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Starting Nine: Soroka, Swanson’s extension chances; ever-gracious Don Sutton

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Plus, Braves trending toward another short-term lineup addition, whether they pounced too early in pitching market and a lingering bobblehead question

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Mike Soroka and the Braves appear headed toward an arbitration hearing with the two sides $700,000 apart in their salary requests for 2021.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Where the Braves are concerned, the hot stove has resembled something a little more lukewarm. Maybe a hot plate? A candle warmer?

The Braves need an outfielder and the Blue Jays and Astros took two of the top options off the table, with Toronto snagging George Springer and was the reported destination for Michael Brantley before he opted to return to Houston. Meanwhile came a report that Marcell Ozuna is “highly unlikely” to resign with Atlanta given their payroll structure.

The sad-face emoji is the choice du jour here, but the Braves remain of interest, both as that need for a bat (preferably right-handed) that may be headed for a lackluster resolution, and what comes out of two pieces of its young core — Mike Soroka and Dansby Swanson — potentially heading to sticky arbitration hearings.

On Soroka, Swanson, what’s next for the lineup, a farewell to another Braves legend and more in this week’s Starting Nine.

1. Are Mike Soroka or Dansby Swanson extension candidates?

The Braves’ file-and-trial ways leave two potential outcomes for Soroka and Swanson after the sides failed to agree to one-year deals before last Friday’s deadline: a hearing or a multi-year deal. Those hearings, as best illustrated by Mike Foltynewicz in 2018, can be the stage for some hurt feelings, be it in the performance undressing that’s part of the process, or a misunderstanding of the process itself. It’s a situation Atlanta would likely look to avoid with two key players, whose salary demands were $700,000 below what the Braves wanted to pay (Swanson filed at $6.7 million and Soroka was at $2.8 million), putting their candidacy for extensions up for discussion. Soroka is a year removed from being National League Rookie of the Year runner up and top five in Cy Young voting, yet he’s thrown just 214 innings in three seasons due to a shoulder injury in 2018 and last year’s Achilles tear that sidelined him after just three starts. Swanson is coming off career peaks — a .274/.345/.464 slash line and 116 wRC+ — in a shortened season that was bolstered by a .350 BABIP, but he has yet to play more than 144 games in any normal season due to injuries (wrist in 2018 and heel in ‘19). The fact that Swanson hasn’t performed like to that level or been able to stay on the field in a 162-game season may be why Soroka may be the better option to end the standoff with an extension. We’ve seen him become one of the NL’s top arms, ranking third with a 2.43 ERA over 29 starts in ‘19 but may not have seen his ceiling yet. Consider the paths the Phillies and Yankees took with Aaron Nola and Luis Severino, respectively. Nola and Philadelphia were $2.2 million apart — he wanted $6.75 million — before they agreed to a four-year, $45 million contract and Severino wanted $5.25 million — $800K below New York’s offer — and they reached a four-year, $40 million deal. Both of those pitchers would have set a record for a player without a Cy Young Award on their resume in their first year of arbitration eligibility before those deals, which Soroka would have likely bettered had he been healthy in 2020. From that end, the Braves may be getting a bargain given the starting point of his 2021 compensation and a similar pact to those of Nola and Severino would either take Soroka into free agency in 2025 or buy out walk years as well seems prudent, especially with the uncertainties that come with collective bargaining agreement negotiations looming. There’s the chance that leads both Soroka and Swanson to be more amicable to a multi-year deal but locking up the Braves’ ace seems the more likely of the two.

2. Remembering Don Sutton

Hall of Famer. A 300-game winner. Don Sutton’s baseball life was truly unique in that he’d go on to become a part of the fabric of a team he never even played for, broadcasting Braves games for nearly three decades. Sutton died Monday at 75, and with his passing I can’t help but think of how welcoming he was as I began covering the Braves in 2013. He was the first in-person guest Zach Dillard and I ever had on Chopcast, and going back and listening to the interview, it stuck with me how grateful Sutton was to not only find his second career, but that he got to do it Atlanta. He told the story of Pete Van Wieren approaching the then-Dodgers right-hander before a start in 1976 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Van Wieren asking Sutton asking Sutton to appear on a pregame show. “I wasn’t concentrating on his questions — I hope the interview turned out alright — I was sitting there thinking ‘You know, one day I’m going to work with him” and that was in 1976,” Sutton said. “I said to him as we were wrapping up the interview, ‘One day we’re going to work together’ and 13 years later we started working together.” I asked how Sutton how he was able to endear himself to Braves fans despite his having spent the brunt of his 23-year career in Los Angeles and Sutton replied “I think part of it is being real. I was a fan of Atlanta. I pitched against the Braves a lot. I’m a Southern boy. I’m from the South. So, it’s not like I had to learn the history of Chicago or I had to learn the traditions of Philadelphia. I came back here as someone who was coming home.” He came home and to Braves fans, he became part of the nightly soundtrack of their homes. Rest in peace, Don and thanks for always being so gracious.

