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Starting Nine: Braves lose player they couldn’t afford to, and complexities of season offer no reprieve

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Plus, Ozzie Albies’ likely season to be defined by injury-management and the HOF company Ronald Acuña Jr. keeps with every feat 

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Mike Soroka is expected to have surgery on his torn Achilles next week.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Soroka’s season is over, Ozzie Albies isn’t right and it’s the Marlins — the Marlins?!? — that are sitting atop the National League East through two weeks of the season.

It’s not all bad for the Braves, as Ronald Acuña Jr. is heating up, Nick Markakis made his return, Max Fried is tied for ninth in starter fWAR (0.6) and the bullpen is sixth in ERA (2.79) and ninth in K/9 (10.24), and Atlanta is going to need every one of those names to deliver, as the road to a third straight division title got that much more complicated with the ace of the pitching staff headed for surgery.

This week’s Starting Nine starts where much of Braves Country’s thoughts reside right now: Soroka and the state of the rotation.

1. Expanded postseason and teams in need will make move Braves need harder to come by

The reality is, there isn’t a more indispensable player on the Braves roster than Mike Soroka. Take out Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuña Jr. — or Ozzie Albies, who is out with a wrist injury — and the offense may not hum the same way, but there’s still plenty of fire power. The state of the rotation, thanks to injury and a lack of consistency outside of the All-Star right-hander and Max Fried made it unthinkable to piece together a run at a championship without the ace holding things down. Now, that’s what’s facing the Braves and while the torn right Achilles couldn’t have hit the roster any harder, it also couldn’t have come at worse time. We’re just 13 games into this 60-game season, one in which six more teams will make the field, creating fewer sellers ahead of the Aug. 31 trade deadline, and when you add in the number of pitching injuries across the game — the likes of Corey Kluber, Miles Mikolas, Shohei Ohtani, Justin Verlander and, of course, the Braves’ own Cole Hamels — pitching is a commodity Atlanta won’t be alone in coveting. “It’s very hard to say (if we can complete a trade),” Anthopoulos said this week. “The uncertainty, a lot of people are in the same boat, especially early on. There have been a lot of injuries. Teams are very mindful of their depth. The likelihood is that we’re going internal. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to look, make phone calls.” There will be movable pieces, the RoyalsDanny Duffy, TigersMatthew Boyd or Michael Fulmer, GiantsJeff Samardzija (making a prorated $7.3M on the $30M deal that was a hang-up before and Diamondbacks’ Robby Ray among them (as well as some uninspiring names on the free-agent market), but when you add in at least six more teams looking for upgrades, the bidding figures to be high. The Braves still possess an elite offense that can carry them into the postseason, especially in this year when first-and second-place teams will reach October, but that thought of a deep run? That may have left with Soroka in a season that — in its length, the hope it creates for more teams and the rash of injuries to arms — will make the kind of deal the Braves need that much harder to come by.

2. What past pitchers’ returns tell us about a blueprint for Soroka

We’ve seen limited pitches need Achilles repairs — Zack Britton, Jason Grilli and Adam Wainwright among them — while Dellin Betances was able to recover from a partial tear without surgery and a ruptured tendon brought an end to Johan Santana’s attempt at a comeback. Anthopoulos noted Tuesday that Soroka is expected to undergo surgery within the next week, and it’s obviously difficult to gauge any timetable for a return. It took Wainwright five months to get back into action in 2015, Britton almost seven months, while Grilli was out nine months, but Soroka just turned 23 on Tuesday, making him seven years younger than Britton when he suffered the injury, 10 years younger than Wainwright and 16 Grilli’s junior. During an appearance on MLB Network Radio on Wednesday, renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews projected a recovery time of six-to-eight months, which would put Soroka on track to be ready for Opening Day 20201 — but it’s not just about his being back, but being as effective as he was before. It wasn’t until nearly 10 months later that Wainwright was pitching without pain and stiffness in his plant foot. No one’s questioning Soroka’s worth ethic, and as Sean Newcomb said Tuesday “If there’s anyone built to come back stronger, it’s him. No one works harder than him.” But it’s could be some time before we not only see Soroka again but see him at the level he was when his career was put on pause.

