Atlanta Braves

Braves' young pitching will be focus at spring training

JOE SKIPPER/Associated PressAtlanta Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran throws in the first inning against the Miami Marlins during their opening day baseball game in Miami on April 6, 2015.
JOE SKIPPER/Associated PressAtlanta Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran throws in the first inning against the Miami Marlins during their opening day baseball game in Miami on April 6, 2015. AP

When Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 19, followed by the rest of the team's position players Feb. 24, they'll do so with great anticipation among themselves and some ardent fans.

However, there will be low expectations from most others who view the Braves as a multi-year rebuilding project in its early stages. Nevermind contending, many wonder if the Braves, after trading one of their only proven starting pitchers and their peerless defensive shortstop, can even improve upon a 67-95 record that was their worst in a quarter-century.

Braves veterans seem unfazed by that popular opinion, for two reasons: 1. They think the team is headed in the right direction and have seen enough glimpses of its young talent to believe the organization could be respectable sooner than expected; 2. They know baseball is a crazy game and just about anything can happen in a 162-game season.

"Whatever the expectations are, they are," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who's 39 but coming off a resurgent season in which he hit .300 with nine homers and a .769 OPS. "I mean, no one thought the Houston Astros would make the playoffs last year, and they probably should have beat the Royals in that series."

Pierzynski worked as a TV analyst on the Royals' division series win against the Astros, and the Braves can only hope some rookie pitchers are as impressive in 2016 as their catcher was in his first major network broadcasting gig.

The Braves could turn to rookies or others with less than one full season in the big leagues to fill as many as three rotation spots. It more likely will be one or two rookies in the rotation at the outset, when de facto ace Julio Teheran is expected to be joined by veteran newcomer Bud Norris -- he signed a major league contract -- and at least one other from among a non-roster group of veterans that includes Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick and Chris Volstad.

"Everybody else is, let's see what happens, other than Julio and maybe Bud," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But I feel like we have a lot of candidates we can choose from. If they do well in spring training, they could make our club as a starter."

The Braves have stockpiled a deep supply of pitching prospects through trades and draft picks, but for now their mostly unproven rotation looks a bit overmatched

against the likes of the Mets' formidable crew. One website ranked the Braves' rotation last in the majors, while their farm system was ranked No. 1 by ESPN scouting expert Keith Law.

Within the organization there is confidence that some from last year's strong rookie group of starters -- Matt Wisler, Manny Banuelos, Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz -- will make big strides, and that others from among the most advanced of the pitching prospects -- hard-throwers Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair, Lucas Sims, Tyrell Jenkins -- could be ready if called upon at some point during the 2016 season.

"The spots are all open. I think they want me to make the team, from what I've heard," said Wisler, who was correct in that assessment, as he's viewed as a front-runner among returning young starters. "But it's all on me now, to go out and prove that I'm ready and capable to last a whole season up here. I'm definitely going to come in here and just fight every day. We've got good competition, so it should be a lot of fun in spring training to battle those guys."

Newcomb, a left-hander who came from the Angels in the November trade for shortstop Andrelton Simmons, was rated the No. 2 prospect in the organization behind shortstop Dansby Swanson. The Braves got Swanson, Blair and Ender Inciarte in a blockbuster December trade for Shelby Miller, who led the Braves with a 3.02 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings.

"It's definitely exciting to see where the Braves are going with all the people they're bringing in," said Newcomb, who had a 2.38 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 136 innings last season for three Single-A and Double-A affiliates of the Angels.

"I've just been busting it this whole offseason, trying to come into spring training and make a good first impression on everybody."

Regarding the competition, Wisler said, "I think it's just going to help. When you've got that much competition, guys have to perform to stay up. If you start struggling in the big leagues there's guys at Triple-A to take your spot."

There are many "if's" that could determine whether the Braves play like the team that was at one point 42-42 in 2015, or the one that went 25-53 the rest of the way: If they see significant development from young pitchers, if they keep slugger Freddie Freeman healthy, if they get production atop the order from newcomers Inciarte and Erick Aybar. ...

"You never know what can happen," Pierzynski said. "I've been on teams that were expected to win the division by 30 games and didn't make the playoffs. I was on a Twins team picked to finish dead last, and we almost won the division. It doesn't matter (what's predicted). It's how guys come together and how guys play, and we'll see what happens.

"And if we're in a good spot, then we know the organization will make moves to help. But we've got to get there."