Braves' Snitker embracing pitching depth

Manager prepared to use prospect arms in several roles in 2019

Touki Toussaint led the Braves system with 163 strikeouts over 136 1/3 Minor League innings in 2018. (Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | December 12, 2018 4:25 PM

LAS VEGAS -- The Braves' rebuild is over and they have the National League East Division title to prove it. But that doesn't mean their pipeline of top pitching prospects has gone dry.

Atlanta entered the Winter Meetings with 10 of MLB.com's Top 100 prospects, tied with the Padres for the most in baseball. Of those 10, seven are pitchers. Of those seven, six -- Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Luiz Gohara, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard -- pitched in the Major Leagues last season in the Braves' run to their first playoff berth since 2013. All six have starting potential, but with Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran and Sean Newcomb slated to take up the first four rotation spots, some will be destined for Triple-A Gwinnett while others could move to the bullpen. That's not a bad thing, according to Atlanta manager Brian Snitker.

"We got a pretty good idea going in, the candidates," Snitker said. "I think coming in, we're going to be 90 percent sure of what our rotation is going to be when we start camp. That being said, we start out with five guys. … We give guys extra days' rest, things like that as we rotate guys around. We'll use a lot of guys. We'll get guys stretched out and ready to start the season as starters. And look, if we need to put a starter in the bullpen to make our team better, then so be it. There's nothing wrong. Back in the day, that's what you used to do. Guys came up in the bullpen. A lot of those guys experienced that last year, which is good for them going forward. It's not going to be such a culture shock, so to speak, to do that. I really like the depth we have in our system."

Of the six hurlers mentioned above, Toussaint might have the inside track to cracking the the rotation, barring any offseason acquisitions. The No. 40 overall prospect led the farm system in ERA (2.38) and strikeouts (163) in 136 1/3 innings between Double-A Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2018 while making seven Major League appearances after debuting in August -- five of them starts. His plus fastball and plus curveball worked well in The Show, though he did experience control issues with a 4.03 ERA, 32 strikeouts and 21 walks in 29 innings. The 22-year-old right-hander also delivered a pair of scoreless relief appearances in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. 

Video: Stripers' Toussaint drops the hammer for K

Soroka (No. 20 overall) will likely be in the conversation as well. The 21-year-old right-hander made five starts in May and June with the big club but was shut down with a shoulder injury. He returned to pitch in the instructional league, and indications are he'll be fully healthy by Spring Training. Gohara (No. 78) has Major League experience but struggled with ankle injuries and ineffectiveness last season while Wright (No. 29), Wilson (No. 96) and Allard (No. 100) each contributed four or fewer big-league appearances, making them more likely candidates for the International League than the NL to begin 2019.

But for a club that won a division crown while using 35 different pitchers and 13 different starters, Snitker wants his young cadre of arms to be prepared for anything and not get wrapped up in where they'll be on Opening Day.

"We tell all young pitchers [in] the first meeting I'll have with them, 'We're not out to make the team today,'" the skipper said. "They have to pace themselves. A lot of those young guys that are coming in, that have experienced that full season will get that a little more than probably they did last year. It is such a long grind. They have more than enough time to get ready in Spring Training."

Part of that preparation will be maintaining a starter's workload and not handcuffing any of the promising prospects into limited relief roles, even if they eventually fill them as Wright, Wilson and Allard did down the stretch in 2018. Graduated prospect Max Fried could provide a blueprint on how Snitker and the Atlanta coaching staff handle this next wave. The southpaw made 14 appearances (five of them starts) last season while posting a 2.94 ERA with 44 strikeouts and 20 walks in 33 2/3 innings. That type of flexibility could be key for both the pitchers' Major League chances and Atlanta's chances at repeating in the NL East.

"We come out of Spring Training. We put one of them in the bullpen. There may be a time where they get unstretched out and have to go back and start a few games," Snitker said. "It may be they sit in the bullpen and they provide an asset to us as a bullpen piece. It doesn't mean they're going to be there the rest of their life. It doesn't even mean they're going to be there all year because we'll stretch a bunch of them out in Spring Training to have them ready to start because it takes a lot of guys to get through a Major League season.

"I think the experience that guys like Max Fried and Kyle Wright, guys that came out of the bullpen a couple times, it's going to benefit them. I think the fact that they experience that full Major League season, even if some of them didn't get used a lot, is going to be really good for those young guys. "

But don't expect the Braves to turn toward an opener strategy to ease their young arms into expanded roles with the big club. Snitker said the strategy might work for other clubs, but with the high ceilings of so many pitchers in the Atlanta system, he thinks the best use of their diverse multi-pitch skills will be to stick with traditional starting and relief roles. 

"I can't necessarily think of a scenario where that's an option right now," he said. "The guys that we have, I think they're going to get better, they're going to develop, they're going to do all that by starting the game and pitching."

One scary proposition for the rest of the NL East is that the Braves' arms aren't done arriving. Toussaint, Soroka et al might represent the present and the immediate future, but No. 34 overall prospect Ian Anderson also made his Double-A debut last season and potential starters Joey Wentz (Atlanta's No. 11 prospect) and Kyle Muller (No. 12) aren't far behind. No. 21 Patrick Weigel was just added to the 40-man roster as Rule 5 Draft protection and showed a solid four-pitch mix in Triple-A before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2017.

The Braves' core right now is built around position players such as Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, but it might not be long before the biggest contributions come from the mound. That has Snitker thinking of bigger things than division titles.

"This is what we've been working for the last three years I've been here," Snitker said of the rebuild. "That's exactly what you're striving for. It's where you want to be. It's what we've been working so hard for in our Minor League system, going through the grind in the Major Leagues to get into this position. It's not any different from a few years ago when this organization was so successful. It's the same thing. We just need to continue to get better. It's the nature of the beast that we're in and we're going to have continue that too. The work is just beginning. We're still not a finished product at the Major League level. Our players are not finished products yet."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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