Will Braves Rotation Gamble Pay Off?

Joe Patrick
December 04, 2019 - 1:42 pm

The Atlanta Braves are at it again, moving quickly to make their fifth free agent signing in the first month of free agency by adding 35-year old former World Series MVP Cole Hamels to the starting rotation.

After declining to re-sign Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran, the Braves starting rotation currently looks like this:

  1. Mike Soroka
  2. Mike Foltynewicz
  3. Max Fried
  4. Cole Hamels
  5. TBD

Hamels is obviously far from the pitcher he was a decade ago, but he’s proven to be a consistent and durable player throughout his career. Former Braves catcher Brian McCann compared Fried to Hamels last April when the pair had just started to work together.

“This guy [Fried], I told him he looks like a young Cole Hamels to me,” said McCann after Fried’s first start of the 2019 season in which he threw six scoreless innings. “When I was coming up and you see Cole on the mound, he’s got the same build, the same sort of look, and the stuff is off the charts.”

Now, maybe McCann, who has since retired, was merely referencing the pair’s slender build, pale skin and dark hair. They do look similar. But from a profile perspective, both are southpaws with a similar repertoire of pitches and want to command at-bats in the same way by establishing the fastball to optimize the effectiveness of their tremendous secondary offspeed stuff.

For this reason, it’s easy to see where Hamels fits into this group — a veteran leader who can help guide a trio of young pitchers at the top of the rotation. Hamels has thrown twice the amount of innings in his career as Fried, Soroka and Foltynewicz have thrown combined. 

But the signing appears to be a gamble for a couple reasons.

First, Hamel’s top-line and underlying statistics have trended the wrong way since leaving the Phillies organization fewer than a handful of years ago. The command he had in his prime seems to have slipped away a bit as his walks-per-nine innings jumped considerably — roughly 30 percent — since the 2015 season when he was traded to the Texas Ranger in the American League. 

With the $18 million spent on Hamels’ one-year deal, it brings the Braves’ committed spending for the 2020 season up to $82.75 million already. And the team still has a glaring hole in the cleanup spot. Considering these facts, it’s hard to imagine the club is going to spend big on another quality starting pitcher, leaving the last spot in the rotation up to its young arms.

Sean Newcomb appears to hold pole position, but he will be contested this spring by others like Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint. And if the Braves’ best starting pitching prospect Ian Anderson proves himself in Triple-A, he could also be in contention for a midseason call-up. The gamble is that one of those young arms is going to pan out and prove to be a viable strike-thrower at the major league level, something all four struggled with as they cycled in-and-out of the rotation last season.

If at least one of those pitchers proves to be a viable option over the course of the season, the Braves have a winning hand. If not, they may find themselves scrambling in the trade market midseason to acquire a reliable arm in what should be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.