Well, there’s the starting pitcher the Atlanta Braves didn’t acquire at the deadline. It didn’t cost them a prospect. It didn’t cost them anything. Best of all, he’s an All-Star who has started Game 1 of a postseason series.
The catch: He’s Mike Foltynewicz, who as of Monday morning was a minor-leaguer.
Not to say I told you so, but I kind of did: This was always going to be the biggest in-house decision of the season's second half. If Foltynewicz can cut it – and he did last year – the Braves will have a real chance come October. If he can't, they could be looking at another one-round-and-done. Either way, he's a difference-maker.
Post-deadline waiver deals aren’t allowed anymore, but this was the equivalent of one. The Braves put Kevin Gausman, who’d made one good start following his return from plantar fasciitis followed by two awful ones, on waivers. The Reds claimed him. He’s gone. That opened a roster spot. Foltynewicz gets it. One disappointment replaces another, the difference being that Foltynewicz is a major talent.
Let nobody say, however, that Gausman didn’t have a hand in the Braves’ recent run of success. He was acquired – along with Darren O’Day, who still hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Braves – at last year’s deadline. At that moment, Philadelphia led the National League East by a half-game. Gausman’s August tipped the division toward Cobb County. His new team won four of his first five starts, over which his ERA was 1.69. After the fifth of those starts, the Braves led the East by three games.
Alas, Gausman was never as good again. By the end of September, he’d fallen out of the playoff rotation. Foltynewicz started Games 1 and 4 against the Dodgers. Anibal Sanchez got Game 2. Sean Newcomb took Game 3, the only one the Braves didn’t lose, with Gausman being summoned in the third inning. This year he – like Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka – was slowed by soreness in spring training. Like Foltynewicz, he never settled into anything good. Gausman’s ERA by months this year: 4.80, 6.48, 11.05, 4.85 and 9.64.
That he was activated off the injured list before Foltynewicz was recalled from Gwinnett tells us just how frustrated the Braves had become with the latter. They couldn’t find anything physically wrong with Foltynewicz, and the Braves are experts at finding even the tiniest thing. They just couldn’t figure out what had happened to his slider, so they shipped him to Triple-A in the hope that he’d figure it out himself. Maybe he has.
His ERA against minor-leaguers was 2.67. In 33 2/3 innings, he struck out 31, walking eight. That he was allowed to make six Gwinnett starts when the Braves’ big-league rotation wasn’t exactly humming was another signal that the organization wasn’t sure what to make of him. Those numbers indicated that he’d sorted himself out; the Braves’ hesitance made us wonder if they really believed he had.
With the deadline gone and no starting pitcher inbound, they were left with no choice. They couldn’t leave a pitcher who’d worked 183 innings last year against big-league hitters with an ERA of 2.85 hanging forever. They owe it to their manager and his 24 other players to see if Foltynewicz has indeed made the necessary corrections. As frustrating as he can be to manage/coach/watch, he’s still among the two best arms under Braves control. (Soroka is the other, duh.) This team will play in October. If he can do his bit, that team will have a better chance of sticking around.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but pitchers are funny. Sometimes their mechanics get squirrely. Sometimes they lose confidence in the stuff that brought them here. Sometimes they can’t get out of their own way. We may never know just what led to Foltynewicz’s bizarre spiral, but we’re about to see what comes next. Even when he wasn’t on the 25-man roster, he remained the key man in the organization.
The Braves – and, to be fair, many other teams – just proved how hard it is to find a starting pitcher of true quality on the open market. The good news was that they had one under contract all along. At issue is whether that quality can again be brought to bear. If the Foltynewicz of August 2019 and beyond can approximate the Foltynewicz of 2018, a very good team becomes something bigger and better. Not to heap pressure on the guy, but he’s the story of this week, this month, maybe this October.
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