First things first. There’s no replacing one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball. The other nine aren’t, and won’t be, available. Even if one were, he’d cost way too much. Jacob deGrom isn’t coming here.
Second thing, and it’s as big as the first. It’s actually bigger, given the tenor of our times. The Braves have played 20 percent of this irregular season. They’ve won eight of 12 games. Any team that nuzzles up to .500 over the scheduled 60 could make the 16-team playoff. (If the postseason began today, the 5-6 Reds would make it.)
To reach 30 wins, the Braves would need to go 22-26. They can do that without Mike Soroka. Yes, they’d be much better with him, but that’s no longer an option. They haven’t yet hit for average, but they lead the majors in runs. They’re tied for fifth in homers. They’re ninth among 30 clubs in OPS. Even with Ronald Acuna doing little – one homer, 20 strikeouts – their offense hasn’t gone missing. He won’t do little forever.
Third thing. The National League East figured to be improved, though we say that every year. Again, the rest of the alleged contenders have underperformed. The Nationals, Phillies and Mets are an aggregate 8-15. Yes, the Marlins’ woes have skewed divisional standings. They’ve played only four games (winning three). The Phils, who opposed Miami at the onset of its outbreak, have likewise played four (losing three). The Nats, who were supposed to face the Fish last week, have worked only eight (losing half).
That’s another reason to like where the Braves are. You can’t take wins off the board. (Well, you can, but that would involve canceling the season, and let’s not have that conversation today.) The Braves have gotten lucky. They’ve made it through a fortnight without interruption. They don’t have a heapin’ helpin’ of doubleheaders awaiting.
The handy counter at the bottom of this screen informs me I’ve typed 320 words, only two having been “Mike” and “Soroka.” This isn’t to downplay his loss. He’s the most important player in the organization. He’s the No. 1 starter the Braves haven’t had since they had nothing but No. 1 starters. He’ll be great, health willing, for a long time. He’s also unavailable until the 2021 season, assuming there is a 2021 season.
The Braves’ chances of winning the 2020 World Series, assuming there is a 2020 World Series, likely ended when Soroka felt a kick – that’s what everyone says after an Achilles tendon snaps – in the back of his leg. Before that moment, it was possible to envision a three-man rotation of Soroka, Max Fried and maybe Cole Hamels wreaking October havoc. You don’t need five starting pitchers in the playoffs. You can get by with three really good ones. It’s even been done with two. (See “Arizona Diamondbacks, 2001.”)
Most years, you need five starting pitchers to get you to October. The Braves aren’t far from October as is. We’re nearly a week into August. The regular season is scheduled to end Sept. 29. With Soroka gone, Hamels (still) mending and Mike Foltynewicz having been DFA’ed to the JV team – which, seeing as how it’s not playing anybody else, technically isn’t a team – the Braves are down to Fried, Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright and the ghosts of Spahn and Sain.
That’s not the optimum situation. (Behold the new leader for understatement of the millennium.) But it’s not as dire in a 60-game season as it would be over 162. The Braves still – maybe, possibly – have enough pitching to see out the next seven weeks. They don’t have go buy this year’s Dallas Keuchel. They don’t have to trade for a Kevin Gausman at the delayed deadline, though the Giants could doubtless be persuaded to part with the Kevin Gausman, whose ERA is 5.93.
On a conference call Tuesday, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the usual noises about seeking any/all ways to improve his club and claiming the Braves’ only goal is to win the World Series. This year, of all years, isn’t the time to go all-in. MLB could call a halt at any time. Even if the sport makes it to October, a 16-team playoff figures to be the crapshoot of all crapshoots. In a pandemic, the best any GM can do is scrounge for inexpensive tweaks but otherwise play the season, such as it is, as it lies.
And there’s still the matter of Hamels. To date, he has been the latter-day Mike Hampton if not Sasquatch – much-discussed but never seen. the 36-year-old hasn’t yet thrown to a batter in practice, let alone a real game. That said, he remains the guy most apt to take up the Soroka slack. Hamels is endeavoring to get healthy by September, and he has a history of October success.
He has done nothing for the Braves so far, and he mightn’t do anything beyond 2020. But with Soroka lost for the duration of a season that wasn’t long to begin with, Hamels has become the organization’s new most important player.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News