Analyzing Braves' fifth-starter options

Toussaint allows four runs in four innings, leaving questions about rotation

September 15th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Considering how pitched in a 5-4 loss to the Rockies on Tuesday night at Truist Park, it might not be comforting for Braves fans to realize that their team needs to use the fifth spot of its rotation three more times this season.

But it may be encouraging to know Toussaint might not get another start.

“At this point in time, everybody is an option,” manager Brian Snitker said.

Toussaint’s inability to extend the success he created in late July and August has created reason to wonder whether he should have been given the rotation spot that opened when Drew Smyly was removed at the start of this month.

Perfection and dominance certainly aren’t expected from the back end of the rotation. But as the Braves attempt to win a fourth straight NL East race, they certainly could use some stability from the fifth spot of the rotation. They did at least gain some assistance from the second-place Phillies, who remain 4 1/2 games back after losing to the Cubs on Tuesday.

“I mean, it's really important for me to get back to that consistency,” Toussaint said. “I feel like I made the right adjustments to get back towards that. My last two starts weren't that good. But today, I felt like I took a stride to get back to where I was.”

Toussaint recorded two strikeouts during a perfect first inning and then allowed a Trevor Story homer in the second. The inconsistent right-hander then cruised through a pair of innings before surrendering a two-run homer to Brendan Rodgers in the fifth. He allowed four runs over four innings.

This marked the third straight start Toussaint has not pitched more than four innings, and he has allowed 11 runs (nine earned) on 12 hits, including four homers over the 10 innings that he's totaled through three September starts.

“I think I’m better than that and I need to be better than that,” Toussaint added. “It is frustrating, but it’s part of the process and you have to enjoy the process.”

So, what should the Braves do? The fifth spot will be needed again on Sunday in San Francisco and on Sept. 24, when Atlanta will resume a suspended game against the Padres and then play their originally-scheduled series opener shortly after. Exactly how and when this spot might be used during the final homestand will depend upon the status of the postseason race.

Smyly is an interesting candidate to start Sunday’s game in San Francisco. The lefty was removed from the rotation when his velocity dropped and his home run rate rose in August. But this might be a good opportunity to see if his arm has benefited from totaling just two innings this month.

He posted a 4.00 ERA in just 18 innings at Oracle Park last year. But he did at least acquaint himself with the mound and the park’s surroundings during the short season with the Giants.

Smyly received a one-year, $11 million deal from the Braves after his four-seam fastball averaged 93.8 mph over 26 1/3 innings and five starts last year. That fastball has averaged 92.1 mph this year and never averaged better than 92.8 mph during any of his starts this year. More concerning is the fact that the four-seamer has averaged less than 92 mph in each of his starts since the All-Star break and averaged just 90.9 mph during his most recent start on Aug. 30 at Dodger Stadium.

Could the limited usage this month help Smyly regain some arm strength and velocity?

“I honestly don’t know,” Snitker said. “He’s in shape and he’s stretched out. He could go. I don’t know how to answer that really.”

Like Toussaint, Smyly isn’t a guy who would factor in to plans for the postseason rotation. But to get to the postseason, the Braves could benefit from finding fifth starter value down the stretch.

The Braves would also have the option to bring Kyle Wright or Kyle Muller up from Triple-A Gwinnett to make at least one start down the stretch. When asked about Wright last week, Snitker said they had discussed the puzzling prospect, but he made no indication there were any plans to bring him back to the Majors.

As for Muller, he has posted a 1.86 ERA in the five starts he has made since being sent back to the Triple-A level. It might be a gamble to put the anxious rookie in the heart of a pennant race. But sticking with Toussaint could be deemed doubling or tripling down on a less prudent gamble.

“I’m sure we’ll talk about it going forward, about what to do and where to go,” Snitker said.