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Starting Nine: What happens to Braves’ rotation when Ian Anderson returns?

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Does Atlanta go to a six-man rotation? Add an arm to the bullpen? Sorting through the options and the tears Dansby Swanson and Tyler Matzek’s are on

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Out since July 11 with shoulder inflammation, Ian Anderson could make his return to the Braves rotation this weekend against the Giants. In Tuesday’s rehab start in Triple-A Gwinnett, the right-hander allowed three hits with nine strikeouts and two walks over five innings. 
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

A good problem to have.

These things have a way of working themselves out.

By now we can all spout off the cliches used when it comes to roster crunches, but with the Braves expected to bring back Ian Anderson — whose rehab assignment is going swimmingly — into the rotation as early as Sunday against the Giants, the National League East leaders are going to have a dilemma.

What do they do with a rotation that has Anderson joining a collective of Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Touki Toussaint and Huascar Ynoa? There are options, and some of them take more than just letting things naturally “work themselves out.”

Let’s dive into some of those options as open this week’s Starting Nine.

1. Braves employ a six-man rotation

The simplest move could be the right one. Creating additional off days over the last month of the season would keep arms fresh with the postseason looming, while additionally shielding pitchers that are piling up the innings after last season’s shortened schedule led to diminished workloads. Fried is at 118 2/3 innings this season after tossing 79 2/3 in 2020 (postseason included); Morton is at 145 after a 58-inning year and Smyly has logged 111 innings following a 26 1/3-inning ‘20. Anderson, out of the Atlanta rotation since July 11 with shoulder inflammation, has 110 2/3 innings this season across the big leagues and minors after tossing 51 in ‘20 and is over 100 for the third time in six professional seasons. The innings are nowhere near that level for Ynoa — he’s made two starts in his return from a fractured hand and is at 66 1/3 this season — and Toussaint — he’s tossed 62 1/3 — and they have 2.38 and 2.86 ERAs, respectively, this month. Depth is a weapon that could play to the Braves’ benefit over the final month as they sort out what this staff looks like in the playoffs.

2. Smyly to the bullpen

These next two options are going to involve a bullpen shakeup. That would logically involve moving on from Josh Tomlin, who since July 5 has a 12.51 ERA that’s topped among all relievers in that stretch by only a former Braves arm in the Cubs’ Dan Winkler at 15.30 and has an 18.56 ERA this month. Smyly is no stranger to coming out of the bullpen, doing so for 108 1/3 innings over 77 games in his career, including five innings over two games with the Giants last season. The 32-year-old left-hander has the highest ERA of anyone on the roster who has started a game for Atlanta this season at 4.54 and he’s allowed the fourth most home runs (23) of any NL starter. But the argument against moving him out of the rotation, is that the team just keeps winning with him on the mound. The Braves are 12-1 in his last 13 starts — the best record for a team to back up a starter in that stretch — and over that span Smyly has pitched to a 3.50 ERA.

3. Touki to the bullpen

Another arm that’s been in this role before, Toussaint has made 27 relief appearances over the past three seasons, including one of his most impressive outings thus far, when he threw six innings scoreless innings out of the bullpen against the Mets on April 13, 2019. The results haven’t always been sterling, though, as he carries a 5.63 ERA overall as a reliever and in ‘19 he gave up five home runs and gave up two or more runs six times. He was also 23 then and his growth as a pitcher is evident as outside of a seven-run day against the Brewers on July 25, hasn’t been tagged for more than two runs in any of his six other starts. Do the Braves want to mess with a still young guy on a roll instead of going with another veteran if they need a new long reliever?

It’s, as the managerial cliches tell us, a good problem to have. Now, elsewhere for the Braves ...

4. The Best August Ever

Four games back to open this month, the Braves have vaulted to a five-game edge in the NL East, and following Tuesday’s loss against the Yankees, they are 16-5 in August with five games to play, giving them a chance at tying the Atlanta-era record for wins in the month. The 1953 team holds the overall franchise mark, going 23-9 en route to a 92-win season, while the 1999 squad has the most victories since the move to Georgia with 21. Of course, things couldn’t be much more difficult to get to equal that World Series runner-up, as the month closes with three against the NL West-leading Giants and then the first two of a three-game set at the Dodgers. Owners of an MLB-best 82-44 record, San Francisco is scheduled to start its staff’s fWAR leaders in Kevin Gausman (3.8) and Logan Webb (2.2), while Los Angeles, winner of 18 of 22 since the trade deadline, is slated to roll out Max Scherzer (2.65 ERA, 3.3 fWAR) and Walker Buehler (2.02 ERA, 4.5 fWAR) in the first two games of that series. In a word: yikes. Beyond trying to equal a franchise mark in the Atlanta era, this figures to be a proving ground run for the Braves as they follow up being swept by the American League’s hottest team in the Yankees by taking on two of the NL West teams that could stand in their way this postseason.

