NL playoffs a proving ground for Braves' youthful pitching staff
For the Atlanta Braves' promising, young pitching rotation, it will be trial by fire this October.
The top half of their probable four-man playoff rotation answered the bell in resounding fashion in the Wild Card round. In their first ever postseason starts, Max Fried, age 26, and Ian Anderson, 22, blanked the Cincinnati Reds, combining for 13 IP, 14 strikeouts and no runs.
Up against 2020 Cy Young hopeful Trevor Bauer and rising star Luis Castillo, Fried and Anderson were forced to go toe-to-toe with two of the National League's best. Like a heavyweight fight, Bauer and Fried exchanged blows in game one, with each pitcher tossing seven scoreless innings.
Without Fried neutralizing Bauer's dominance on the mound, the Braves would have entered game two on the edge of extinction. Atlanta's offense gave Fried little wiggle room, but it didn't matter. Fried kept the Reds off the scoreboard, then handed the ball off to the club's fantastic bullpen, which was able to buy time for Atlanta's offense to finally awaken from its slumber in the 13th inning, when Freddie Freeman would knock in the game's lone run for an Atlanta victory.
It was a similar story in game two. Anderson — who made his major league debut on August 25 — exited the game after six scoreless frames, with the Braves clinging to a 1-0 lead. Atlanta's offense erupted in the 8th inning, banging a pair of two-run homers; but the effort of Anderson cannot be overstated. In a time when the Braves needed to match Cincinnati's elite starting pitchers, the club's youngsters stepped up.
Since the start of the 2020 season, the Braves have had a number of challenges presented to their pitching staff. They lost Dallas Keuchel last winter to free agency, and earlier this season, they abruptly designated Mike Foltynewicz for assignment, outright waiving him in July. The seasoned veteran and World Series champion they signed to replace Keuchel, Cole Hamels, made just one start all season before lingering shoulder and triceps injuries sidelined him for the remainder of 2020. Worst of all, Atlanta's budding ace Mike Soroka tore his Achilles on August 3. In a matter of months, the Braves lost all three of the starters they used in the 2019 NLDS, leaving a very promising yet wildly inexperienced staff left to do the heavy lifting.
Had Fried, Anderson, and the Braves' stellar relievers' efforts not been enough, 25 year-old Kyle Wright would have taken the bump in a decisive game three. Wright, formerly an MLB Pipeline top 100 prospect, struggled early in the season, but found his groove in September, winning his last three starts with a 2.37 ERA. We should expect him to start game three of the Division Series.
As for who would start in an if-necessary game four, it's anyone's guess who manager Brian Snitker might give the ball to. He could call upon veteran Josh Tomlin, who logged a 6.33 ERA through five starts, but proved to be much more effective pitching out of the pen (2.95). He could also go the youthful route once more, opting for 22 year-old Bryse Wilson. Wilson has just 7 career starts to his name, but started two of Atlanta's final six games, allowing just one run.
The Braves will once again need big contributions from their starters, this time versus an equally young and promising Marlins' starting rotation. Luckily for Atlanta, Miami's staff has no prior postseason experience either, making this series the optimal proving grounds for both teams' electrifying arms.
Atlanta fans have been waiting a long time for a winner. The city hasn't hosted a championship parade since the Braves last won the World Series in 1995, now 25 years ago. With the Braves winning their first playoff series since 2001 earlier this week, their loyal fans are hungry for more, and this team has the firepower to go the distance. A third straight playoff exit in the NLDS would be unwelcome and dissatisfying, but could ultimately serve a greater purpose for the team moving forward.
After losing Foltynewicz, Keuchel, Hamels and Soroka, the Braves weren't supposed to get this far. Their untried pitchers were supposed to roll over and yield to the Reds' proven staff. They didn't. Now the Braves have an opportunity for their young guns to gain valuable postseason repetitions that could pay dividends in the long run.
It's simple, really: the only way for unproven pitchers to transform into battle-tested, trustworthy vets is for them to actually gain playoff experience. Had the Braves bolstered the depth of their pitching rotation at the trade deadline, they would have done so at the expense of the development of Wright, Anderson and Wilson, all of whom are primed for some big opportunities this postseason.
By turning to four pitchers age 26 and under, there could be some growing pains — they could very well fall short of the NLCS once again, or advance and flame out against the Dodgers — but fortunately for the Braves, their competitive window of opportunity looks to be lodged open for several years to come.
The team has club control of Fried, Soroka, Anderson, Wright and Wilson through at least 2024. They also have three top 100 prospects that have yet to leave their mark on the major league club, and all-stars Ozzie Albies (age 23) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (22) are both under extremely team-friendly contracts through 2027. Meanwhile, the club's front office continues to strike gold on low-risk, short-term free agent signings. Last season, Josh Donaldson contributed 37 home runs and 94 RBI's on a one-year deal. In 2020, newly acquired Marcell Ozuna delivered an MVP-caliber season and Travis D'Arnaud batted .321 behind the dish.
The Braves have won the last three NL East division titles, and given the current state of the division and the team's flexible payroll, I currently have no reason to think that they won't win the next three. This team doesn't look to be going away anytime soon. Snitker's club isn't far from gaining a stranglehold of the NL East, a sight that hasn't been seen since Bobby Cox's Braves won 11 straight division titles from 1995 through 2005.
Whether their homegrown starters sink or swim in the 2020 playoffs, the Braves will be setting themselves up wonderfully for the future. If they're lucky, they could wind up with the best rotation they've had since the days of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.