload concern of Allard, meaning he will probably be ready to contribute sooner.
Newcomb is the Atlanta pitching prospect to keep an eye on this year. Command and control have always been his issue and remain his main roadblock to the majors. Newcomb’s walk rate for the AA Mississippi Braves in 2016 was 11.9 percent, still too high, but an improvement on the 15.9 percent he posted for the Angels’ AA affiliate in 2015. He’ll need another step forward in this area to be a viable option for the Braves rotation.
While these are Atlanta’s top three pitching prospects (according to Baseball Prospectus), the Braves are still flush with young pitching talent beyond them. Taking the veteran starters on a one-year deal approach ensures that the Braves will not be forced to rush any of their young pitchers this year. Pitchers like John Gant and Aaron Blair who have already seen the majors will get another opportunity to succeed, and with only one rotation spot to fill, there will be much less pressure to hurry Newcomb’s development should the Braves deem him not quite ready.
At this point four of the pitchers in the 2017 Braves rotation are set. Colon and Dickey are the two veterans joining a pair of 25-year olds, Julio Teheran and Mike Folteynewicz. Here’s a look at the 2016 numbers for all four:
In his second year with the Braves, Foltynewicz made great strides to show that his former Top 100 prospect status was warranted. He cut his ERA, FIP and walk rate while gaining two and a half inches of horizontal movement on his changeup and increasing the usage of both the changeup and slider by about five percent. According to FanGraphs, in 2016 he saw an increase in pitch-type run values on every pitch in his repertoire. Foltynewicz is still pre-arbitration, and has shown tremendous growth since being traded to Atlanta as part of the return that sent Evan Gattis to the Astros.
Despite being a constant presence in trade rumors, Teheran had a fantastic 2016 season, bouncing back from a sub-par 2015. The definitions we use for such distinctive titles are rather murky, but it’s pretty clear that Teheran is not an “ace” and should instead be viewed as a mid-level number two or high-end number three starter. He is signed to a team friendly contract through 2019 with an option for 2020, which means he is immensely valuable both on the trade market and to a team in the process of a rebuild. There’s no telling what Braves GM John Coppolella will ultimately decide to do with Teheran, but the arguments both for and against trading him have merit.
By pairing Colon and Dickey with two excellent young pitchers Atlanta brought stability to their starting rotation for the 2017 season. If both pitchers can repeat their performances from 2016, in which both measures of WAR had them around 4 wins combined, the Braves would be thrilled, and fans coming to their new ballpark wouldn’t be entirely unhappy either.
That said, it’s certainly possible that this is the year father time will come calling for the new Braves. As much fun as they have been for the game of baseball, these guys can’t pitch forever, right?
According to Brooks Baseball, Colon’s fastball and sinker averaged 93.02 and 89.97 mph respectively in 2013, while last year they were down to 90.30 and 87.81 mph. He throws those two pitches 89 percent of the time, so another small drop in velocity could spell the end of the line.
Trying to predict the fate of a knuckleballer seems like a fool’s errand, but we are now four full seasons removed from Dickey’s dominant, Cy Young campaign with the Mets. It’s safe to say we won’t see that version of him again.
That Coppolella and company signed both Colon and Dickey before the free agent market could even take shape shows they have a strong plan and will not be shy about executing it. The worst thing you could do as a rebuilding team would be to lock yourself in to mediocrity and give a three- or four-year deal to one of Edinson Volquez, Jason Hammel, or Andrew Cashner. Time will tell whether the strategy will work, but using two of the oldest and most reliable innings eaters in baseball as a one-year bridge to the future seems like a prudent course of action.
Odds are that the 2017 season will not see the Braves competing for a spot in the postseason, but at least their farm system is intact and their fans will be entertained.