Left-hander Max Fried was the first pitcher taken in the draft when he came out of high school in Southern California in 2012 and 2 1/2 years later, he was the centerpiece of the haul of prospects the Braves acquired in the Justin Upton trade on Dec. 19, 2014.
Yet due to a torn elbow ligament, he’s been waiting in the wings while other former Padres prospects are making progress. Jace Peterson became an immediate fixture on the Braves infield, Mallex Smith rose through the minor league ranks and Dustin Peterson made a name as an up-and-coming hitter in the Braves system.
But for Fried, who made his first two starts for the Rome Braves last week, the clock is finally ticking. And judging by the way he’s started, it won’t be long before he is back in the forefront of the prospect conversation.
Fried pitched six scoreless innings Thursday in Asheville to lower his ERA to 1.54. He has given up just two earned runs on five hits in 11 innings with five walks and 11 strikeouts.
“Everything is feeling good,” said Fried, who is scheduled to pitch again Wednesday in Augusta. “I’m very happy with where I am now.”
As for where he stands compared to the others acquired in the trade?
“I see those guys and how well they’re doing and it motivates me a little more to get to where they are,” Fried said. “But at the same time, I hold nothing against it. I’m extremely happy for them and everything that they’ve accomplished.”
Fried texted Smith as soon as the Braves called him up to Atlanta earlier this month. He keeps in touch with Jace Peterson and considers Dustin Peterson one of his best friends in the organization.
A mature makeup is just part of why the Braves traded for the high-risk, high-ceiling pitcher. So is his nasty curveball, both of which Fried likes to emulate from one of the all-time greats he learned about growing up a Dodger fan in Encino, Calif.: Sandy Koufax. Fried studied Koufax’s curveball by watching old black-and-white film. He then learned about the man from Reggie Smith, the former Dodger who coached Fried at a baseball academy in Encino and got to know Koufax in the late 1970s.
“I only heard great things about how great of a person and, obviously, how great of a pitcher he was,” Fried said. “He always treated everyone with respect, was always gracious and nice, but also was a fierce competitor on the mound, someone who was going to go after you and attack you. I strive to do that.”
Fried said patience has been his biggest challenge during this comeback. He originally attempted to rehab his elbow with the Padres in 2014 before shutting it down in July. He had Tommy John surgery on Aug. 20.
Then almost four months to the day later, his father woke him up at 7 a.m. to say he’d just seen Max’s name on TV as one of the prospects traded to the Braves.
“It was definitely a complete shock,” Fried said. “The Padres at the time were trading a lot of guys, but knowing that I had had Tommy John so recently, I didn’t think there was much of a chance I was going to get traded. When I got the official call from the Padres GM and eventually Jonathan Schuerholz and John Coppolella (with the Braves front office), it was exhilarating. It was a clean slate, different organization. I could go in, fresh start, start over and grind it out.”
Fried faced the double whammy: Not only was he trying to impress a new organization but also trying to prove he could come back from extensive arm surgery. The Braves eased that pressure by telling him he would not pitch in 2015.
“The Braves did an unbelievable job communicating to me what the plan was,” Fried said. “I was going to take the whole year off and make sure I was healthy and do this the right way… so hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
Since the Upton trade, the Braves have acquired both Sean Newcomb (No. 4) and Kolby Allard (No. 11), both of whom are ranked ahead of Fried (No. 17) among Baseball America’s Top 25 left-handed pitching prospects. But Baseball America editor J.J. Cooper said the ranking has a lot to do with the uncertainly, given Fried’s elbow injury. Fried is taking care of that now.
“No one’s got higher expectations for myself than I do,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best that I can possibly be. There’s no added pressure because I’ve already got this idea of what I want to do.”