SSG Firebirds 2021 Preseason Primer – Part Two

Welcome back to our look at the Atlanta Firebirds 40-man roster. Last week, I reviewed the hitters and fielders for the club. Today, it’s time to look at the team’s biggest strength: the starting rotation.

Rotation Locks

The Firebirds have a lot of very good options throughout the rotation. Staff ace Tim Cooney returns for his age 30 season, yet he’s still under team control for the next 4 years. Since joining Atlanta via a trade from St. Louis in 2019, Cooney has posted a 3.02 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in 291.2 IP. Last season he had the best K/BB ratio (6.35) in the NL, and his WHIP (0.88) and WAR (6.2) were second best.

Jordan and Wisler, meanwhile, will be eligible for free agency after the season. Wisler set career bests in K/9 (8.0), HR/9 (1.0), and FIP (3.48) at age 27 in 2020. Jordan has been the subject of some offseason trade talks, being the 3rd highest paid player on the team with a $10.2 million salary for 2021. He could be the ace of a lot of other clubs, and since the team has so much depth in the rotation, he could be wearing a different uniform after the trade deadline. 

Competing for a Rotation Spot

Yeralf Torres and Kendall Graveman are probably the front runners for the back-end of the rotation. Torres (25) had a very good year in 2020, posting a 3.74 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. However, an injury during the heart of the season limited him to just 53 innings in 11 starts. He’s got a higher ceiling than Graveman but he’s more risky. Graveman (30) has been a consistently stable option for Atlanta over the past 4 seasons; in each of them, he made at least 30 starts. However, comparing last season to 2019,  his ERA+ dropped from 114 to 87, his FIP increased from 3.99 to 4.41, and his WAR decreased from 3.7 to 1.4. The Atlanta front office is optimistic that he can produce at least one more decent year, good enough to earn a rotation spot at least. But there is a lot of competition for the club entering Spring Training.

Once one of the teams top pitching prospects, T.J. Crane (23) had an uninspiring debut season in 2020. In 16 starts, his ERA was 4.41, with a 1.37 WHIP, and 39 BB compared to only 57 K in 83.2 IP. Finally, Tom Windle could be a sleeper option for the rotation; over the last 3 seasons in the big leagues between Los Angeles and Atlanta, he has a 3.59 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 236 K and only 97 BB in 316 innings (55 starts, 13 relief appearances). Either Crane or Windle could be long-relievers if they don’t quite make the opening day rotation. 

It’s also worth noting how much roster flexibility the Firebirds have; of Crane, Graveman, Torres, and Windle, all of them are able to be sent down to AAA if needed, as they all have fewer than 3 options used and fewer than 5 years of major service time accrued.

Longshots

Monroe and Taylor enter the season as the #85 and #86 OSA prospects respectively. Monroe came from Philadelphia as part of the blockbuster Matt Kemp deal in 2018 (Catcher Tanner Norton was also in the trade). While Monroe has 4 plus pitches and can reach 98 on the radar gun, his minor league numbers have been mediocre. Besides a cup of coffee for the big club in 2020 (3.1 innings in relief), he hasn’t pitched above A ball. At that level, he’s put up a 4.84 ERA, a 1.47 WHIP, 9.7 H/9 and 3.5 BB/9. However his FIP is slightly better at 4.12 and he has struck out 8.0 hitters per 9 innings.

Joe Taylor, drafted by the Firebirds in the 3rd round in 2017, just debuted at A ball at the end of last season. In parts of 4 seasons before that in rookie ball, he had 202 K compared to 88 BB in 201 innings. His ERA+ in rookie ball was also a robust 139. Taylor has 3 plus pitches (fastball, changeup and forkball) and also reaches 98 MPH, but his curveball needs work. Monroe and Taylor are both 22 and probably a couple years away from consistent big league work. However, they both needed to be protected from the Rule 5 draft on the 40-man roster as they would have been eligible this past December.

Lou Lemons (22) threw 156.1 innings between A and AA in 2020. He had an ERA just north of 3, a WHIP of 1.25, 148 K and 71 BB. A first round pick in 2017, Lemons looks to be more polished than Monroe or Taylor, but with a lower ceiling, and he’s probably not ready for regular big league work either.

On the contrary, Erick Fedde (27) is an unexciting yet acceptable replacement option in the short-term. In 27 starts at AAA last year, Fedde posted a 4.70 ERA, 4.67 FIP, 112 K and 31 BB in 143.2 innings. However, he also gave up 10.1 hits per 9 innings, which inflated his WHIP to 1.34.

Finally, Matt Smoral (26) is expected to miss at least the first month of the season due to a torn rotator cuff. Similar to Tom Windle, he’s been a reliable option on the mound over the past few seasons; Smoral has a career 4.24 ERA in 252.2 IP (45 starts, 20 relief appearances). When he returns, he could be an injury replacement option in the rotation or a long-reliever in the bullpen.

Thanks for reading. Next week, we’ll wrap up the preseason primer with a look at the bullpen options for the Firebirds entering 2021.

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