Braves’ Michael Soroka is back in the bigs. This could be a huge deal

Michael Soroka went almost three years between MLB starts. He underwent three rounds of surgery, none involving his right arm. At 25, he has worked 229 career big-league innings. In 2019, his one full season, he finished second in rookie-of-the-year and sixth in Cy Young voting.

Lest we forget, Soroka was the centerpiece of the Braves’ rebuild around young pitching. He was a bigger deal than Max Fried or Mike Foltynewicz or Sean Newcomb or Ian Anderson or Kyle Wright.

In Soroka’s first major-league start since Aug. 5, 2020, he threw his four-seamer, sinker and slider harder than in 2019, when he was, going by WAR and ERA, among baseball’s 10 best pitchers. On Monday in Oakland, his fastball averaged 93.6 mph, as opposed to the 92.9 of 2019. The Soroka sharpness wasn’t as evident over six innings, in which he walked two, struck out three and yielded a three-run homer.

In the grand scheme, he was pretty good. (Let’s see how you do after three years of not knowing whether your body would allow you to continue in your chosen profession.)

Soroka might never be as good as he was in 2019, which was a long time ago. (Pre-pandemic – that’s how long.) Then again, he might.

Soroka was the second player the Braves of John Hart and John Coppolella drafted during their Great Reset. He was the 28th overall pick in 2015, 14 behind Kolby Allard. In the spring of 2018, Baseball America listed Soroka as its 27th-best prospect. Allard was 65th.

Alex Anthopoulos became the Braves’ general manager in November 2017. He inherited baseball’s top-ranked farm system. He also inherited a big-league team that lost, mostly on purpose, 278 games over three seasons. Not much was expected of the 2018 Braves, but they were 16-11 at April’s end, whereupon perceptions changed.

Soroka’s first major-league start came May 1. In September, on the day the Braves clinched the National League East, Anthopoulos was asked when he believed his team might just win something. His response: “When we brought up Soroka, we were starting to think we didn’t want to let this opportunity slip by.”

Soroka’s role in that run to the division title was brief. His first start came against the division-leading Mets in New York. He went six innings, yielding only a Yoenis Cespedes home run. The Braves won 3-2 and drew within a half-game of first place. Owing to shoulder twinges, Soroka made only four more starts. Caution trumped immediacy.

In 2019, Soroka was, going by WAR, the best player on a 97-win team. The Braves will regret forever the overthinking of their NLDS rotation. Because Soroka posted a 1.55 ERA in road games, he was saved for Game 3 in St. Louis. He matched Adam Wainwright in an epic duel. The Braves took the series lead, but Soroka was done for the best-of-five. They lost Games 4 and 5, started by Dallas Keuchel and Foltynewicz.

That performance of Oct. 6, 2019 – seven innings, one run, no walks, seven strikeouts – remains Soroka’s sole playoff start. He tore his Achilles in his third turn of the COVID-delayed 2020 season. In May 2021, he underwent exploratory surgery. It revealed the stitches used in the first procedure were causing irritation.

For a couple of minutes, the Braves believed Soroka could return before season’s end. He re-tore the Achilles while walking into the clubhouse for, of all things, a rehab session. He spent the World Series wearing sweats and walking with a slight limp.

In 2022, he was slowed by elbow soreness and hamstring tightness. He worked 25 minor-league innings to no great effect. He began this season in Gwinnett, where he was only OK. With Fried and Wright on the injured list, Soroka was summoned to start against MLB’s worst team. He made it through six innings. He’s scheduled to start Sunday in Phoenix.

Fried isn’t apt to return before July; Wright could be out for the duration. If Soroka claims a rotational spot, it will amount to found money – and not small change from the couch. Big found money.

Not to sound cruel, but the Braves stopped counting on him – which isn’t to say they forgot him. They know full well what he can do. For all he has been through, he won’t turn 26 until August. Despite occasional ouches, his arm seems fine. Best of all, he never was just a thrower. He knew what he was doing. Presumably he still does.

There’s a chance Soroka’s return is but a footnote. There’s also the chance it’s the story of the season.