Three Cuts: Who will emerge as Atlanta’s fifth starter?

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Atlanta can win its division without a No. 5 starter emerging. Let’s just get that out of the way.

With 49 games remaining, the Braves can play .500 ball and still win 90 to 91 games, likely securing consecutive NL East titles as the Nationals and Phillies both sit seven games back on Aug. 5. According to FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight, Atlanta’s playoff odds are 97 percent or better and its chances of winning the division hover around 85 percent.

The Braves do not need a big push to reach the finish line. They just need to avoid a collapse.

That still does not answer perhaps the team’s biggest post-deadline question mark: Can anybody round out the rotation behind Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran and Max Fried? Soroka (2.9 WAR, 2.37 ERA) is in the Cy Young conversation. Keuchel has been the steadying veteran presence manager Brian Snitker needed. Teheran is enjoying an under-the-radar bounce-back season — his best since 2016 — and, after a midseason lull, Fried appears to be back on track, allowing just five earned runs over his past three starts. The Braves can cruise to the finish line if they get solid production from that group. It’s not the scariest playoff rotation by any means, but it can get the job done if Atlanta’s offense shows up this year.

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However, Braves starters outside of that Soroka-Keuchel-Teheran-Fried mix have a combined ERA climbing over 6.50. So what happens with that fifth spot? Lately the team has been leaning on 2018 trade deadline acquisition Kevin Gausman, who has suffered from baseball-related misfortune and a diminished arsenal. In his past two starts, he’s been reduced to a one- or two-pitch pitcher who has coughed up 11 runs. It should be noted that Gausman still ranks fourth among the team’s starting pitchers in wins above replacement and excelled in one of the most important starts of the campaign, a seven-inning gem to slow down the Nationals’ chase. Snitker announced that Gausman will get one more start this Wednesday against the powerful Twins lineup, but if he does not make a course correction there it will unquestionably be time for the Braves to go in another direction.

And even if Gausman holds his own against Minnesota, there’s still the case of Mike Foltynewicz. Atlanta’s preseason No. 1 has hit his stride at Triple-A Gwinnett:

Since Demotion (6 starts): 33 2/3 innings, 2.67 ERA, 31 strikeouts, 8 walks

Past 3 Starts: 16 innings, 1.13 ERA, 12 strikeouts, 4 walks

Foltynewicz is scheduled to start this Tuesday for the Stripers to align with a potential major-league move if Gausman does not deliver in Minnesota. Needless to say, getting anything close to Folty circa 2018 would be a major boost for the Braves. If last season’s All-Star starter is still not there, there’s a long list of options — none of whom have excelled in limited time in 2019.

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Promising arms Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright have each made four starts with sub-replacement production. Wilson has been the better of the two but Wright, the organization’s top pick in 2017, is on an absolute tear at Triple-A one this past seven starts: 2.22 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. There’s also talented right-hander Touki Toussaint, who is also at Triple-A after struggling to recapture last season’s late-season magic. Sean Newcomb owns the best numbers and longest track record of this group, but he’s emerged as one of the better left-handed relievers in baseball, filling a major need for the Braves. I’d expect him to stay put for the remainder of the season.

The wildcard in this mix is, of course, top pitching prospect Ian Anderson, who has been a one-man wrecking crew against Double-A hitters this season. The 21-year-old ranks second in the minors in strikeouts to go along with a 2.68 ERA. He’s one of the best prospects in baseball and postseason baseball is the time to ride your best arms.

Atlanta turned to unproven arms Toussaint and Chad Sobotka last year and, if healthy, Jacob Webb has a good shot at making a postseason roster this season. Could Anderson jump into this mix? Here’s the issue: He’s already thrown 111 innings in 2019. The former No. 3 overall pick’s career-high is just 119 frames. The Braves front office does not subscribe to shutting down players or setting strict inning limits for young arms. It is still worth considering how well Anderson’s arm would hold up with an extra month-plus tacked onto the end of the minor-league season. Maybe there’s a non-zero chance it happens — and he likely climbs to Triple-A along with fellow top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters — but the Braves have plenty of options outside of rushing Anderson.

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Though there’s a chance it may not matter in the grand scheme of the division race, getting another arm going would certainly be nice insurance for Atlanta.

Geoff Burke

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