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As the Braves were in the process of losing consecutive games to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos was working behind the scenes to bolster the starter rotation.
The events were not purely coincidental.
The series starters — Max Fried, Kevin Gausman and Mike Foltynewicz — didn’t exactly kindle memories of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz. Collectively, they were tagged for 15 earned runs, largely due to five home runs, in 15 innings. If not for the implosion of the Pittsburgh bullpen in the opener, the Braves would have been swept by a team with a losing record.
So having missed out — apparently by design — on bringing back Craig Kimbrel to help the bullpen, Anthopoulos doubled down and did something no Braves GM has done since John Schuerholz signed Greg Maddux. He outbid the New York Yankees for Dallas Keuchel.
A healthy and sharp Keuchel would provide a significant boost to any starting rotation, let alone one in dire need of veteran leadership and consistency such as the Atlanta group.
If there’s any upshot to Gausman suddenly looking like Kenshin Kawakami, it was the sudden certainty that signing Keuchel was paramount to the Braves’ chances of winning the National League East. Yeah, the bullpen remains inadequate. But you have to have at least competent starting pitching for the bullpen to even matter.
The series loss left the Braves two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, the leaders from Opening Day. While it’s far too early to worry much about the standings, they certainly have little chance of winning the division if their only dependable starters are Mike Soroka and Julio Teheran.
Exactly how the remaining two spots in the rotation will shake out is not yet clear. Right now, the obvious answer is to move Gausman to the bullpen. But that could hinge on when Keuchel is ready to join the rotation and how Fried, Foltynewicz and Gausman pitch in their next starts. Even if Keuchel is ready in as little as 10 days, that would be time for the others to make two starts each.
Foltynewicz has shown signs of improvement. Thursday’s start wasn’t as awful as the numbers (five innings, five earned runs) suggest. His previous two starts were solid, six innings each time, two earned runs total.
Two weeks ago, the notion of returning Fried to the bullpen would have been unthinkable. But he’s had some growing pains in his last two starts. What if he continues to regress?
But Gausman has been an absolute mess in his last two starts: one inning, eight earned runs, followed by five innings, seven earned runs. While that’s the extreme, it’s not just a fluke. He’s pitched only decent in two of his last nine starts. Anthopoulos would love to unload his $9.35 million contract on some team desperate for a starting pitcher or their own bad contract to unload.
Ironically, Gausman could be a boost to the bullpen, just as Sean Newcomb has been. He doesn’t walk many batters and has averaged close to one strikeout per inning for his career. Maybe it’s time to consider that he could be a valuable reliever rather than a mediocre starter.
Back to Keuchel. Signing him was imperative not only because they needed another starting pitcher, but because losing out on Kimbrel was a bad look. Not that the corporate owners at Liberty Media care about public perception. But they do care about revenue streams, which, whether they grasp it or not, are tied to fan support and satisfaction.
And the baseball people care about the clubhouse. Freddie Freeman has been open about voicing his opinions to management about improving the roster. Players want to know that management is doing everything within their power to give them the best chance of winning.
So perception does matter. The Braves, and other teams, waited until after last week’s draft to negotiate with free agents. This was so they wouldn’t forfeit a draft pick. That pick they valued so highly was used to select Oregon State shortstop Beau Philip at No. 60 overall. Baseball America rated Philip the 254th best prospect. A bit of a reach. His top-end projection is a lower-third of the batting order shortstop or maybe super utility player. That’s not exactly Austin Riley.
Signing Keuchel sends a clear message that management is doing what it can to compete with the Phillies.