Winter Meetings Day 3 Notebook: One Spot To Win In Braves Rotation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.­--The Braves used 11 different starters last season, including four rookies who made their major league debuts.

Even after the Braves declined their option on veteran R.A. Dickey, manager Brian Snitker expects his rotation to be a lot more stable in 2018.

Snitker said on Wednesday that four of the Braves’ five rotation spots for Opening Day are set as far as he is concerned. Only the fifth starter spot will be open for competition among the Braves’ stable of promising young pitchers.

"Folty (Mike Foltynewicz), (Julio) Teheran, (Luiz) Gohara, (Sean) Newcomb and then we’re going to probably look for a five," Snitker said. "And there’s going to be competition throughout the whole club this year, I think. We have some options in guys. (Lucas) Sims came up and I thought did a pretty good job. We saw Max Fried. There’s some other, the young guys, the (Mike) Sorokas, (Kolby) Allards, guys like that that are going to be in camp. It’s going to be a fun spring training for us because we’re going to get to see a lot of these guys that we have been talking about and now they’ve kind of burst on the scene and we’ll see where they’re at."

Soroka (No. 3), Allard (No. 7) and Fried (No. 8) make up three of the Braves’ top eight prospects, while Sims went 3-6, 5.62 in 14 appearances (10 starts) last year as a rookie.

Fried in particular is a strong candidate after going 1-1, 3.81 in nine appearances (four starts) with the Braves last year and following up with a dominant showing in the Arizona Fall League.

Snitker wasn't ready to name Fried the front-runner yet though, preferring to wait and see how the offseason unfolds.

"I don’t know that I have a preference,” Snitker said. “We got a long way to go until spring training, so who knows what might happen. Those are all names, those are guys that are in our organization now and ones that we’ll look to, barring any trades or anything."

OPENING FOR YOUNG CATCHERS IN TORONTO

Russell Martin will be 35 next year and is coming off a career-low 91 games played in 2017.

As the Blue Jays veteran catcher heads into the twilight of his career, manager John Gibbons said he plans to give long looks to catching prospects Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire to possibly fill major league roles as soon as next season.

Jansen, 22, hit .323/.400/.484 across three levels last season and finished at Triple-A Buffalo. McGuire, 22, hit .295 with an .859 OPS in an injury-shortened season that ended at Double-A New Hampshire.

"I haven’t seen them a ton but I like everything that I’ve seen out of them," Gibbons said. "You look at Jansen, really came out of nowhere to put himself on the map with us. A big part of it is because he put on glasses, you know, because you do need your eyes. He flew through the system last year. And Reese…Good lefthanded-hitting catcher. So it’s got a pretty good tandem right there. Eventually they will get their shot."

The Blue Jays used Luke Maile as their primary backup catcher last year, but he hit just .146/.176/.231 in 46 games and had surgery on his right knee that cost him two months of the season.

With the combination of injuries, age and poor performance from his catchers at the big league level, Gibbons made clear the path is open for Jansen and McGuire to assert themselves, and possibly win a job, in spring training.

"There’s going to be plenty of playing time for those guys," Gibbons said. "You always try to line them up with an eye towards the future, but really we need to get all our guys ready."

BANDA IN THE MIX

Anthony Banda, the Diamondbacks’ No. 2 prospect, made his major league debut last year and went 2-3, 5.96 in eight appearances (four starts). While it was certainly not the most impressive stat line, D-backs manager Torey Luvollo said he saw enough to consider Banda a major piece of the big league club in 2018, and as a starter.

"I see him competing as one of our starters," Luvollo said. "He came in to spring training last year and really opened my eyes. He attacked the zone with an aggressive fastball and that’s what you want to see from every young pitcher, that they’re not backing off of their best pitch or their most aggressive pitch. So I was impressed by that."

Banda struggled as a starter in his debut, posting a 7.32 ERA in four turns through the rotation before being sent back to Triple-A Reno. He returned to the D-backs as a September callup and allowed one run in four relief appearances.

While Banda's relief success--and potential openings in the bullpen with Fernando Rodney, Jorge De La Rosa, J.J. Hoover and David Hernandez all free agents--make him an appealing bullpen candidate, Lovullo made clear the team expects Banda to pitch out of the rotation in 2018.

"I watched him improve start to start," Lovullo said. "His first couple starts were very good. I know there was a couple wobbly ones mixed in there, but I enjoyed meeting him, watching him grow and the comfort level in which he showed when he was on the mound. There was tremendous mound presence and the stuff improved. We need that to continue. It’s a three-pitch mix. With that aggressive fastball, he could be a very, very exciting young starter for us this year."

SOLVING RENFROE'S DEFENSE

Hunter Renfroe was regarded as an elite defensive right fielder by scouts throughout his time in the minors, but his rookie year in the majors was a struggle. Renfroe's nine errors were tied for the most of any outfielder in majors in 2017, and FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating rated him the second-worst right fielder in the majors overall.

Manager Andy Green said the Padres believe Renfroe's sudden defensive decline in the majors was due to a lack of focus, particularly pre-pitch.

"It was a matter being locked in and then that first step," Green said. "Like, how passionate is your pre-pitch? How involved are you in every pitch? When he has that high level of focus, he’s great out there...You raise awareness of, 'This is important.' If he’s locked in and he’s taking a quick first step because he’s locked in, he’s going to defend the position really well."

Renfroe also struggled to control his powerful arm. He tied for the National League lead with nine assists and was rated as having the second-best outfield arm in the NL by league managers in Best Tools balloting, but his eight throwing errors were the most of any outfielder in the majors, and twice as many as the second-most (Mookie Betts, four).

Again, Green pointed to focus as the main issue rather than any physical shortcoming.

"I think sometimes he wants to show you the raw tool a lot, which is the arm," Green said. "It’s fun to watch when a guy hits the ball down the first base line, he catches and spins and fires to second base, unlike any other big leaguer in the game. That’s fun. But the real difference is made how locked are you on every pitch and how good is your first step on every pitch? That’s definitely the focal point for him."

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