Braves: Who will benefit the most from Felix Hernandez’s decision to opt-out?

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Felix Hernandez is now one of two Braves players that have decided to opt-out of the 2020 season, as Nick Markakis joined him today. The veterans don’t have much left to prove in their careers and have accumulated nearly $400 million in career earnings. They also have families to think about, so it’s understandable why they decided to take a year off during these trying times.

For Braves fans, though, it’s upsetting that we may never have the opportunity to see King Felix — someone I believe should be a Hall-of-Famer — don the tomahawk across his chest during the regular season, no matter how selfish that might be. However, one man’s decision to take the season off opens the door for another player, and in the Braves case, it could turn out for the better.

First off, it was never a foregone conclusion that Hernandez would be a part of the starting rotation. However, with 30-man rosters to begin the season, it was reasonable to expect he would have made the Opening Day roster. But after that, nothing was guaranteed. He was in a heated battle with Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright for the final rotation spot, and the young guns both would have received the benefit of the doubt considering their age and upside.

There were also a couple of longshots like Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint. These two players have had major-league opportunities in each of the last two seasons but in limited spurts. Wilson still looks like he needs some work in the minors (which unfortunately won’t be possible this year), given his secondary pitches have not allowed him to have much success at the highest level. An elite fastball can only get a pitcher so far in this league, and the Braves may opt to move him to the bullpen since they have so many young arms to choose from. With Hernandez no longer an option to make the 30-man roster, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity for Atlanta to give that experiment a try, using Wilson in a long-relief role.

It’s also worth noting that Will Smith, who is expected to be a late-inning relief option for the Braves after they signed him to a multi-year contract this offseason, is one of the players who tested positive for the coronavirus. Even though he’s been asymptomatic, if he can’t start the year on the Opening Day roster, it presents even more of an opportunity for a pitcher like Wilson, who looked very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster just a few days ago. However, the player that could make the most of these openings is Touki Toussaint.

Going into last year, Toussaint was a rookie that many intelligent baseball minds believed would have the type of year that Mike Soroka ended up producing. Toussaint was 2-1 in seven games (five starts) with a 4.03 ERA and K/9 rate just below 10 in 2018. That was good enough to land him on the playoff roster, where he was among the most reliable options. Brian Snitker used him in two games against the Dodgers, and while Toussaint wasn’t perfect, he picked up the Braves only win of the series while tossing three shutout innings. Unfortunately, the Braves just didn’t see the step forward they were hoping in 2019, and Toussaint ended up spending most of the year in AAA.

Even though Toussaint produced a 4-0 record, his 5.62 ERA over 41.2 innings (24 appearances told a different story). He received his only start of the season on April 13th — his first outing of the year — and pitched a gem, tossing six shutout innings with seven strikeouts against the Mets. After that, the Braves moved him to a relief role, which never suited him the same, although his control issues would have prevented him from succeeding regardless.

Toussaint had a 5.6 BB/9 before being sent to Gwinnett permanently in July, and his numbers with the Stripers were even worse. In ten starts, he posted an abysmal 7.49 ERA with 28 walks in just 39.2 innings, leading to a 1-6 record. 2019 was undoubtedly a step back for the 2014 first-round pick, but the talent is undeniable, and he began to pitch with some swagger again in Spring Training 1.0.

In three outings (8.2 innings), Toussaint only allowed two earned runs while striking out eight. It’s a minuscule sample size, and he still walked three batters, but he will have another opportunity over these next three weeks to show off his progress. With rosters being expanded to 30 to begin the season, Toussaint should find himself on there now that Hernandez will not be playing. After that, it could go several ways.

Perhaps he finds himself back on the taxi squad once the rosters are trimmed down. Maybe he turns into a critical piece of the Braves stacked relief core. But I also wouldn’t count him out of landing a role in the starting rotation. He just turned 24-years-old, and the other two primary candidates for the final rotation spot — Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright — have shown just as many warts over the last couple of seasons as Toussaint. It’s right to consider Touki a dark horse in this race, but in a shortened season, if he gets hot, there’s no reason the Braves shouldn’t ride him as long as they can.

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