VIERA, Fla. – Jhoulys Chacin’s start Sunday against the Nationals was viewed as an important one by Braves decision-makers, who wanted to see the veteran non-roster invitee pitch well before deciding whether to include him in the starting rotation to begin the season.
But it wasn’t the only factor, as matters other than sheer performance will weight into the decision. Matters like the status of Mike Foltynewicz and whether he’ll be ready to pitch April 12 in the seventh game of the season, the first time the Braves need a fifth starter.
For the record, Chacin was charged with 10 hits and five runs (two earned runs) in five innings of a 7-2 loss Sunday, with one walk and three strikeouts. Three unearned runs scored in the third after first baseman Nick Swisher dropped a throw from Chacin on a would-be double play line-out, including one run on a Tyler Flowers passed ball.
Chacin has a solid 3.31 ERA in five games (four starts), though he’s allowed 22 hits in 11 2/3 innings over his past three.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said some hits off Chacin Sunday were fly balls that became hits because of swirling winds, noting that usually dependable Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper also got turned around on two fly balls.
“I thought (Chacin) pitched well,” Gonzalez said. “I say that, but the wind also helped us on the ball (Daniel) Murphy hit; otherwise that’s a three-run homer. But before that, a couple of balls that fell in on him where the wind was playing tricks on the outfielders.”
Asked how he’d assess Chacin’s outing, Gonzalez said, “I assess he threw the ball over the plate. He threw strikes. He’s a contact-type pitcher. Again, some of the runs he gave up, some of the hits, were tough plays to make.”
The Braves are set with their first three starters – Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Bud Norris – but the fourth and fifth spots were still undecided entering the final week of spring training, with Chacin, Foltynewicz and Williams Perez as the leading candidates barring a late trade or waiver acquisition.
“You have to go day by day, you can’t think about that (competition),” said Chacin, who threw 60 strikes in 88 pitches. “When you go out to pitch, you have to (be on) your game and you can’t worry about what’s going to happen. I’m pretty happy today that I could go a little deeper in the game and get my work in. Whatever’s going to happen next, I don’t know.”
If the Braves decide to hold back Foltynewicz, who’s coming back from partial rib-removal surgery following a September blood-clot scare in his pitching arm, for at least a couple of days, they might go with Perez as fifth starter the first time and use Chacin as fourth starter, or vice versa.
“I think the plan on Folty still is, fingers crossed, the best-case scenario is the 12th,” Gonzalez said. “If everything hits and he’s fine and strong and feels good. (But) we mentioned it also could be the 17th, five days later, or whatever. One of his starts might get rained out at Norfolk or Gwinnett or whatever. All those things can influence (the decision).”
Foltynewicz is scheduled to start Monday in what would be just his third spring-training start. He could make one more start before the Braves break camp, then make at least one minor-league rehab start. Gonzalez said he could join the rotation April 12, April 14 or April 17. Or it could be later, if there’s a complication or setback, which he’s so far avoided.
Chacin, like many veteran non-roster invitees, can opt out of his contract if not on the major league roster, though his opt-out is not till June, unlike some – such as Braves relief candidate Carlos Torres — who have an opt-out if not on the opening day roster.
If they’re confident Foltynewicz will be ready March 12, they could open the season with Perez as either a No. 4 starter or in a long-relief role, with Chacin in the rotation. Or, the Braves could go with Carlos Torres in the long-relief role and have Perez work as a starter in Triple-A.
They’re more likely to use Torres in that role, in part because of the opt-out as the Braves wouldn’t want to lose more depth in their pitching staff.
“If Chacin makes the rotation and we want to put Willams Perez in the bullpen or in the minor leagues and stretch him out, he doesn’t go away,” Gonzalez said, referring to the fact that Perez has minor league options and can easily be sent down. “That’s what I mean by decisions. Those conversations have to be on the table.
“We don’t know about Folty. Best-cast scenario if everything goes well he could pitch on the 12th. If not we could push him back. So it’s not easy.”
The Braves also have mentioned prospect John Gant as insurance for long relief or the rotation.
For now, there are factors clearly playing in Chacin’s favor.
“He’s a guy that’s got some experience,” Gonzalez said. “He can give you those much-needed innings, a veteran guy that you can let go out there a little bit longer than you would a Wisler or a Teheran or another young guy on the staff. You let him go out there and hopefully he gives you six, seven innings.”
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