3. What’s next for rotation? Discarded Folty seems destined to return

Since the beginning of July, the Braves are down four starters from their stable in Soroka, Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz and Felix Hernandez, and if they’re unable to make an upgrade in the trade market, they may be relying on two of those names to help salvage the rotation in the bid for a third straight division crown. Hamels, who was placed on the disabled list July 23, putting his potential return at early September, and there’s been little discussion of Foltynewicz since he cleared waivers and joined the satellite group in Gwinnett (beyond Snitker’s throw-away comment this week that “he’s being put through a throwing program”). Anything the Braves get out of Hamels, who was shut down with triceps tendinitis, had seemed a luxury, but could be akin to a trade at this point if the market is as difficult to maneuver as it seems it could be. But the true irony is in Foltynewicz’s hopes of returning to Atlanta only increasing with Soroka’s exit and a collection of unproven starting options with Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson or an innings-eater in veteran Josh Tomlin. There will be many calls for Ian Anderson, the team’s top pitching prospect, to make his debut, but pushing the 22-year-old and stifling his development isn’t likely to happen, but it’s much more likely that Foltynewicz gets that chance, just as he did last season en route to getting the ball to open and close the NLDS, is going to be back in the rotation after being cast off.

4. Albies out and Swanson has tough act to follow hitting second

It’s perplexing how Ozzie Albies remained in a blowout before needing to go on the 10-day injured list, a stint that Snitker said Wednesday may not be long enough, and could now keep the second baseman out for multiple weeks, but didn’t have to know how to read tea leaves to realize Albies was in an bad way when he hit left handed against a left-handed Anthony Kay in the seventh inning Tuesday night (something he had never done in his previous 412 plate appearances from the left side). The Braves go into Thursday’s series finale with the Blue Jays leading the majors in runs scored in spite of Albies’ .159/.196/.273 slash line, the red-hot bat of Dansby Swanson — who had moved up to second in the order in Albies’ last game before his IL stint — providing more than a respite. But what’s more than a little alarming is the belief that the bone contusion in Albies’ right wrist won’t fully heal until he can rest it in the offseason. As great as Swanson has been, the verdict is still out whether he can continue to keep up this level of production, but knowing Albies is going to be in injury-management mode until season’s end, he’s likely to get every opportunity to show he can take the spot in the order. But it’s a tough act to follow as with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Albies, the Braves were second in the NL in production from their Nos. 1 and 2 hitters last season, at 116 wRC+. Swanson, at this point, has hit 29 percent below league average at that spot in the order.

5. Acuña find his way and again with another reminder of his HOF company

The drum-beating that Acuña’s off his game amid a 5-for-33 start have been silenced as he’s hit .412 in August with four extra-base hits and a 1.330 OPS, a scorching turn in which his whiff rate has dropped from 45.9 percent (July) to 17.4 percent and he has more walks (six) than strikeouts (four) since the calendar changed months. His first two-plus seasons have taught us Acuña is best appreciated when lumped with the heady company he so frequently keeps. Case in point: Tuesday night, when he reached base safely four times, marked the 35th time he’d had such a game, making him one of just five player to ever do that before the reached 23. That’s been accomplished by just five players, four of whom — Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle — are, of course, all Hall of Famers. The lesson: don’t worry about Ronald Acuña Jr. amid his rare slumps. He always finds a way, or more precisely, a moment out of them.

