clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Braves have some fascinating pitching decisions to make

With multiple guys nearing return from injury, and multiple roster spots needed, the Braves have some tough decisions to make.

MLB: New York Yankees at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If you watch Braves’ games while on Twitter and especially Braves’ losses while on Twitter, then you might not actually know Atlanta has one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. If you use Twitter, you might think the team is closer to having the top pick in next year’s draft than they are to having the number one overall seed in the upcoming playoffs, but that's a subject for another day.

While the offense has gotten most of the pub this season, the Braves rank 4th in the majors in team ERA, 5th in the majors in team FIP, and 5th in the majors in pitching fWAR. Along with that dynamic offense, they are as complete as any team in baseball and are more than deserving of the best record in the sport.

And what's made those accomplishments even more incredible is how many pitching injuries they've dealt with this season. They lost their ace Max Fried for multiple months. Kyle Wright has been hurt basically since spring straining and has lost almost the entire season to injury. In the bullpen, they've dealt with big injuries to Rasiel Iglesias, AJ Minter, Nick Anderson, Jesse Chavez, and Dylan Lee, arguably their five best relievers, and through it all, have maintained one of the best staffs in all of baseball.

They've pieced it together with unsung heroes like Michael Tonkin, who's been a god-send for the Braves this season, or Danny Young, who pitched so well early in the season, or Ben Heller, who stepped up for some big outs in the middle of the summer. In the rotation, Bryce Elder helped carry the starting staff in the first half, Kolby Allard contributed some solid innings, and even the 20-year-old AJ Smith Shawver stepped in when reinforcements were needed.

They've also had some veteran guys take on bigger roles while others above them in the pecking order were out hurt. Kirby Yates and Joe Jimenez were invaluable to the team while Minter, Anderson, Chavez and Lee were all out at the same time, and gave Brian Snitker quality high-leverage innings when he didn't have anyone else to turn too. And the train has kept rolling all summer because of it.

But now as we approach September, some very interesting decisions are going to need to be made as several of these guys are making their way back from injury. Lee is ready and waiting in Triple-A to return but the team doesn’t have an obvious 26-man roster spot to give him at the moment. Jesse Chavez is reportedly about to go out on a rehab assignment and will likely run into the same problem once he’s ready. Kyle Wright is set to make his first rehab start later this week as he gears up to return and Nick Anderson’s placement on the 60-day IL was also viewed as more precautionary than necessary and he should be back soon after becoming eligible.

And speaking of the 60-day IL, all four of those guys, Wright, Lee, Chavez and Anderson are currently on the 60-day IL, which means before any can be added back to the active roster, they must first be added back to the 40-man roster, which is currently full. There are probably enough fringe guys that can be DFA’d or 60-day IL’d themselves to open up the four spots necessary to get all four back, but then the real interesting decisions need to be made: the 26-man roster.

Wright is relatively easy because Allan Winans and/or Yonny Chirinos have been filling that spot and can do so until he's ready, and then can be sent down, IL’d or DFA’d to make room for Wright. But it’s the bullpen where things get interesting.

As stated above, the Braves haven't returned Dylan Lee from AAA yet, partially because they don't have any place to put him. There's not a single member of the current bullpen who can be optioned and all play, or have recently played, important enough rolls to where getting DFA’d is probably out of the question. GM Alex Anthopoulos is famous for always wanting to maintain his depth, so outright releasing a potential contributor just to clear room for someone else is a last resort he vary rarely resorts to. And the Braves don't just have one of these guys coming back, but potentially three.

So who goes? Who stays?

Iglesias, Minter, and newcomer Pierce Johnson are locks to be on the roster, regular or postseason. Those 3 names are not even up for discussion. But after them, you have 8 names:

  1. Jesse Chavez
  2. Nick Anderson
  3. Dylan Lee
  4. Joe Jimenez
  5. Kirby Yates
  6. Michael Tonkin
  7. Collin McHugh
  8. Brad Hand

In the regular season, you can carry 5 from this list, as you still need 5 starting pitchers plus the three other bullpen locks. It's important to remember there’s a 13-pitcher limit in the regular and post-season, so that always must be considered. And remember, no one on the current active roster can be optioned. To get say, Collin Mchugh off and Dylan Lee on, McHugh would have to be DFA’d or, the Braves current favorite roster trick, the very well timed tweaked eyebrow contusion that needs a 15-day IL stint to sort out. I don't know at what point other teams would complain about pretty blatant roster manipulation but every team does it, and therefore I figure the threshold would have to be pretty high.

But that little trick doesn't solve everything because you still have to decide who stays and who goes. Do you want Lee over Hand? Or Anderson over McHugh? Or Chavez over Yates? How much can you trust Hand, especially in a world with the 3-batter rule? In September, teams get one extra roster spot for a pitcher (and one for a position player) so that will help temporarily unclog the bottleneck, but by October, and maybe before then, the team is going to have to make actual value judgements on these guys and decide who gives them the best chance to win, and who needs to come off the roster,

One lifeline might the first round of the playoffs, at least the Braves’ first round. With Atlanta almost guaranteed to be a top-2 seed, they'll get a bye through the Wild Card round and play their first postseason baseball in the NLDS. The NLDS is a 5-game series and MLB just recently announced there will be off-days after games 1 and 2 of the series. This means teams could potentially only need three starting pitchers to get through the series and therefore could reserve the rest of their roster spots on the pitching side for relievers. The 13-pitcher limit still applies but if you only use three starters, that leaves as many as ten spots for relievers, which of course is notable to a team who may have as many as 11 guys with arguments for a playoff roster spots. But it’s also possible they decide they still want to carry four starters, and maybe only want 12 pitchers total, which brings the number of relievers back down 8, and back to big decisions needing to be made.

Injuries, the real ones not the strangely convenient ones, could also play a role deciding. The old baseball saying ‘these things tend to work themselves out” definitely applies here as it’s possible not all these guys make it to September healthy. Some still need to make it back to the active roster healthy. But with potentially 11 guys for 8 spots, I’m guessing injury attrition isn't going to get them all the way there.

How the Braves handle September relative to the bullpen is going to be fascinating as it may give us a glimpse into their postseason plans. And what's most interesting is if all these guys really do comeback from injury, the Braves must decide which decent pitchers they keep and which they don't. Who gets roster spots in October who doesn't.

Nothing like the first-world problems of first-place teams.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Battery Power Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Atlanta Braves news from Battery Power