The alarm went off at 6 a.m. signaling the start of a new day, yes, but more importantly it signaled the beginning of a new era for Mike Foltynewicz. It was travel day to spring training, approximately an 18-hour drive straight through from Minooka to Orlando. Upon arrival, Foltynewicz will get a new uniform, hat and new teammates. He’s had all of that before. But the Atlanta Braves are giving Foltynewicz something he never had with his former employer, the Houston Astros.
After five seasons in the Astros organization that began as a first-round draft pick and ended as a bullpen arm used in blowouts, Foltynewicz learned the business of baseball as he was shipped to Atlanta in a package highlighted by Evan Gattis, who was sent to the Astros.
It was a move that shocked Foltynewicz.
“I came up with the Astros, and I thought I would play there a long time,” he said after reflecting on the trade. “Jeff (Luhnow) said they (Astros) needed a bat right now, and they had to give me up to get it. It was really the first time my name was thrown around and in trade talks.”
It was the first time he heard them, at least. The trade was completed on January 15th, but talks began in December at the winter meetings. The Astros wanted a big bat in the lineup, and they wanted to give up Foltynewicz to get one.
Foltynewicz says he was shocked by the trade, but he shouldn’t have been. For the last three years, he just wasn’t wanted in Houston.
It’s not something he will say, and it might not even be how he feels, but it’s true. Actions speak louder than words, but in this case, neither were ever in favor of Foltynewicz in Houston’s–specifically Luhnow’s–long-term plans.
Luhnow never showed much commitment to Foltynewicz, unwilling to commit to any direction last year during spring training. When asked if he saw Foltynewicz starting the season in Triple-A, Double-A or even breaking the big league team, Luhnow responded “we’ve got a long ways to go” and spoke of the log-jam. Log-jams happen, but you create space for what you want.
The actions have seen Luhnow push out the previous regime’s players–Jarred Cosart, Nick Tropeano, Foltynewicz, Bud Norris to name a few–in favor of creating room for the guys that he brought in. Foltynewicz received a call-up last season but was never given the chance to start– a curious move for the Astros to not give their No. 2 pitching prospect a chance at what he’s done his whole career in a lost season. But curious moves have built Luhnow’s reputation in Houston, and it’s not a good one. Whether it’s as an 18-year-old top draft pick, or a 37-year-old free agent, Houston isn’t a great place to be right now.
Short-term, Houston was the better place for Foltynewicz. He had less competition to be the fifth starter on the Astros. Houston was what he knew. But being traded is the best thing that could’ve happened to Foltynewicz’s career.
Still, Foltynewicz is a professional and handled himself in such manner.
“Houston was where I was comfortable and where I built relationships,” he said. “It was a fun five years. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the Astros. But I’m excited to help the Braves win games now.”
The key word: now.
Foltynewicz will be competing with Eric Stults, Wandy Rodriguez and possibly former Yankees prospect Manny Banuelos. Many reports have Stults and Foltynewicz as the favorites, with it being a coin flip between the two at this point.
While the Braves will try to squeeze anything that’s left out of Rodriguez and see if Stults can be the pitcher he was for the last 11 games last season (2.74 ERA), there’s no question that Foltynewicz is an answer for the Braves rather than a question. He isn’t headlining a deal for Gattis if he’s not an answer in the organization’s mind.
“Trade rumors are a good thing because it means someone wants you,” he said. “Being the top guy going (to the Braves in the trade) gives me more confidence, but there’s pressure that comes with it. The Braves wanted me for the deal to get done, and I want to succeed.
“I’m nervous already, but it’s very humbling at the same time. My confidence is through the roof right now.”
That confidence–which has never been a question for ‘Folty’–will help him deal with the initial pressure that surely will surround him in Kissimmee. Pressure isn’t new, but it’s a different kind of pressure. A good kind of pressure.
“There was pressure to do well in Houston because of the depth and if you didn’t perform, then you could lose your spot real quick,” he said. “But with the Braves, you want to live up to the history of the organization and now I’ve got new fans, coaches and teammates to impress. I’ve got to show them all why the team traded for me.”
In case Braves fans need a reminder or an introduction, Atlanta traded for Foltynewicz because he’s a 6’4″, 220-pound workhorse of a starting pitcher. He’s never seen the DL since being drafted No. 19 overall in the 2010 draft. He’s loaded with a big-time fastball that you need to see to believe, an impressive curveball that he continues to make more consistent and an underrated change-up to keep hitters off his 100 MPH fastball.
Foltynewicz was the Astros 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year and finished with a 2.87 ERA in 23 appearances in Double-A the next season. A 5.30 ERA in the bullpen last year is blown up because of a three-run homer allowed in his last appearance, not to mention the lack of faith Houston catchers showed in Folty. The first 22 pitches of his career were all called fastballs. In 10 of the 16 games he pitched in, there was a five-run difference in score.
Plenty of factors are in Foltynewicz’s favor this season. Moving away from Mike Trout and the AL West is a plus (even if he meets Giancarlo Stanton), but just moving to the National League is easier on a starting pitcher. He’s pitching in a bigger ballpark. The NL East is weaker than the AL West as the Nationals window might be shorter than people think, the Phillies are down, the Mets are caught in the middle and the Marlins are promising but unproven.
But the most important factor of them all is that Foltynewicz is finally wanted.
“It’s a different mentality pitching for someone who wanted you,” he said. “But it’s still all about going out and doing the job that I know how to do and getting better at it every day.”
Foltynewicz’s off-season has been dedicated to doing just that–getting better every day at the job he knows how to do. It’s meant playing catch in a junior high gym, creating the sounds of explosions every time he throws a baseball against a mat. It’s meant shoveling snow to create a path to play catch outside and reuniting with Minooka High School coach Jeff Petrovic to refine his pitches while also keeping his arm fresh.
He worked out five days a week to get his body right. He eliminated distractions in his life to get his mind right, including ending his relationship over three weeks ago and reading less tweets telling him what he is or isn’t. He doesn’t care where you rank him as a prospect or if you project him as a starter or a reliever. That wasn’t always the case.
There’s a chance that Foltynewicz opens the season as the Braves No. 5 starter. There’s also a chance that the Braves send him to Triple-A Gwinnett if Stults earns the job in spring. Whatever the result, Foltynewicz arrives at spring training knowing that, for the first time, his chance will be decided by what he does on the field.