Mike Foltynewicz’s first in-game hiccup of the spring came courtesy of the reigning National League MVP.
After retiring Nationals batters Ben Revere and Daniel Murphy in his spring training debut, Foltynewicz, the Braves right-hander who is behind schedule following a September surgical procedure to address a blood-clot scare, faced down Bryce Harper with two outs on Thursday afternoon. He missed the strike zone on four straight pitches, perhaps nibbling against the NL’s best hitter. Ryan Zimmerman’s subsequent two-run home run ended any chance of Foltynewicz escaping the split-squad showdown unblemished.
Foltynewicz ended the start with a 1-2-3 second inning, finishing his day with one strikeout, one walk and two earned runs. It was a pivotal step for the 24-year-old, who is pushing for a rotation spot following an injury-shortened rookie campaign in which he posted a 5.71 ERA in 86 2/3 innings pitched.
Since being cleared to throw in late December, he had only thrown simulated innings in camp entering the Nationals showdown. But as the Braves inch closer to Opening Day, Foltynewicz’s progress has taken on added intrigue.
The rotation remains messy behind No. 1 starter Julio Teheran. Promising second-year righty Matt Wisler and veteran signing Bud Norris are mere locks for the second and third spots, but Nos. 4 and 5 offer very little certainty. Atlanta appears reluctant to place prospects Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair, Tyrell Jenkins, John Gant and Lucas Sims on the Opening Day staff — both for developmental and financial reasons — and it already sent veteran possibilities Kyle Kendrick and Chris Volstad packing.
Low-ceiling arms Williams Perez and Ryan Weber are still around. Manny Banuelos, the only lefty starter on the 40-man roster, is on his own post-surgery road to recovery and he gave up four earned runs in his first two spring innings. Another veteran signing, Jhoulys Chacin, is creeping into the conversation.
This leaves Foltynewicz — one of the top arms in the Braves system in terms of pure stuff, alongside the likes of prospects Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard — in a position to challenge for an early spot.
There’s still conversation about whether he will end up a starter or reliever long-term, but the Braves’ bullpen is in much better hands at the moment. Forget the control issues and the home runs he continues to give up — of pitchers who tossed 50 or more innings last season, only eight served up long balls at a higher rate — for a moment. Given their lack of options, the Braves might be best served allowing Folty to learn on the fly as soon as he’s healthy. (Same goes for Banuelos.) He took a significant step in that direction on Thursday.
The old demons are still there for Foltynewicz, but in this post-Shelby Miller Era, the franchise does not have many MLB-ready possibilities as it plays the waiting game with its up-and-coming prospects.
Foltynewicz made it clear that it’s unlikely he’ll be 100 percent by Game No. 1, but he’s a definite early candidate, especially for a team that only requires its fifth starter a handful of times in April. If healthy, he might be the best choice behind the Teheran-Norris-Wisler trio.