Braves: The battle for the fifth starter is heating up

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Until 2019’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up — righty Mike Soroka — returns from his Achilles injury, the Braves will begin the coming season with one of these four pitchers as their fifth starter:

I purposely ordered them above by how likely they were to win the job entering this spring, with Wright’s chances the highest and Ynoa the lowest. However, at this point, the competition is practically a toss-up. 

Looking like the front-runner through the Braves’ first 14 Spring Training games, Wright took the mound for Tuesday’s start against the Red Sox, holding onto a strong 3.24 ERA through his first three starts, featuring six strikeouts and three walks in 8.1 innings. Ever since getting rocked a bit in Atlanta’s spring opener against the Rays on February 28 — an outing in which Wright could not make it out of the 2nd inning — allowing three runs from four hits overall, the 25-year-old appeared as if he was finding his groove. 

But unable to make it out of the 3rd inning during his fourth start on Tuesday, Wright took that oh so familiar step back, allowing two runs and walking two in the Braves 5-3 loss while pushing his ERA this spring north of four (4.09) — once again opening the door for someone else to make their move. Ability has never been an issue for Wright, but it’s hard not to call his inconsistency extremely frustrating. Remember, this was the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft; four years later, and the Braves are still waiting on Wright to put it all together. But, I know… I know… it’s just Spring Training! 

Meanwhile, Bryse Wilson is attempting to quiet all of his doubters. In two starts behind Wright this spring, he is maintaining a 2.00 ERA through his first nine innings, and this month has been every bit as good as anyone could’ve hoped for when the Braves drafted him in the fourth round back in 2016. The 23-year-old has walked just one batter to go along with six strikeouts.

And then there’s Toussaint, who — like Wright on Tuesday — took a step back when he was charged with a blown save after a rough 7th inning that included him loading the bases (this after pitching beautifully in the 5th and 6th innings). Touki looks crisp this spring, and even after Tuesday, he also currently has a sub-2.50 ERA (2.25) through eight exhibition innings. 

And lastly, despite a not-so-pretty 9.00 ERA for the spring, even Ynoa has enjoyed some success in the last few weeks (in which Braves prospect blogger David Lee analyzed back on March 10).

According to Lee, a raised release-point that gives Ynoa more of a vertical profile on the mound has led to better pitch profiling, which in turn has allowed him to strike out 12 batters so far this spring in just seven innings (a rate of 15.4 K/9). Better run prevention, coupled with the 22-year-old’s already nasty stuff, could make Ynoa a solid bet to breakout in 2021, even if it may have to come primarily in Triple-A Gwinnett. 


Why not all four?

At this point, given all four of Wright, Wilson, Toussaint, and Ynoa have displayed flashes of improvements over the course of Spring Training, why does only one guy get the job? 

Unless one of them clearly separates himself from the rest of the pack, if I’m the Braves, I simply rotate through the four pitchers and bank on catching fire with one of them. I mean, we aren’t talking several months here. And while we still don’t know for sure, if Soroka does indeed start the regular season on the IL, it will be for a very short period of time.

In a report from the AJC a few days ago, Gabe Burns wrote that Soroka is scheduled to make a start in Spring Training, suggesting the right-hander is possibly only a few weeks behind, at the most. Atlanta may only need one start each from Wright, Wilson, Toussaint, and Ynoa, or perhaps just a start from the first two before Soroka is back in action. 

There’s also the option of just using a four-man starting rotation until Soroka returns and using the no. 5 spot as a bullpen day. While that’s a commonly used and logical practice, it also puts a bit of extra pressure on starters nos. 1-4 to work clean outings so that Atlanta’s relievers remain fresh. Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Charlie Morton, and Drew Smyly are a formidable front-four for sure, but I don’t think anyone realistically expects each of them to go 6-7 innings apiece at the beginning of April. If all four can come out of the gate with strong starts in the opening week of the regular season, then sure, unleash the fury with the bullpen in Game 5 and hope something sticks. However, I wouldn’t simply bank on that. There certainly will need to be another starting pitcher in the event the ‘pen is depleted. 

Either way, it’s great to see the competition for the fifth starter is strong this spring. Difficulty deciding who’s more deserving is very much a good thing, not to mention an indication that all four pitchers are performing well. 

Soroka’s absence is an obstacle the Braves will need to overcome in April, and one I’m sure the team wishes it didn’t have to worry about in 2021. However, it’s also a fantastic opportunity for four pitchers to finally turn the corner in their respective careers. 

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