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Starting Nine: Braves have options at closer, and it’s time to use them

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As Will Smith struggles, Atlanta can share the load in ninth; Jorge Soler’s surge, Travis d’Arnaud’s return and more

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves
Will Smith’s last three appearances have included two blown saves and a 15.00 ERA. He’s allowed five runs on five hits with two home runs in those games.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

A share of first place, and in dramatic fashion. Ozzie Albies walked it off Wednesday night with a three-run home run to beat the Reds 8-6 in 11 innings, the jubilation of the Braves going from 7 1/2 games back on June 16 to a tie with the Phillies atop the National League East overshadowing a point of concern.

Will Smith is struggling, and this bullpen has too many options to not at least explore them.

Smith gave up a two-run, game-tying homer to Joey Votto with two outs in the ninth, making it two blown saves in his last three appearances, a stretch in which he’s pitched to a 15.00 ERA, allowing five runs on five hits with two home runs and two walks to two strikeouts. He’s faced more than three batters in his last four games and six of the last seven, these frustrations coming after Smith posted a 0.95 ERA from June 13-Aug. 5, a stretch of 19 games with one blown save in 12 chances.

“That’s a pretty good hitter that he gave that home run up to,” manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday of the bomb Smith yielded to Votto. “That’s gonna happen. You know, I was watching Craig (Kimbrel) the other day and he gave up (a home run). He’s a Hall of Famer. It happens.”

But if not for giving up a go-ahead homer to the Nationals on Aug. 7, the Braves would be riding an eight-game winning streak and have first place all to themselves heading into Thursday’s series finale with Cincinnati.

Atlanta, though, isn’t backed into a corner when it comes to the closer role. Deadline acquisition Richard Rodriguez had 14 saves for the Pirates, and a .177 wOBA against in medium leverage situations and .230 in high (Smith, has allowed a .274 wOBA in medium leverage; .327 in high); former closer Luke Jackson has yielded a .188 wOBA in high leverage; Tyler Matzek has been stellar since mid-July, not allowing a run with a 0.77 batting average against in that stretch, and Chris Martin has experience closing out games as well.

Smith has been an All-Star, and with an average annual value of $13.3 million, his 2021 payroll is the sixth highest of any reliever. But he’s struggling, and with the Braves’ push and a crucial stretch of games upcoming, it may be time to be flexible with a role that doesn’t have to be defined.

Atlanta has the luxury of options. Now it’s time to see if they exercise them.

Now, let’s dive into this week’s Starting Nine as we dive into a high-performing deadline pickup, Travis d’Arnaud’s return and more.

1. Soler energy is real and it’s lighting up Atlanta

The stadium didn’t catch on fire a la the day Fred McGriff landed in Atlanta — unless someone wants to conjure up some conspiracy theory about a coverup — but Jorge Soler is having an undeniable impact since his trade deadline acquisition. It’s a small sample size, but Soler is slashing .314/.429/.600 since he was acquired with 172 wRC+ and a .464 wOBA. That wRC+ — which comes on the heels of a 140 wRC+ in Kansas City — would be the second highest that Soler has posted in any full month of his career, trailing just the 186 he had in a 10-homer Sept. 2019. There’s a way to go in Soler’s first month with the Braves, but post McGriff in 1993 — who had a 1.004 OPS and 19 home runs in 68 games that year — the most impactful offensive player Atlanta has acquired since was Adam LaRoche in 2009. After that July 31 deal, LaRoche hit .321 with 12 home runs and 150 wRC+, including hitting 89 percent above league average in August. Soler may not keep this production up, he spent three months as a below league average hitter before his July surge, but combined with Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson, the three active outfielders brought in at the deadline — the fourth, Eddie Rosario, has begun his rehab assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett — have a 1.4 fWAR, with Pederson’s 0.7 leading the way.