3. Where oh where is the offensive addition?

An offseason with high points of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly gives the Braves a deep rotation, but the offense remains in dire need of an influx of new blood, with ZiPS projections forecasting three players above 2.1 fWAR in Ronald Acuña Jr. at 5.9, Ozzie Albies at 4.1 and Freddie Freeman at 4.0. Springer at $25 million per year on this six-year contract he signed with the Blue Jays was a pipe dream for the Braves, but Brantley seemed a possibility. No more as he remains an Astro and if the Braves have also basically been eliminated from the Ozuna hunt, where does that lead them in the hunt for right-handed power? There are 13 remaining free-agent bats expected to produce 1.4 fWAR or higher in 2021, with only a handful at positions of needs for Atlanta, especially if the designated hitter is indeed out for the NL in ‘21. If the expectation is that general manager Alex Anthopoulos is left to again find value in a value deal, then it’s back to trying to find a player out to increase his stock on the short term, making Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario among the most likely of targets. Granted, Pederson is a lefty, but his extreme splits/lack of past opportunities figure to make him affordable and Rosario comes with power but has a low on-base rate (.310 in his career). Barring the Braves bucking the collective thinking and throwing a big payday Ozuna’s way or improving via trade, it seems that for a third year protecting Freeman in the lineup is going to fall on a player looking to establish their value on a short-term deal.

4. As Bauer waits, did Braves pounce too early?

Anthopoulos has shown a willingness to make early moves in free agency, hence inking Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in November of 2018, Travis d’Arnaud and Will Smith in the same month in 2019 and, most recently, Morton and Smyly in November 2020. Pouncing on Morton to pave the way for his return to the Braves after the Rays denied him a $15 million club option seemed a logical maneuver, but inking Smyly for $11 million was open to criticism. That’s especially with Trevor Bauer still available and the market on him seeming to dwindle. Per Jon Heyman, Bauer is said to be considering short-term deals, something he’d seemed to soften on heading into free agency. Cite payroll restraints, but if he ends up signing a one-year pact and the Braves could have taken that Smyly money and put it into a deal to bring Bauer to Atlanta did being too aggressive early, and potentially overpaying for Smyly (equal money to what Corey Kluber is getting from the Yankees) backfire?

5. No HOF calls likely, but Braves making headway

We’re days away from the Baseball Writers Association of America’s announcement of the Hall of Fame vote and whether there will even be a Class of 2021, which comes Jan. 26. Czar of such things Ryan Thibodaux (he of @NotMrTibbs fame) isn’t currently projecting anyone to reach the 75 percent threshold, though Curt Schilling is teetering, appearing on 74.4 percent of ballots. But on a positive note for the Braves is the progress Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield and Billy Wagner are making. Jones, who was at 19.4 percent last year, has gained 23 votes among the roughly 40 percent of known ballots to jump up to 41 percent; Sheffield is up to 46.2 percent after sitting at 31.7 in ‘20 and Wagner sits at 48.1 percent after a 31.7-percent 2020. While those numbers may not be indicative of the total vote come Tuesday, it’s upward movement for all, the pre-announcement returns bode very well for Jones given what we saw play out for Larry Walker. In 2018 he gained 12.2 percent to sit at 34.1, was up to 54.6 in ‘19 and then last year broke through at 76.6 percent to join Derek Jeter as the two writers’ picks for the Class of 2020. Jones, currently up over 20 percent, is making similar headway with six years of eligibility remaining.

6. But what about Tom?

Last week the Braves released their promotions schedule for 2021 and, anyone who paid attention to the 2020 promotions schedule will see some familiar items. Literally. Bobbleheads featuring Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. in their postgame jump-five (a two-part bobble), Brian McCann and Mike Soroka were all on the schedule for last year before the pandemic ruined all that and all have been shifted to the ‘21 slate ... except one. The ‘20 schedule was also set to include a Tom Glavine World Series MVP bobblehead on Aug. 16, which is not part of the ‘21 giveaways. But what’s the state of the 15,000 Glavine bobbles? Per the Braves, they decided not to carry it over to the ‘21 season as it was intended to be part of the 25th anniversary of that 1995 championship.

7. Vegas still likes Braves

The Mets and Padres have clearly been the NL’s biggest winners this winter, with San Diego remaking its rotation and New York adding a bankable star in Francisco Lindor, and it’s no surprise they’re among the circuit’s elite per Sportsbetting.ag. While the Braves have a sizable question mark in their lineup, they’re not far behind, with the Padres at +425, second to the Dodgers (+250), to win the pennant, while Atlanta is tied with the Mets at +500. They’re the only NL teams better than +1600 and the Braves have the fifth-best odds to win the World Series (+1200) behind the Dodgers (+450), Padres (+650), Yankees (+650) and Mets (+900).

8. Today in baseball history ...

While not Braves related, here’s a legend doing something legendary. In 1960, the great Stan Musial asked for and received a pay cut from $100,000 to $80,000. After hitting .351 in 1957 and .337 in ‘58, Musial dipped to .255 in ‘59 and determined he was being overpaid. As he said at the time, “That’s something between the club, myself and the commissioner’s office. ... The Cardinals have been generous to me the past few years, so I thought I’d be kind to them.” In a related note, 2014 B.J. Upton, we’d like to talk.

9. HBD, Chase d’Arnaud

Long before his brother Travis was putting his name alongside the likes of HOFer Gary Carter with his NLDS heroics in a Braves uniform, Chase d’Arnaud was setting a ridiculous double act as a baseball player by day and a rocker by night. There was the time I tagged along as he made like Adam Sandler and serenaded the lunch ladies in the pressbox cafeteria, but it culminated with him and his self-named band playing at Turner Field after a game in which he went 1-for-3 with a double. So, give the Chase d’Arnaud Band a listen as we celebrate the current Pepperdine student’s 34th birthday.