When the Braves call up a pitcher from Triple-A Gwinnett to start Sunday’s series finale against the Mets, there is reason to believe it will be prospect Aaron Blair in what would be his highly anticipated major league debut.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said that Mike Foltynewicz or Ryan Weber also are options to start Sunday in place of Williams Perez, who was optioned to Triple-A on Wednesday after pitching 3 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s 8-1 win against the Dodgers.
However, Weber has pitched only in relief this season and seems set for that role for now with the Braves, leaving Blair and Foltynewicz as likely candidates.
Perez has a 5.11 ERA and more walks (eight) than strikeouts (six) in 12 1/3 innings, and the Braves wanted to get a fresh arm in their bullpen Wednesday and upgrade their rotation the next time his spot came around. They believe they can with either Blair or Foltynewicz, who’s 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts at Gwinnett.
Blair, 23, pitched seven hitless innings Tuesday against Durham, with 10 strikeouts and one walk, and would be on regular rest if he faces the Mets on Sunday. (Foltynewicz would be on one extra day of rest).
“(Blair) pitched real well — seven innings of no-hit baseball,” Gonzalez said. “We had a real big discussion after the game yesterday. And (president of baseball operations) John Hart was there and watched (Blair) pitch, said he was real good.”
Blair has been one of the International League’s top pitchers in the early part of the season, going 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA and microscopic 0.79 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) in three starts. He has allowed just 10 hits and five walks while collecting 22 strikeouts in 19 innings.
The Braves got the right-hander from Arizona along with center fielder Ender Inciarte and top shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson in the December trade that sent Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks.
Foltynewicz began the season in Triple-A after getting a late start this spring because of his recovery from season-ending September surgery to remove part of a rib following a scare when he developed blood clots in his pitching arm.
While the hard-throwing “Folty” has had encouraging flashes in some spring training and Triple-A games, he’s been inconsistent and still needs to cut down on walks and improve his command.
Besides major league experience, the only other potential reason the Braves might call on Foltynewicz instead would be to avoid starting Blair’s arbitration clock until early June, so Blair wouldn’t become a “Super Two” arbitration player down the line and having four years of arbitration instead of three before free agency.
However, the Braves have had a few recent cases where they’ve made decisions without service time or arbitration-clock issues being a decisive factor. Most recently, they brought up Mallex Smith from Triple-A this month to make his major league debut after Inciarte strained a hamstring and went on the disabled list.
“I’ve been lucky, ever since I’ve been here that (delaying arbitration clock, avoiding Super Two) has never come out of anybody’s mouth,” Gonzalez said of his discussions with team officials.
In the case of Blair, the Braves would have to wait about six more weeks to call him up if they wanted to be sure he doesn’t become a Super Two player after his third season in the majors, presuming he stays in the major leagues for good once he’s up. Super Two players are the 22 percent with the most service time less than three years.
Given where they are right now, after losing their first nine games and winning the next four before Wednesday, the Braves seem inclined to do what they can to bolster their pitching staff and give Gonzalez the best chance to win with the majors-ready talent currently in their system. And by most or all accounts, Blair looks like he could help.
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