5. Swanson’s WAR chase

Dansby Swanson is the holder of the most home runs of any Braves shortstop with 25 and counting. While he took that record from Denis Menke, who had 20 in 1964 when the franchise was in Milwaukee, it’s a safe bet that Swanson won’t be taking down the 6.7 bWAR that Menke posted that year, nor the Atlanta shortstop mark of 6.5 bWAR via Rafael Furcal in 2005. For those wondering, Menke has a 6.1 WAR that year per FanGraphs, while the Atlanta record belongs to Jeff Blauser at 5.4 in 1993. Taking either site’s WAR into account, it will be tough for Swanson to catch up as he’s at 2.2 bWAR and 3.3 fWAR. However, he does have a strong chance at the franchise’s first season at least 3.0 bWAR since Andrelton Simmons’ 4.5 in 2015 and the first 4.0 fWAR campaign after Edgar Renteria hit that figure in 2007.

6. The magic of Matzek

On June 4, Tyler Matzek was sitting on a 4.09 ERA, but in the 31 games since, he’s been one of the game’s most dominant relievers. The left-hander’s 0.67 ERA over stretch is MLB’s third best with a minimum of 25 innings, putting him behind the Rays’ Collin McHugh (0.00) and the Brewers’ Devin Williams (0.35). As seen above, against right-handers, there’s been no one better, with Matzek allowing a paltry .020 batting average against the last 62 righties he’s faced, including Tuesday when he went through the teeth of the Yankees’ order and fanned both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. On the season, Matzek has allowed a .136 average vs. right-handers, tied with Craig Kimbrel in 2012 for the third lowest in franchise history among qualified relievers. Underscoring just how dominant Kimbrel was in those Braves seasons, he also owns the No. 1 (.116 in 2013) and No. 2 (.135 in 2014) years on that list as well.

7. American (League) Horror Story

The best thing for the Braves and the interleague portion of the schedule is that it’s over. After dropping both games against the Yankees, Atlanta is 6-14 this season, a .400 winning percentage that is the sixth worst in the game. The only NL teams that have been worse are the last-place collective of the Marlins, Cubs and Diamondbacks. It’s an effort that tied for the franchise’s worst mark since interleague play expanded to 20 games in 2013, equaling the 2015 team that also went 6-14. Dig in deeper and the Braves won just one game against the AL in Atlanta (July 17 vs. the Rays), marking the third time they won just one home game in interleague play (along with 1997 and 2007). In Atlanta’s defense, it did draw the AL East, which had four of its five teams win at least 11 interleague games, the only division in the game that can say that.

8. Outfield about to get even deeper

Eddie Rosario’s rehab assignment is going historically well. He’s riding a five-game multi-RBI streak, which is the second longest in Triple-A Gwinnett history, trailing Adam Duvall, who did so in six straight in 2019. The last five game’s the outfielder has been on an absolute tear, going 7-for-22 with a pair of home runs and driven in 12 runs. The Stripers have been giving him time at all three outfield spots, setting the stage for his usage when Rosario arrives in Atlanta. While there’s a chance he could join the Braves over the series against San Francisco, likely meaning Guillermo Heredia, who has an option remaining, could wind up in Triple-A. The Braves could also keep Rosario in Gwinnett for a few more days, call him up on Sept. 1 when rosters expand. Regardless, the depth of the remade outfield figures to get very impressive.

9. Happy anniversary, Mad Dog

On this day in 1995, Greg Maddux threw his eighth complete game of the season and the second in a row in tying the MLB record for 16 consecutive road wins as he beat his former team, the Cubs. He shares the NL mark, sharing the overall record with Denny McClain (1968), Cal McLish (1958-59) and Richard Dotson (1983-84). Said Maddux at the time “I didn’t know (about the record) until today.” The longest anyone has come since is Justin Verlander, who had an 11-game run from 2011-12, and in the years since Maddux’s run ended, Kris Medlen (2012-13) and Morton (2021) have won the most consecutive road starts for a Braves pitcher at six each.