FORT MYERS, Fla. —Entering spring training, one could almost predict the entire 26-man roster for the Braves. They have a right fielder. And a center fielder. And a third baseman. And a first baseman. And on and on.
We knew the fifth spot in the starting rotation would be decided in camp.
We did not know it would come down to two prospects who seemed to be in big-league spring training to benefit from the experience instead of, well, actually having a shot to make the team. But this is the fun of spring training.
We just don’t know …
“Who’s going to show up or who’s going to be that surprise,” manager Brian Snitker said.
This is why we love spring training, and baseball in general. The season is long and grueling. You cannot win with four or five players. It takes depth. Roles can vary. There are few stars.
Expect the unexpected.
When the Braves reported, it seemed like Michael Soroka, Ian Anderson or Bryce Elder would make the team as the fifth starter. Now, it may not be any of the three. Two prospects have grabbed the team’s attention and forced their way into the spotlight.
“I think it’s really good,” said Michael Harris II, who last year surprised everyone and won National League Rookie of the Year. “Every spring, you come in and at least one player that you don’t expect to make a huge impression does. Those two guys definitely did that for us. They’re battling for the last spot and I think either one of them can handle whatever comes with that – and do a good job of it. They’ve been doing a good job this spring. Kind of excited to see who gets that last spot, because it’ll be tough.”
On Friday versus the Red Sox at JetBlue Park at Fenway South, Jared Shuster allowed only three hits over four scoreless innings. He struck out seven batters and walked one.
He also displayed some poise. In the first inning, after striking out the first two batters, Shuster gave up a hard-hit single off the wall (to former Brave Adam Duvall) before hitting one batter and walking another. In between, Shuster threw a wild pitch. Instead of this rattling him, he turned around and struck out a batter to escape unscathed.
Shuster only furthered his case for the job.
“I try not to think about that too much. But just try to go out there and pitch and control what I can,” Shuster said. “Very encouraging to be able to do that. I’m excited with it.”
This spring, Shuster has looked different than the pitcher Snitker saw starting a scrimmage against the Rays on the main field at CoolToday Park last year, on the day MLB’s lockout ended. The manager didn’t know who Dylan Dodd was until Dodd impressed Snitker while facing hitters on a backfield earlier this spring.
The emergence of Shuster and Dodd furthers a common theme with the Braves: If they think you can help them win, they’ll put you on the roster. “It’s the best option at the time,” said Snitker, implying that prospects might not even be fully ready for the majors when they’re called up.
Last year, Spencer Strider, who climbed the organizational ladder in 2021, put together a fantastic spring. His performance forced the Braves to put him on the opening day roster as a reliever. Had he not pitched well, the Braves could’ve simply sent him down. Instead, he shined – so much so that they put him in the rotation. The rest is history.
Shuster and Dodd are competing for a roster spot. One won’t make it. The one who does make it might not stick in the big leagues. Nothing is for certain. But the fact that the Braves are giving them an opportunity – rewarding their terrific springs – sends a message to other prospects.
“I think they do see that they’re not as far away from the big leagues as they think they are,” Snitker said. “They’re all closer than what they ever could imagine. When you do well, you get noticed.”
Added Harris: “We tell them all the time: ‘Just go there and play your game. When you get the opportunity, make the best of it. Take advantage of it, but don’t just assume you’re there to stay. Just do everything you can, do all the little things to be able to stay on the field, and do everything you can do to stay up for as long as you can.’”
Shuster, a 2020 first-round draft pick, is considered the top prospect in a system that could be weaker than in past seasons because of graduations and trades. Dodd, drafted in the third round out of Southeast Missouri State in 2021, burst onto the scene this spring.
The Braves have done a tremendous job in scouting. That they believed in these two enough to draft them when they did speaks volumes. But Shuster and Dodd are, by no means, among the most hyped prospects in the sport. You haven’t heard a lot about them.
That means nothing.
“I used to tell (players), too: (Braves manager) Bobby (Cox) doesn’t care what round you were drafted in, how much money you got in a bonus. He just wants somebody to come up and help him win games,” Snitker said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you been, how you got here.”
When the Braves filled out their bullpen, they first went with Strider.
When the Braves needed a center fielder, they turned to Harris.
When they needed a second baseman, they called on Vaughn Grissom.
“Just seeing that those guys get called up and succeed just shows the Braves are ready to win, and whoever helps them the most gets called up,” Shuster said. “So, very encouraging, yeah.”
President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has shown a willingness to give opportunities to those who deserve them. This spring is the latest example. Soroka, Anderson and Elder had the inside track for the final rotation spot, but in the end, spring training results mattered. Yes, it’s a small sample. But Shuster and Dodd have been outstanding.
This spring, Shuster has allowed one run in 12-2/3 innings, with 16 strikeouts and two walks. Dodd hasn’t surrendered a run over 8 1/3 frames, and has 11 strikeouts with no walks.
“It’s what we have to look at, but they’ve been really, really good,” Snitker said. “Kind of looking at them and how they’re handling situations, it’s pretty impressive – both of them.”
So, one afternoon, the Braves optioned Anderson and Elder.
It opened the door for Shuster and Dodd, and became arguably the most surprising storyline of the spring thus far.
“It surprised me. Ian and Bryce are great pitchers, and they’ve had a lot of success up there,” Shuster said. “I’m glad they have faith in me and Dylan. We’re two great pitchers as well. Definitely a great opportunity for the both of us.”
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