Muller struggles; club weighs other options

August 13th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Kyle Muller and Touki Toussaint stabilized the Braves' rotation over the past few weeks. But with Huascar Ynoa and Ian Anderson nearing a return from the injured list, there’s reason to question how Muller and Toussaint might be affected.

Actually, the plans for Muller were determined when the young left-hander was told he’ll be sent back to the Minors after recording just seven outs and allowing the first of the five homers the Braves surrendered in a 12-3 loss to the Reds on Thursday afternoon at Truist Park.

“It's just all part of the growth process and the maturation process of a young pitcher,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Most of the time, most of those guys just don't arrive as a finished product.”

Muller surrendered Jesse Winker’s grand slam and was charged with six runs over just 2 1/3 innings. The lefty issued three walks and was reintroduced to the command issues that weren’t much of a concern before his fastball became erratic as he completed 4 2/3 innings during Friday’s win over the Nationals.

“It's a business and I had a really great opportunity today to prove myself to the organization,” Muller said. “We needed to win to stay tied for first place and I didn't show up.”

Muller’s maturity and accountability could allow him to eventually return and influence what should remain a tight National League East race. After moving into a first-place tie on Wednesday, the Braves now find themselves in third place, a game behind the Phillies and a half-game behind the Mets.

Muller returns to Triple-A Gwinnett having posted a 3.79 ERA over the first eight starts of his career. He certainly exceeded the expectations most had when a June 21 doubleheader against the Mets essentially forced the club to gamble on him as a big league starter. He allowed one run over four innings that day and continued to impress over the starts that followed.

So, a pair of shaky starts shouldn’t erase the encouragement Muller created while posting a 1.88 ERA in the six career starts he made through the end of July.

But with Ynoa and Anderson nearing a return, the Braves had to at least assess where he was trending and what might be best for his long-term future.

“The work ethic, the discipline, the dedication and all the intangible type stuff, this kid has it just out the kazoo,” Snitker said. “So he'll go back and work. This is going to be a great experience for him. It's OK to step back and kind of refine your craft a little bit.”

Ynoa will likely be activated to start in place of Muller on Tuesday in Miami.

With what was just their second loss in their past past nine games, the Braves don’t need to overhaul a rotation that entered Thursday ranked third in the NL with a 3.41 ERA since the All-Star break. But there will soon be a need to fit both Anderson and Ynoa on the pitching staff.

Ynoa posted a 3.09 ERA in the eight starts he made before punching a bench and fracturing his right (pitching) hand in Milwaukee on May 16. He threw 83 pitches while allowing three runs over 4 2/3 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday.

While Ynoa is expected to return Tuesday, the Braves will likely give Anderson at least one more rehab start. Anderson began battling right shoulder just before the All-Star break. His month-long break could position him to be the key asset he was down the stretch and deep into the postseason last year.

Once Ynoa and Anderson are both on the roster, the Braves will have another decision to make. Toussaint has been effective in four of his five starts this year and his command has only been a concern in two of his outings. It looked like he might be teetering the wrong way when he lasted 3 1/3 innings against the Brewers on July 30 and then recorded a strike with just 49 of 94 pitches during a win in St. Louis last week.

But Toussaint righted himself while limiting the Reds to two runs over five innings on Wednesday. If he continues to be reliable, he could stay in the rotation and be a valuable asset.

However, if Toussaint were to struggle over the next week or two, his rotation spot could be filled by Anderson. Or, there might be a desire to move Ynoa to the bullpen. Or, Snitker might occasionally opt to use a six-man rotation.

The important thing is the Braves have enough starting pitching depth to still have options that could prove beneficial in their bid for a fourth consecutive division title.

“I think most of the time you plan on something because if you don’t it will sneak up on you,” Snitker said. “But usually those things have a way of working themselves out. We’ll just wait and see and take it outing by outing.”