After Max Fried’s stinker, wondering about the stability of Braves rotation

PHILADELPHIA – When Braves manager Brian Snitker emerged from the dugout at Citizens Bank Park, it was a trip unlike any he had made in his career. Saturday’s game against the Phillies was the 123rd time that he had sent Max Fried to the mound as his starting pitcher, but just the first that the lefty couldn’t make it out of the first inning.

An apparent missed call by home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman that would have ended the inning with no runs allowed didn’t do Fried any favors. But Fried was the greater culprit in his inability to be precise with his arsenal of pitches. Of his 43 pitches, 20 were outside the strike zone. One of them was a 2-2 fastball that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strikeout but was judged a ball, a lifeline that helped the Phillies score three more runs – via a bases-loaded walk and single – and chase Fried.

The first stop on the Max Fried free-agency showcase tour ended with boisterous Phillies fans exulting over his hasty exit. He lasted 2/3 of an inning with three runs allowed (all earned), two hits, three walks and one strikeout.

It was highly irregular. In 62 of his previous 64 starts, dating back to June 2021, he had gone at least five innings and usually more. One of the two was cut short by a hamstring injury in last year’s opener and the other was a four-inning stint last August in his return from a forearm strain.

“Definitely off a little bit,” Fried said in the visiting clubhouse afterwards. “Just wasn’t obviously able to get back on track as quickly as I wanted to and things kind of just spiraled out of control.”

The Braves being the Braves, they still won, hammering Phillies starter Aaron Nola and their bullpen in a 12-4 win in the second game of the season. They clinched a series win over archrival Philadelphia and can sweep Sunday.

However, here’s a question in the wake of Fried’s stink bomb – what’s the appropriate level of trust in the Braves’ rotation after Spencer Strider?

The offense almost certainly is unimpeachable. The Braves showed it again by rocking Nola, the Phillies’ seven-year, $172 million contract recipient and a Braves free-agency target this past offseason, and relievers for 19 hits (including four home runs) in Saturday’s rain-soaked affair.

But do we know the rotation will do its part to attain the club’s championship aspirations, particularly if Fried’s misstep proves more than a mere anomaly?

Let’s take a walk down Worst-Case Scenario Way, where the only thing worse than the staggering property taxes are the basketball-size potholes.

No. 3 starter Chris Sale is a gigantic linchpin of the Braves’ plans for the postseason, received in a trade from Boston that required the Braves to part with the valued Vaughn Grissom.

Problematically, Sale (who turned 35 Saturday) last pitched a full season in 2019. He missed all of 2020 and most of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A rib-cage injury and a broken finger limited him to two starts in 2022. Last June, a shoulder injury kept him out for two months.

The Braves clearly believe in Sale’s health by not only trading for him but then signing him to a two-year extension worth $38 million. Certainly, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has earned the benefit of the doubt with his unending string of trade wins.

But, remember, we’re on Worst-Case Scenario Way, where it’s always cloudy and the neighbors blow their leaves into your yard. What if Sale can’t recover, or even approach, his seven-time All-Star form? And why were the Red Sox, who knew Sale better than anybody, so willing to trade Sale that they gave the Braves $17 million to cover most of his 2024 salary?

Let’s move on to No. 4 starter Charlie Morton. The seemingly ageless righty was a marvel in 2023, giving the Braves 163 1/3 innings in 30 starts with a 3.64 ERA and 183 strikeouts.

With the hubbub centered on the club’s offensive performance, Morton’s performance probably didn’t receive its just due. In baseball history, it was just the 15th time a pitcher had pitched 150-plus innings with at least 180 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.70 or lower in his age-39 season or older, according to Stathead.

So what’s the problem?

First, Morton is now a year older. It’s possible that he could match his production from a year ago, but it’s unlikely. Only five pitchers have put up the aforementioned numbers at 40 or older and it’s a heady list – Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro and John Smoltz.

The Braves probably don’t need Morton to be that effective. But the question on Worst-Case Scenario Way, where the garbage pickup comes early Sunday morning, is how much might he fall off?

And, last, Fried. Even the most hard-bitten Braves worrywart isn’t losing sleep that Fried’s 2024 will be a series of faceplants like Saturday’s. But, what if it was at least some indication of what lies ahead?

Undoubtedly, Fried’s history of excellence makes this highly unlikely.

“Definitely not the way I wanted to start off the year, but I’m looking forward to the next one,” Fried said.

But is it possible that being in the last year of his contract and what appears to be his final season in a Braves uniform has removed him from his comfort zone? Then what?

For the residents of Worst-Case Scenario Way, where solicitors race each other to your front door and no one cleans up after their dog, you’ve got Fried in a slump, Sale unable to shake the injury bug and Morton tailing off. For good measure, let’s also say that the attempt to make Reynaldo López a full-time starter after not having done so since 2019 (when his ERA was 5.38) flops.

What happens then?

Even with those impediments, the Braves might still win the division anyway. Saturday, the Braves’ superiority at the plate easily overcame the team that, let’s remember, is supposed to be their closest National League East rival. This ridiculous lineup can win a lot more games the same way.

But, of course, the Braves’ goal isn’t to win the division. The reason they went out and traded for Sale was to load up on arms for the postseason. If the Braves gobble up regular-season wins but go into the playoffs with a rotation lacking depth, they’ll be in the same spot they were a year ago, and we all know how that turned out.

Just a question to ask as we wait for the season to unfold. Sale goes to the mound Sunday, followed by Morton and Lopez Monday and Tuesday against the White Sox in Chicago. Time could prove hand-wringing to be wasted energy. It usually is.

The residents of Worst-Case Scenario Way will be watching closely, although for some reason the cable is always out.