NORTH PORT, Fla. — On Sunday morning, Braves manager Brian Snitker called Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd – both at the same time – into his office.
“It was a little weird,” Dodd said as he started to laugh. “I was like, ‘Dang, they’re going to really tell one of us we’re going and the other one he’s not?’”
“I had a good feeling that it’d be good news, just because they pulled both of us in,” Shuster said. “I was a little confused when they did that but excited for the news that they gave us.”
Snitker delivered the news every baseball player one day hopes to hear: Shuster and Dodd will debut for the Braves in the first week of the season.
At that moment, their lifelong dreams came true.
“I don’t know if we even flinched in there,” Dodd said. “I think we were still processing it. I mean, I’m still trying to sit down and really enjoy it.”
“Just super pumped,” Shuster said.
The meeting in Snitker’s office capped arguably the most surprising spring storyline in North Port. The Braves entered spring training with Michael Soroka, Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder at the forefront of the fifth-starter competition.
Instead, the Braves will begin the season with two left-handed prospects who have never thrown a pitch in the big leagues.
Did they think it was possible?
“I mean, honestly, no,” Dodd said. “A lot of (the other competitors) have big-league time and have been good. But I just continued to put my head down and worked, and got lucky enough to be in this spot.”
“I had hoped for it,” Shuster said, “but just kind of tried to focus on what I could control, which was pitching well.”
Shuster is scheduled to start April 2, the final game versus the Nationals in Washington. Dodd will start April 4 in St. Louis, which is about three hours from his hometown (Danville, Illinois) and about 1.5 hours from his alma mater (Southeast Missouri State).
The Braves will put Shuster on the opening-day roster. They will most likely carry an extra reliever until they add Dodd prior to his start. (Shuster and Dodd are “non-roster” players in camp, meaning the Braves don’t need to option them if they don’t make the opening-day roster. That’s why they can select Dodd’s contract before his start against the Cardinals instead of carrying him on opening day.)
Dodd and Shuster have incredible, and eerily similar, Grapefruit League numbers.
Shuster: Three earned runs over 18 ⅔ innings pitched. He has struck out 18 batters and walked four.
Dodd: Four earned runs over 18 innings. He has 20 strikeouts and four walks.
With a couple weeks left in camp, the Braves made a bold decision: They optioned Anderson and Elder, who had only been decent. They opted to keep Shuster and Dodd in camp, and let them compete for the final rotation spot. This said more about Shuster and Dodd than Anderson and Elder. (Soroka came into camp with hamstring tightness, which put him behind, and the team eventually optioned him. Kolby Allard, another depth starter, suffered a Grade 2 oblique strain, removing him from the competition.)
Shuster and Dodd knew the situation: They were competing, and the results from their final spring starts would mean a lot.
“It was super stressful,” Dodd said. “It’s like the biggest start of your life every single outing. As a professional athlete, it’s kind of what we have to deal with a lot of times. I’m just thankful that I continued to stack good outings and glad that it was enough.”
“It’s definitely been stressful but on game days, just trying to forget about all that stuff and focus on pitching,” Shuster said.
For two weeks, we wondered: Who would the Braves take: Shuster or Dodd?
They eventually decided to give Kyle Wright – who received a cortisone injection in January that put him behind – more time to build up for the regular season. That opened another rotation spot, if only temporarily, and meant the Braves could insert Shuster and Dodd into their rotation for now.
So on Sunday, Snitker pulled the 24-year-old pitchers into his office and immediately gave them the good news. “Rather have it that way than kind of drag it along,” Shuster said with a smile. Snitker, who spent his life in player development before becoming manager, seemed overjoyed that two more homegrown players would soon debut.
“I know that their minds were spinning,” Snitker said. “They do the numbers, they know they’ve done well. But until they hear it, they don’t know. You’re never guaranteed anything. And I told them: It’s an exciting time when you have your own players that you drafted and developed, and have them do what those two young men did, that’s fun, that’s exciting organizationally that you can promote your own players.”
Snitker said he doesn’t think he’s ever called two players in at the same time. He said he finally saw a reaction from one of them. (He meant Shuster, who is quiet.) “I try to stay pretty low-key and not try to show my emotions too much,” Shuster said. “But, yeah, couldn’t help it there.” From there, Shuster and Dodd made their first calls.
Dodd called his parents and his girlfriend first.
“I think I woke my parents up,” Dodd said, laughing. “They were thrilled. I could hear my mom in the background hooting and hollering.”
Shuster called his dad first. Then his phone began blowing up with texts from people who had heard the news.
“Just really cool,” Shuster said. “A lot of people are super proud of me and happy for me.”
This spring’s competition for the final rotation spot is an example for other Braves prospects. “Those kids over there have no idea how close they are to the big leagues,” Snitker said. “They think it’s light-years away. But you do well, you get attention.” The Braves have proven they will bring up young players if those guys can help them win.
In this case, Shuster and Dodd were their best options. They outperformed the others this spring.
Last year, Shuster posted a 3.29 ERA across 139 ⅓ innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Dodd pitched to a 3.36 ERA over 142 innings as he went from High-A to Triple-A.
Both lefties entered spring training hoping to make an impression.
They will leave with big-league jobs.
“It’s everything,” Dodd said. “This is, I think, everyone’s dream when they’re growing up, and now I get a chance to live it. It’s important to not get comfortable here, and continue to work and continue to improve and stay here as long as we can.”
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