2. D’Arnaud’s return, and the future is pushing ... hard

Travis d’Arnaud made his return to the Braves lineup Wednesday, after missing 86 games with a thumb injury sustained in May. He hit seventh, going 1-for-4 with a walk and providing further length to a lineup that looks imminently more formidable than it did back in late July when it was trotting out four sub-replacement level players. It’s an obvious boon to the catching position, with the D’Arnaud-less Braves ranking last in the majors with 46 wRC+ in his absence and 29th in OPS (.546). As previously discussed in the space, it remains to be seen if D’Arnaud can recapture his Silver Slugger ways at the plate, but things were so bad his mere presence is an immediate upgrade. Meanwhile down on the farm, Shea Langeliers is doing ridiculous things at the plate. He had his fourth multi-home run game of the season Tuesday, going deep twice in a four-hit game for Double-A Mississippi and is slashing .271/.345/.541 with 19 homers on the season. Is there a chance we see the organization’s third-ranked prospect (per MLB Pipeline) this season? Kevan Smith was designated for assignment with D’Arnaud’s return, Stephen Vogt is hitting .174 with a .452 OPS and William Contreras, who struggled at the plate over 44 games, to his credit has been strong at Triple-A Gwinnett (1.076 OPS). In two of the past three postseason appearances, the Braves have carried three catchers, making it possible we could see Langeliers get at least a look, especially with the issues Contreras had while operating for a time as the primary backstop.

3. We know where Adam Duvall does his banking

If it’s not at Truist, the man is doing something very, very wrong. Adam Duvall continues to produce at Truist Park, currently holding a 1.131 OPS over 15 games with a .333 average, six home runs, three doubles and 21 RBI. But the production at his former and current home stretches beyond what he’s done this season playing for the Marlins, and now once again, the Braves. Since it opened as SunTrust Park in 2017, Duvall has a .909 OPS at the stadium, the sixth best among all players (Braves and visitors), trailing Josh Donaldson (1.037), Bryce Harper (1.022), Asdrubal Cabrera (.953), Ronald Acuña Jr. (.949) and Freddie Freeman (.946). Boil it down to visiting players with a minimum of 45 plate appearances and Duvall’s 220 wRC+ and 1.259 OPs are the best of anyone. General manager Alex Anthopoulos wasn’t joking at the trade deadline when he said of reacquiring Duvall “The real appeal is that he doesn’t have to play against us now.”

4. Drew Smyly paving the ways for Ws

Jorge Soler may not have known who Drew Smyly is, needing to be reminded during the above postgame interview with Bally Sports South’s Nick Green. But the left-hander is certainly making a difference in the win column. With Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Reds, the Braves have won 10 off Smyly’s last 11 starts, with the only loss in that stretch coming July 18 vs. the Rays. He hasn’t been spectacular, pitching to a 3.09 ERA and a .255 batting average against, though the results are hard to argue with. Those 10 team wins lead the majors in that stretch, and during Charlie Morton’s last 11 outings, Atlanta is 6-5 and they’ve dropped four of Max Fried’s last 11 starts.

5. Bad times ahead ... and that’s a good thing

After wrapping up the series with the Reds, the Braves hit the road with a 35 percent chance of claiming a fourth straight East crown, per FanGraphs. They couldn’t ask for a better scenario as they try to pull away from the Phillies and create some distance between them and the previously East-leading Mets. The next nine games — all of which are on the road — include three game series against the Nationals, Marlins and Orioles. The Braves are already 9-4 vs. Washington this year, and the Nats have dropped six of their last seven; Miami may have a 7-6 edge over Atlanta on the season, but it’s also down its biggest Braves killer (Duvall, who is now back in an Atlanta uniform), and it dropped 10 of the last 14, including five of six; and Baltimore, which has an American League-worst 38 wins, is on a seven-game losing streak. It’s not just who the Braves are playing that creates an opportunity, with the Phillies facing the Reds and Padres (with the Diamondbacks in between) during this Atlanta road trip, and the Mets have seven against the Dodgers and three vs. the Giants at that same time. If the Braves are going to establish any kind of order in the East, this is the stretch to do it in.

