Led by Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson, Braves have options for final rotation spot

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

As the Braves head into spring training next month, Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson are the two most prominent names involved in competition for the fifth starting pitcher. There are a couple of other competitors, but everyone is talking about Soroka versus Anderson.

There’s another fun twist to this situation, too.

“I’d say he’s definitely my best friend on the team,” Soroka recently said of Anderson.

During spring training, the best friends will compete for the final spot in the starting rotation behind Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton. Bryce Elder and Kolby Allard are two other competitors for the final spot.

In North Port, Florida, Soroka crashes with Anderson, who lets his best friend stay at his place. Now the two – who hadn’t actually played on the same team until they were both at Triple-A Gwinnett last year – will compete to best one another while still maintaining their friendship.

“I think we’re both fairly clear in understanding that we’re both going to do what we need to do and that stays baseball, right?” Soroka said. “We both wish the best for each other, and I think that that’s important. It’s not exactly so simple as one spot, two guys fighting, right? There’s a lot of stuff involved, and we’re excited for the competition. We both said that’s when the best comes out.

“It’s gonna be a fun camp.”

Let’s break down the competition for the fifth spot in the Braves’ season-opening rotation.

‘I’m so happy for him’

If Soroka one day returns and nearly resembles his pre-injury form, it would be Hollywood material.

His teammates, coaches and fans are all rooting for him. It would be a remarkable comeback story, one that could inspire athletes for years to come.

Imagine it: The guy who twice tore his Achilles tendon – and did it twice within a year – returns and experiences a long and successful major-league career.

It’s unfair to expect Soroka to be one of baseball’s top starting pitchers, as he was before the injuries – though it could happen. At the very least, Soroka possesses the talent and mindset to be a reliable starter.

The fact Soroka has an opportunity to compete for a job in camp is an accomplishment on its own.

“I’m so happy for him,” Travis d’Arnaud said. “It’s been such a long road, and for someone to mentally still be in it and still want to be great and still win a championship, it’s very rare, very special. I’ve seen people go through rehab stints and they just get over it. And he hasn’t been like that. And I’m so happy for him that his body is feeling good and he’s going to be going into spring ready to go.”

Soroka has been throwing with Chris Reitsma, a former big leaguer from Canada who spent time with the Braves. Reitsma has given Soroka feedback, and the two have worked together on the righty’s mechanics.

In watching video of himself in high school, Soroka noticed that, in high school, he did what he’s trying to do now.

“Fell into some bad habits through the years, whether it was to be able to try and manipulate the ball, game deception,” he said. “Whatever it might have been, it kind of was a little counterproductive.”

It seems like Soroka has gotten back to some basics. And last year, 25 minor-league innings helped him become accustomed to a competitive environment again – something that cannot be simulated.

Soroka feels how he would during a normal year – which is the best news Braves fans could hope to hear. He seemed to be in great spirits. He expects to be on the same schedule as the rest of the pitchers during spring training.

He feels like an athlete. In other words, he’s been able to loosen up a bit.

“I think at a certain point, somewhere in there, whether it was expectations I put on myself, I almost started to muscle up and try real hard, try too hard to do some things, and that started to be counterproductive for me,” Soroka said. “I think this year is gonna be really, really big for taking a deep breath, trusting the work that I’ve done, trusting who I am, relaxing and just playing.”

A learning experience for Ian Anderson

In 2016, the Braves drafted Anderson in the first round – third overall – and he began his ascent through the minors. He made his debut in 2020 and immediately experienced postseason success. A year later, he helped bring a World Series championship to Atlanta.

This seemed like the dream start to a career.

Then Anderson struggled – and eventually unraveled – last year. The Braves optioned him, knowing, and saying publicly, he would still be a big part of what they did. They wanted to get him right, but he struggled at Triple-A until an oblique strain effectively ended his season.

“Ian, I think everything he went through is just another part of it,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s still a young player, and he’s been through a lot in a short period of time in his young career.”

Anderson, who turns 25 in May, has pitched in the World Series and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. He has eight postseason starts to his name and has a 1.26 ERA over 35 ⅔ innings in them.

Anderson relies on his four-seam fastball and change-up, though he acknowledged needing his curveball, too. In 2022, opponents hit .306 against the fastball and .286 against the curveball. These marks were the worst of his career.

But the Braves haven’t given up on him. He’s far too young and has too much time to continue developing.

“Things like (his struggles) are part of peeling off layers and becoming a solid major leaguer, so I think everything he went through, he’ll use to his advantage,” Snitker said. “The work ethic and everything, I know, is probably going to grow. He’s learned a lot. Because we know what he’s capable of. I’m excited to get him to spring training. He’s healthy, and I think he’ll be on a mission.”

The feeling is that Anderson might have regained a chip on his shoulder after the struggles – not that he lost it, but the rough patch allowed him to see what he needed to improve. He’s worked on mechanical adjustments.

Overall, he hopes to be a brand-new guy.

Any other candidates?

Could someone other than Soroka or Anderson win the job?

It’s possible.

Soroka is attempting to come back from unfortunate injuries. Anderson is looking to bounce back.

Neither is guaranteed the job, which opens the door for someone else.

The Braves traded Kyle Muller to Oakland as part of the package that netted Sean Murphy, but Elder still is in the system. Soroka and Anderson may be the higher-profile names, but Elder also has proved he can help the club.

The Braves used Elder for a month in 2022, then optioned him. When they brought him back because they needed him for spot starts, he dealt.

In five starts, he notched a 1.65 ERA over 32 ⅔ innings. That included a shutout of the Nationals in which Elder became the first Braves rookie to toss a shutout since 1990. Yes, Elder pitched against only Washington and Miami, but he displayed clear development.

One example: He altered his mindset at Triple-A.

“All I can do is all I can do,” Elder said the night of his shutout. “By (trying to make perfect pitches), it’s not going to happen. Just throw my pitches in the spots that I want to throw it and trust my stuff. If you get beat that day, you get beat that day.”

The next name to know – or remember that he’s back – is Allard. The Braves, who drafted him years ago, acquired him from the Rangers for Jake Odorizzi and cash at the beginning of the offseason.

In 2019, the Braves didn’t want to trade Allard – they only did because they felt their club had a chance to win if they fixed a deficient bullpen. But they like Allard’s swing-and-miss numbers, and they’re familiar with him. Over his career, Allard has pitched in 65 games – 35 starts – and has a 6.05 ERA.

Something to remember …

In a quote near the top of this story, Soroka said this of the battle between him and Anderson: “It’s not exactly so simple as one spot, two guys fighting, right?”

This is true.

The funny part about rotation competitions is this: They tend to work themselves out. You never wish for injuries, but they occur. You never expect underperforming pitchers, but it can happen. Sometimes, pitchers need extra days. There might be doubleheaders sprinkled into the schedule due to postponements.

Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has been determined to build rotation depth because he sees its value during a long season. If you count Jesse Chavez being an opener once, the Braves used 12 players as starting pitchers in 2022.

If everyone is healthy, the Braves likely will need Soroka, Anderson, Elder, Allard and others in 2023.

“I love the depth that we have,” d’Arnaud said. “It benefits everybody. It’s gonna put competition on everyone.”