Pitchers and catchers have finally reported, marking an end to the long, barren offseason. As the excitement at Cooltoday Park gets underway, what are the key developments to look out for? Here are the first of a few storylines to look out for over the next month.
The rotation is a real strength of the NL East champions, and as impressive as it was, it has a good chance to improve again this year. The Braves boasted a 43% Quality Start percentage in 2022 (defined as when the starting pitcher pitches six innings with three or fewer earned runs), which was good for eighth in the MLB – so when paired with one of the best relief corps in the league, it’s no surprise that the Braves total pitching bWAR came out at 22.4, which was third best in the MLB, just behind the Dodgers and Astros.
The Braves did this without a standout fifth starter – while Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton all started 30 or 31 games, and Spencer Strider had one of the most dominant rookie pitching seasons in recent memory (behind one man on this list), the role of the fifth man in the rotation was never really claimed by anyone. This year, there are a few candidates to try and lock down that spot.
1) Ian Anderson
Despite making the season’s fourth start, Ian Anderson was the statistical fifth arm for most of the 2022 season, compiling a 10-6 record with a 5.00 ERA over 22 games started. This made Anderson comfortably worse by ERA than the average Braves starter in 2022; including Anderson, Braves starting pitchers compiled a cumulative 3.72 ERA over 890.1 innings of work. The main issue seemed to be his inability to go deep into games, as he had a dismal cumulative ERA of over seven in the fifth inning of games, and over 10 in the sixth. As a result, the Braves opted to get an extended look at Bryce Elder and Jake Odorizzi in the last couple of months, sending Anderson back to the minors in August after a few too many sketchy performances.
This said, Ian will likely get a long look as the Braves’ fifth man in spring training. He has all of the right talents, and has displayed some really good outings, like his six-inning, one-hit performance against Arizona – but he needs to display his ability to consistently pitch past the sixth inning. It’s possible that the Braves either look to give him extended outings in spring to test that, or they might plan to start him off in the minors to stretch him out a little. If it doesn’t work out, at least he’s handy with the bat:
2) Bryce Elder
After Anderson, Elder made the second-most starts at the tail end of the rotation, amassing a 3.17 ERA over 10 games, nine of which were starts. Bryce made four starts in April, going 1-3 with a 4.74 ERA, before heading back to the minors for some more development. After Anderson’s struggles, he came back to the Atlanta rotation and produced some far better work – he didn’t get the decisions but went 1-1 with a 2.31 ERA over six games in his return.
Bryce had two particularly impressive outings, both in his second stint with the Braves. The first came against the Marlins, as he pitched seven three-hit innings with 10 strikeouts and three walks to lead the Braves to a 3-1 win. In his second-to-last outing of the year, he went two innings further and twirled a six-hit complete game shutout against the Nationals, displaying his ability to go deep into games and face batters for a third and fourth time through the order – something Anderson struggled with. If Anderson hasn’t worked out those issues, it’s likely that Elder has the edge on him going into spring training.
Soroka is the real wildcard of the three. His last major league outing was 12 April 2020 – almost two and a half years ago – where he tore his Achilles trying to make a break to first from the mound. Since then, he has re-torn his Achilles and suffered from elbow soreness that knocked him out of his minor-league rehab assignment in 2022 – but he might finally be fully healthy for the first time since he exploded onto the scene as a 21-year-old. That season was historic: he posted the best age-21 season by ERA+ of any qualified pitcher since 1995, comfortably outduelling legends such as Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez. That year, he had a better ERA than Max Scherzer, a better FIP than Max Fried, and amassed 6.1 bWAR – by way of comparison, if Spencer Strider had pitched the same number of innings as Soroka did at the same rate, he would have only hit 4.9 bWAR.
Soroka’s ceiling is (or was?) sky-high – though it remains to be seen how well he’ll fare against big-league hitters. In his first rehab start for the Braves High-A affiliate in Rome, Soroka looked like his old self as he pitched a four-inning shutout where he struck out eight of the first nine batters he faced. If he can bring that sort of stuff to the mound come the start of the season and stays injury free (which are two big assumptions!), he might end up challenging Max Fried for the #1 spot, let alone being the fifth man in the rotation.
The Braves have to be excited by the prospect of these three duking it out to make the rotation over the next few weeks. They aren’t the only prospective starters to watch, either – there’s also Jared Shuster, the Braves’ number one prospect, who pitched at Double-A and Triple-A last year and might be a year away from sustained big league time; Kolby Allard spent time as an MLB starter in the past, who the Braves acquired from the Rangers in a trade for Jake Odorizzi in the offseason; and maybe even Blake Burkhalter, a 2022 draft pick out of Auburn, who the Braves are keen on turning into a starter, despite his role as a closer in college. If all goes perfectly, they might have another ace in Michael Soroka – and even if things don’t go quite as planned, they’re likely to have at least one startable fifth man to bolster an already great rotation.
Featured image of Braves Spring Training at Cooltoday Park by @Braves on Twitter.
Charlie Deeks is the Atlanta Braves correspondent on Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Omashaft!