In spring training, Michael Soroka and Kolby Allard – the Braves picked both in Round 1 of the 2015 draft – auditioned to be the No. 5 starter. The job fell to Elder, who soon became the No. 3 starter. He had an All-Star first half; his second half ERA was 5.11. Together, Soroka and Allard started eight big-league games.
The 2022 Braves used 12 starting pitchers, five of whom took 20-plus turns. The 2023 club used 16 starters, with only three topping 15 starts. Things were OK for a while. At the All-Star break, the starters’ ERA was 3.77. Then they weren’t. The starters’ post-break ERA: 5.10.
A September series in Philly saw the Braves win three of four and clinch a sixth consecutive division title – more highlights in a highlight-reel season. Lost in the celebration was a foreboding stat.: The aggregate score of those four games was Braves 26, Phillies 22.
Aggregate score of the NLDS: Phillies 20, Braves 8. Come October, Philly found ways to get the bashing Braves out. Over four games, their biggest lead was one run. Their biggest inning saw them score two runs.
The intent today isn’t to relitigate the postseason failure. The intent is to note that the Braves’ rotation was compromised before October. This team led the majors in runs scored by a mile. It tied for 15th in runs against.
It’s all but certain they’ll add a starter over the offseason. They might add more than one. The lineup has a hole only because the Braves chose not to re-up Eddie Rosario, which makes room for Vaughn Grissom. The rotation includes Fried, who could leave after next season; Spencer Strider, who led the majors in wins and strikeouts but who isn’t a Cy Young finalist; Morton, who turns 40 on Sunday, and maybe Elder.
Ian Anderson should return after Tommy John surgery, the procedure that sometimes turns good pitchers into better pitchers. AJ Smith-Shawver is the Braves’ No. 1 prospect; he’s also 20. Soroka could be non-tendered. There’s a need for something more than an Alex Anthopoulos one-year buy.
Thing is, those one-year buys – Anibal Sanchez, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels, Drew Smyly – were made for a reason. (Morton was a one-year buy who keeps signing extensions.) Another truism: Long-term deals for big-name pitchers become sunk costs.
The Mets entered last season with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer earning $43.3 million each; by August, each was elsewhere. The Rangers signed Jacob deGrom for $185M over five seasons. He worked six games. He’s now a 35-year-old pitcher coming off a second Tommy John surgery. He’s owed $155M.
MLB Trade Rumors lists Blake Snell, Aaron Nola and Jordan Montgomery as the top starting pitchers available as free agents. Its projects they’ll command contracts ranging from $150M to $200M. For the Braves, that’s a no-fly zone. MLBTR guesses that Sonny Gray, who’s 34, might sign for $90M over four years, which might be both do-able and prudent. This team needs insurance against Fried leaving.
Might the Braves be tempted to trade one of their young position players under a manageable contract for a top-of-the-rotation-type? Tempted, maybe. Do I see it happening? No. That notion would be dashed by the words “young” and “manageable.”
One final truism: Don’t trade bats for arms. Proven hitters tend to keep hitting. Even the best pitcher in the world – deGrom, say – is one twinge from a year’s rehab. As much as the Braves need pitching, there are limits to how much they’ll pay. That’s not a criticism. That’s just reality.
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