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Braves’ two biggest questions heading into the NLDS

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

For all it’s wildness and all it’s weirdness, and the unbelievable grind it was, the 2021 regular season has come to an end. If you live under a rock and the first thing you did when surfacing was click on this article, the Braves won the NL East and have the NL Central-winning Milwaukee Brewers on deck for a 5-game series in round 1 of the playoffs.

Considering the regular season just ended, we already have quite a few answers for how the Braves are going to approach the NLDS. We, for the most part, know the rotation they’re going to use, with Charlie Morton going in game 1, followed by Max Fried and Ian Anderson. We know the lineup they’re going to use, almost certainly the same one we saw the last two weeks of the season, with Jorge Soler batting first and Ozzie Albies batting third. Even the bench they’re going to use, which is usually a point of discussion right before the postseason, is pretty much set with maybe only one spot up for grabs.

But there’s two questions we don’t have answers to yet: the bullpen and Game 4.

The Bullpen

While the starting pitching and the position players are mostly set, the biggest questions surrounding postseason roster construction almost entirely reside in the bullpen.

While Will Smith, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and probably AJ Minter are locks for the NLDS the other spots are still questions. Richard Rodriguez was thought to be a lock a few weeks ago, but the regression of basically all his numbers along with his staggeringly low strikeout totals have people wondering if he could possibly be left off the roster.

Chris Martin is another guy you would’ve thought a few months ago was easily going to be on the team, but injuries and ineffectiveness have muddied those waters. His 5.03 second half ERA along with reduced strikeout numbers and a balky pitching elbow had the Braves trying out young RH relievers as late as the last series of the season.

The poor performances of Rodriguez and Martin specifically have potentially opened up the door for young Spencer Strider, the 100-mph throwing, 22-year-old, who clearly opened up eyes across four different levels this season. His plus stuff along with 153 strikeouts in 94 minor league innings this season has many wondering if his late major league call-up was just a taste, or a tryout for a possible postseason role?

Does Jacob Webb, who had a 20-game stretch of great games followed by a handful of bad ones, make the team? Does Jesse Chavez, who’s been a god-send for the Braves this season, but does it with a lot of smoke and mirrors? How about Sean Newcomb, or Edgar Santana, or Touki Toussaint? Where does Drew Smyly fit in or does he fit in at all? And how many bullpen arms do they carry? With four staring pitchers, you can carry nine relievers. Or even ten. Where do they land?

We have a lot of answers to this point but the bullpen is a major question. It’s the major question. And how Alex Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker answer it might go a long way in deciding what happens in this series.

Who starts Game 4?

We know Charlie Morton is starting game 1. We know Max Fried is starting game 2 and Ian Anderson starts game 3. We also know, if there is a game 5, Charlie Morton is probably starting that one too. But what happens in game 4?

Technically, Morton could start game 4 on three days rest and Fried could pitch game 5 on full rest, and maybe that’s the obvious way to go. But Morton is 37. Several times this season, Brian Snitker has mentioned the fact that Morton is 37 when taking about not pushing him to hard. So I have my doubts they’d go that route.

But if they don’t, what do they do? Huascar Ynoa makes some sense, though he’s struggled lately. Do they dare with Drew Smyly? (Please god no) Maybe a full-on bullpen game, which the Braves have utilized a few times in the last month. In that scenario, they could use Ynoa, Smyly and Jesse Chavez and try to bridge the game to the back-end guys. The other benefit in a bullpen game for game 4 is they could use all of guys, including Ynoa, out of the bullpen in games 1-3. And with Ynoa specifically, given their need for decent RH relievers, that might be the most attractive option.

It should also be said that a.) a game 4 isn’t guaranteed to be played and b.) where the series is when/if it is played could dictate these decisions. If they’re down 2-1 and it’s an elimination game for the Braves, they might be more open to idea of throwing Morton in game 4 and Fried in game 5. Go down with their big horses. If they’re up 2-1, they might be more ok going with a full bullpen game, knowing Morton is going on full rest in game 5.

But the Braves’ only had three reliable starters coming down the stretch and ideally, you need four for the NLDS. Without four, that means somebody has to pitch on short rest or you throw a bullpen game. The Braves are going to have to decide.

And these two big questions, the bullpen and what to do about game 4, are connected. They’re both tied to roster decisions that have to be made before the first game. Obviously who you put on the roster informs both what your bullpen looks like and what you’re game 4 options are. Drew Smyly and Jesse Chavez have been key parts of those bullpen games the Braves used in September, but if they don’t get roster spots, that obviously changes the equation. Or do you give them spots specifically to hold on to that option? But that potentially takes away spots from other guys who might help out more in the other games. These are critical decisions and they’re all connected.

What to do with that last bench spot will certainly get some discussion but easily the Braves biggest decisions heading into the postseason is how to fill out their bullpen and what they’re going to do if they get to a game 4. There’s not a lack of options, which helps, but the Braves are going to have to make some tough calls by Friday. We’ll find out what they are together.