6. Markakis has been reinstated, and it’s back to the platoon with Duvall

Nick Markakis is back and forget any thought of ramping things up before throwing him into game action as he was inserted as a pinch-hitter in the eighth-inning Wednesday night and grounded out to the right side. With that immediate use, and Snitker’s comments ahead of the game — “Like I said last year, after he came back, he had one live batting practice and was ready to go. I don’t think the offensive part is going to be a problem for him. I think at 50 years old, you could bring him out of retirement, and he’ll hit. He’s just that kind of guy.” — are bound to come questions about how much playing time the 36-year-old is going to see. There remains a glutton of options in the Braves outfield with Acuña, Ender Inciarte, Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, not to mention utility options like Culberson, Johan Camargo and Austin Riley. With Matt Adams out with a hamstring issue, the role should include starts in a corner outfield spots, at first when Freeman gets the rare day off, and chances as designated hitter against right-handed pitchers to utilize that 115 wRC+ in his career (vs. a below-league average split against southpaws). It may settle with Ozuna sliding to the primary DH with Duvall and Markakis in a platoon in left, but the return of Markakis is certain to be to the detriment of Duvall. With Wednesday’s home run — which, yes, came against a right-handed pitcher — he’s now hit 44 across time in the majors in Triple-A since the start of 2019, yet despite being arguably the best defensive option among the second tier of outfielders, doesn’t seem destined to get an opportunity to show he can be an everyday player like he was as an All-Star in Cincinnati.

7. Tomlin in perfect role as bridge for young arms

No NL reliever has more strikeouts on the season than Josh Tomlin (11) and no other bullpen arm in the circuit has thrown more innings than Tomlin’s eight after coming in for 1 1/3 on Wednesday and fanning two Blue Jays. He has yet to allow a run, making him the NL’s only reliever to with at least six innings that can say that, and there are bound to be calls to get the 11-year veteran into the mix, but he’s already filling the role that’s his biggest value to this team: the bridge behind the young starters, especially with Soroka gone. Outside of Fried, no starter has made it through the fifth inning, with 4 2/3 out of Newcomb in Wednesday’s loss to Toronto coming the closest. Tomlin, who has already appeared three times in the first five games of August and followed Newcomb and Toussaint in two of them and given the murkiness and uncertainty with the current state of the rotation, it may be to the Braves’ detriment to keep him from being available multiple times a week as opposed to giving Tomlin starter’s innings.

8. As Braves hit the road, Austin Riley gets chance to buck past splits

Following tonight’s series finale against the Blue Jays, the Braves will hit the road for the next nine games — four in Philadelphia, two against the Yankees and a pair vs. the Marlins — and Austin Riley gets a chance to show he can hit consistently somewhere other than Truist/SunTrust Park. While he delivered a moonshot of a home run against the Mets in Citi Field on July 26, Riley hit .143 (2-for-14) in that road trip and in 2019 had a paltry 64 wRC+ in 137 at-bats away from home. Since his debut, Riley has an .818 OPS at home, a top-20 figure among those with less than 200 plate appearances and more than 10 home runs in their ballpark, and a .622 OPS outside of Atlanta, including a .523 OPS in five games at Philly’s Citizens Bank Park and .214 in three in Marlins Park last season.

9. Lucas Sims showing Braves may have given up on him too early

MLB.com’s David Adler wrote an exceptional breakdown of the Reds’ strikeout-heavy rotation, with the staff’s reliance on the spin rate on four-seamers at the core of its success. It’s no doubt been elevated by Cincinnati hiring Driveline godfather Kyle Boddy and already having his devotee Trevor Bauer setting the standard. But also included in the Reds’ high-rpm producers is an arm the Braves gave up on long ago: former first-round pick Lucas Sims. He trails just Bauer in four-seam spin rate (2,803 rpm), a figure that leads all relievers, and is third in MLB at 3,116 rpm with the highest curveball spin rate, and as a result is averaging 12.46 K/9 in his 4 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. Sims told me after the trade he felt he’d been bypassed in the organization’s thinking as it acquired more heralded prospects and with the amount of talent in the system, it was impossible to reestablish value in the Braves brass’ eyes. It’s not unlike a lot of players say about a team that traded them away, especially after taking said player as the 21st overall pick in 2012. While he may never be the top-of-the-rotation arm he was picked as at No. 21 in 2012, the run he’s on with an team that seems to have unlocked his full potential is proving him right and that the Braves may have given up on him too early.