The Braves’ competition among pitchers, especially the young group, might be the most interesting the majors have seen in years.
Season upon season of acquiring and developing pitchers has finally produced the log jam. It’s a great problem to have. Even with four of the five rotation spots already settled, and much of the bullpen penciled in, the depth provides options the Braves simply haven’t had. Heck, it provides options perhaps no other team has.
Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint will garner the most attention. They’re the priority prospects and top two competitors for the final rotation spot. We’re all locked on to them, so I’ll exclude them from the following exercise.
Here are the five pitchers who intrigue me most after a few days in camp:
1. Luiz Gohara: I wrote about Gohara in detail, and it's undoubtedly encouraging to see the progress he's made. He's developed better sleeping habits, cut down on the Uber Eats and eliminated alcohol from his routine.
This year determines the trek of his career. He’s still young (22) but has completely diminished his value. He says he’s moved past last year’s struggles, both mental and performance-based, and is focused ahead. I’m not sure where he’ll fit in, given the last rotation spot likely goes to Soroka or Toussaint, but I’d like to see him get another chance in a relief role. It didn’t go according to plan last year, but a rejuvenated Gohara could produce the results we thought we’d see: A flame-throwing, multi-inning option for the middle frames.
2. Chad Sobotka: When Sobotka got the call in August, it was accompanied by a resounding "who?" He came in throwing gas, striking out 21 in 14-1/3 innings and earning a spot on the postseason roster. The 6-foot-7 behemoth consistently touched the high-90s.
Sobotka, in theory, profiles as a late-innings arm. Yet he’s not a lock to even make the opening bullpen. Out of the relievers, I’m most interested in what he does over the next month. He could prove a flash in the pan or ascend into a key part of the club.
3. Max Fried: It's hard to place Fried at this point. He's been up and down since August 2017, and the blisters haven't helped. He's yet to secure a defined role, and the Braves' pitchers guild just keeps getting more crowded. Regardless of where the lefty starts his season, this is Fried's time to show what he has.
He’ll compete for the fifth starter job, and no doubt scatter starts through the season. Like Gohara, you’d like to see how he plays in long-relief. The Braves need to find his most effective place if he’s going to be part of the team’s long-term plans (or become a valuable trade chip).
And I stress: He is competing for starts. They’re going to rely on the same extra-rest methods as last year, which opens the door for more arms than Soroka and Toussaint. He will have chances if healthy. What Fried does with those opportunities will tell the tale.
4. Darren O'Day: He's more than the Kevin Gausman tax. The Braves absorbed O'Day's $9 million salary this season as part of July's deadline deal with the Orioles. They paid less in prospects by taking on his money (you may remember a similar concept in acquiring Toussaint a few years ago, when the Braves took on Bronson Arroyo's money to net the stud youngster).
Baltimore, which had plunged into the depths of baseball hell, had no use for a 36-year-old reliever who was sidelined by a hamstring injury. O’Day came to Atlanta, stayed engaged in the clubhouse during his rehab. O’Day has a vibrant, humorous personality that’s already won over his peers. And he’s also pretty good at his job.
So with O’Day, it’s just a matter of making sure he’s full-go in games. You want to see him make it through spring with minimal-to-no issues, then hope he can replicate his success before tearing his right hamstring off the bone.
O’Day from 2009-17: A 2.34 ERA, 516 strikeouts and a 0.988 WHIP in 527 games. He posted a 3.60 ERA with 27 strikeouts against four walks in 20 games (20 innings) last season. He has a real shot to change this bullpen’s dynamics.
5. Patrick Weigel: I'm including Weigel here because he's a forgotten man to many. Manager Brian Snitker has brought him up unprompted, praising the huge – and I mean, really big – dude. I didn't realize how big Weigel was until seeing him in the clubhouse. He's every bit of his listed 6-foot-6, 240 pounds. (Where do the Braves find these guys?)
Will he contribute immediately? Doubtful, but there have been bigger surprises. Weigel, 24, has recovered from Tommy John surgery and now seeks restoring the promise from two years ago. A strong spring will put him back on the map, and perhaps his major-league arrival wouldn’t be too far away.