Braves going so good it may not matter who replaces ‘Folty’ in rotation

Atlanta Braves' starting pitchers in 2019

The Braves need a fifth starting pitcher after they demoted Mike Foltynewicz over the weekend and it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. That tells you how far the Braves have come. It should be a crisis that their All-Star pitcher is headed for the minors in June, but it's more like an annoyance as the Braves roll toward another NL East title with a 6 ½ game lead following the weekend.

That’s not to say Foltynewicz’s fade is a non-factor. The Braves need a starter who can give them competitive outings at least most of the time and he’s still the best internal candidate for that role when he’s right. But Foltynewicz hasn’t been right in a while, so the Braves should be able to plug in someone who can do better while hoping he figures things out in the minors.

Among the 67 NL starters with at least 50 innings pitched entering Monday, Foltynewicz’s 6.37 ERA was better than just three players. (One of them is Colorado’s Kyle Freeland who, like ‘Folty,’ is following a breakout season with a dud.) Foltynewicz has posted a -0.3 WAR per FanGraphs and -0.8 per Baseball Reference. Theoretically, a minor leaguer or fringe MLB guy are better options.

Middling veterans and inconsistent young guys are what you tend to find among MLB fifth starters because not even good teams go that deep. Consider that the Dodgers are on pace to win 111 games and their No. 5 starter, Kenta Maeda, has a 3.76 ERA and 1.2 fWAR. The Braves are getting about the same value from Max Fried, who is no better than their No. 3. (It's good to be the Dodgers, who can outspend their mistakes.)

Foltynewicz’s struggles are concerning in the big picture. He’s making $5.5 million this season, the prorated portion of which is essentially dead money for as long as he’s in the minors. Foltynewicz was an All-Star in 2018 and the starter to open the NLCS at Los Angeles last October and a return to at least average form would be a big boost for the Braves.

But Foltynewicz's decline has been mitigated by the recent addition of Dallas Kuechel and Mike Soroka's emergence as a Rookie of the Year candidate. Also, as reported by AJC beat writer Gabriel Burns, after the weekend Braves relievers led the majors with a 2.75 ERA since adding Anthony Swarzak on May 22.

The Braves are so deep in hitters that they can make shaky pitching not matter so much. Before the weekend, Mike Petriello of noted that the Braves have more average or better hitters than any team in the NL per on-base plus slugging plus. The laggards are Johan Camargo and Ender Inciarte but they've fallen far down the depth chart with Austin Riley raking in the lineup and Matt Joyce and Charlie Culberson providing bench punch.

All those factors make the fifth starter seem like a minor matter for the Braves. Sean Newcomb is slated for more bullpen work when he returns from the injured list on Tuesday. The options to take Foltnyewicz's place include veteran Kevin Gausman and some young players who have yet to prove they can do it.

Gausman was placed on the injured list after 13 starts and a 6.21 ERA that ranked fifth-worst among 50-innings plus starters entering Monday. Top prospect Bryse Wilson got hammered for four runs in 3-1/3 innings in one start before being sent back to the minors. Kyle Wright (7.07 ERA) lasted three starts before his demotion. Touki Toussaint was moved to the bullpen after one bad start and was effective in relief for a stretch but has been inconsistent over the past month.

From that group Wilson seems to be the most logical choice to join the rotation, at least for the short term. He pitched six scoreless innings Saturday for Triple-A Gwinnett and allowed five hits with seven strikeouts and two walks. Over his past eight starts (47 innings) at Gwinnett, Wilson has posted a 2.49 ERA with 49 strikeouts and just nine walks.

The Braves began the season hoping that at least one of Wilson or Wright could be an effective starter until Foltynewicz returned from the IL. Now Foltynewicz is headed for the minors and Wilson could be slated to replace him. There was a time when that might have been a crisis for the Braves, but not anymore. They are that good.

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