6. If a six-man rotation is coming, who gets squeezed out?

Gwinnett was a double serving of the Braves’ impending rotation boosts Wednesday, with Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa each starting during a twinbill against Durham. Anderson went three innings, giving up three hits on three runs with three strikeouts and three walks, while Ynoa tossed 4 2/3 innings, fanning seven and walking four, while yielding three runs allowed on four hits. The anticipation is Anderson may need another start before returning from the shoulder inflammation that has kept him out since July 11, while Ynoa last pitched in the bigs on May 16, when frustration led to a broken hand. Ynoa is being stretched out as a starter, and while he could come back to supplement the bullpen, and Snitker noted the team could move to a six-man rotation when he comes back, and coinciding with Anderson’s return, it makes for an interesting situation and an interesting question. Who gets squeezed out if it’s Charlie Morton, Max Fried, Drew Smyly, Anderson and Ynoa taking up five of those slots? Kyle Muller’s last four starts have included a 2.41 ERA and 1.90 batting average against with 16 strikeouts, while Touki Toussaint has yielded two runs or less in three of his four outings. Regardless, it’s a smart move to shield the innings of Anderson and Ynoa, while also limiting arms that didn’t log a lot of innings during the abbreviated 2020 season.

7. Muller you just made the list ... just in time

Congratulations are in order for Kyle Muller, who Wednesday was announced as a member of Baseball America’s Top 100 list, giving the Braves five players in those rankings, as he joins Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Michael Harris and Shea Langeliers. It’s a great resume moment for Muller, but it also comes with some odd timing. Maybe he gets squeezed out or pushed to a bullpen role when Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa return, but Muller pitches today’s series finale against the Reds, and with 34 1/3 innings already under his belt, is on pace to surpass the 50-inning limit to maintain prospect status by the end of the month. So, enjoy it while it lasts, Muller (and John Coppolella, the former general manager, who sees another of his draft picks reach the upper echelon).

8. Rethinking a signing

So, in hindsight, would-be bringing back would-be bullpen savior Shane Greene turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Maybe he was sitting on the shelf more than a month into the season for reasons that went beyond the financial, as Greene pitched to an 8.47 ERA in 19 innings, giving up five home runs and didn’t pitch over nine games before he was designated for assignment Tuesday. Out of options, the Braves didn’t have much choice with the right-hander, who was being paid a prorated $1.5 million. He had his moments last postseason (1.50 ERA in six innings) and had a 23-game stretch last season when he had a 1.14 ERA over 23 2/3 innings. But since he was first acquired by the Braves at the 2019 trade deadline, Greene threw 69 1/3 innings over 74 games for a 4.54 ERA that was the 16th worst among relievers in that span and he had the 10th worst FIP (4.58). This season included a 10.8 increase in his hard-hit rate (44.6), and a six percent uptick in his barrel events at 12.5 percent, the second highest rate in the majors. Blame the lack of a spring training, but Greene has his work cut out for him to get things back on track, regardless of what uniform he wears next.

9. Rethinking a cut

The Braves moves at the deadline to strengthen their outfield have thus far been successes, though it’s interesting how a decision they made back in the spring could have ended up helping in the same way if they hadn’t made it. Back on March 27, they released Jake Lamb, whose struggles in camp saw him hit a paltry .194 (7-for-36). He’s gone on to produce 110 wRC+ for the AL Central-leading White Sox, making his return to the lineup Aug. 8 after dealing with a right quadriceps strain, and has hit 36 percent above league average with an .817 OPS vs. left-handed pitchers. The only three Braves to have better production against southpaws are Joc Pederson (179 wRC+ and a 1.049 OPS), Ronald Acuña Jr. (176 wRC+, 1.067 OPS) and Ozzie Albies (146 wRC+ and .943 OPS). Lamb has also provided positional versatility, playing both corner outfield spots, along with first base and third for Chicago. The Braves had better options than Lamb coming out of camp, but he certainly would have had value for a bench that has hit 13 percent below league average to this point.