KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) In the tunnel leading to the dugout at the Atlanta Braves spring training stadium, there’s a picture of John Smoltz being inducted into the Hall of Fame, right above a photo showing Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine holding their Cooperstown plaques.
My, how times have changed.
The Braves head into another rebuilding season with a rotation that figures to be a work in progress well beyond opening day, with manager Fredi Gonzalez conceding it might be the All-Star break before things sort themselves out.
For now, Julio Teheran is the only sure thing, but even the 25-year-old former All-Star is coming off his worst full season in the majors. Bud Norris, who went 3-11 with a 6.72 ERA a year ago, figures to be the No. 2 starter, and the only other pitcher who seems locked into a spot is 23-year-old Matt Wisler, coming off a promising rookie season.
Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.
The Braves will give a long look to a plethora of young pitchers, many of them acquired in trades over the past year as part of a massive roster overhaul that isn’t likely pay dividends for at least another season or two.
“Sometimes that wave is out by the Marshall Islands,” Gonzalez quipped. “But it’s coming.”
This is all rather jarring because starting pitching was the cornerstone of Atlanta’s unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles. In some ways, the Braves are hoping to pull off a repeat of the late 1980s, when they drafted Glavine and acquired Smoltz in a trade, setting the stage for a worst-to-first turnaround in 1991. They signed Maddux two years later, giving the Braves a trio of Hall of Famers-to-be who would anchor their rotation for the better part of the decade.
No one on the current roster should be expected to fill those massively large spikes, but Gonzalez is hopeful that youngsters such as Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, Aaron Blair, Sean Newcomb, Williams Perez and Lucas Sims will eventually form the cornerstone of another stellar rotation.
“At least we have some candidates,” the manager said. “A lot of stuff has got to go right. They’ve got to get better and that kind of stuff. But I like the arms, I really do.”
In the meantime, veteran pitchers such as Norris, Kyle Kendrick and Jhoulys Chacin – all of them coming off miserable seasons – may have to fill in the gaps until the youngsters are ready.
“This team is very young,” said Norris, who threw two perfect innings in Saturday’s spring training loss to Pittsburgh. “I just want to do my part, be that veteran presence in the rotation.”
Norris was a 15-game winner for Baltimore in 2014, but he followed up with the worst season of his career. He came down with bronchitis, lost 20 pounds in four days and never recovered. Released by the Orioles in early August, he finished out the season with San Diego and signed a bargain-basement deal with the Braves.
Only 31, there’s still time to get things back on track.
“I had a tough one last year,” Norris said. “I’m here to prove I’m the same guy I was the six years before that.”
Kendrick also has plenty of prove.
He had double-figure wins in six of eight seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies but struggled through a miserable year after signing with the Colorado Rockies, going 7-13 with a 6.32 ERA in the thin air of Coors Field.
Now he’s back in the NL East, getting a chance to pitch in the much more favorable pitching conditions of Turner Field.
“I’m somewhere where I want to be,” he said, “and I’m excited about it.”
Foltynewicz is mounting a comeback of his own. One of the hardest throwers in the organization, the 24-year-old right-hander developed blood clots in his shoulder, a frightening condition that could’ve ended tragically if not diagnosed. He underwent surgery that left a nasty scar under his right armpit and is taking things slowly at the beginning of camp.
While it’s doubtful he’ll be ready for the start of the season, Foltynewicz is one of those guys who could join the rotation during the season. Also, he’s another young pitcher with holes in his repertoire, which were evident as he went 4-6 with 5.71 ERA in 2015.
A 100-mph fastball doesn’t mean much without other pitches.
“These guys get paid to hit the fastball, no matter how hard it is,” said Foltynewicz, who hopes to improve his slider. “You’ve got to have some off-speed pitches, and you’ve got to have command of them.”
Maybe on the way to the dugout, he’ll get some inspiration from those pictures on the wall.