The Braves’ Mike Soroka: Still a big arm, but now a big if

Rehabbing from a torn right Achilles tendon, Atlanta Braves righthander Mike Soroka throws from the practice mounds getting in a morning workout at spring training Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Rehabbing from a torn right Achilles tendon, Atlanta Braves righthander Mike Soroka throws from the practice mounds getting in a morning workout at spring training Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Braves have worked 37 postseason games over the past four autumns. Mike Soroka, their best pitching prospect of this century, started one. He was masterful in Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS, holding the Cardinals to one run on two hits on a day the venerable Adam Wainwright was just as good. The Braves scored three in the ninth to win.

Since 2019, Soroka has logged 13 ⅔ big-league innings. He has torn the same Achilles tendon twice. Since 2019, the Braves have won six of seven playoff series and, using nine different starting pitchers, gone 19-9 in postseason games. Yours truly has long regarded Soroka as the key player on the Braves’ loaded roster. I’m not sure that still applies.

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Soroka is 24, which means – glass half-full – he could have many splendid years in him. In his one full major-league season, he made the All-Star team, finished sixth in Cy Young voting and second to the Mets’ Pete Alonso as the National League’s top rookie. That was in 2019. Three starts into the delayed-by-COVID 2020 season, Soroka tore his Achilles.

He has thrown two innings since, those coming in the Braves’ final exhibition last year. The Braves believed he was on course to return in midseason. Then he developed shoulder discomfort. A similar shoulder issue induced the Braves to shelve him after five starts in 2018, the year of his big-league arrival.

In May 2021, the Braves announced Soroka would have exploratory surgery to assess his Achilles. It was found that his body had rebelled against the interior sutures used in his first surgery. A change of sutures led the Braves, then struggling to reach .500, to hope he’d be available by August. In June, while walking toward the clubhouse to begin a regular rehab session, he felt another pop in the back of his right leg.

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Said Soroka, speaking in August: “I was kind of just hobbling along, putting some pressure into the ground and getting the heel up and about 10 feet from the entryway door … it went ‘bang.’ I don’t think any of us really believed it.”

In less than a year, Soroka underwent three surgeries on his twice-torn right Achilles. He attended the World Series as an observer. At the time, he moved with a pronounced limp.

With baseball in lockout mode, the Braves aren’t sure when they’ll play again. Neither are they sure what to expect from Soroka. A re-tearing of the Achilles is unusual. No, it’s not an arm injury, but his right leg is his landing leg. For a pitcher, that’s a huge deal.

When healthy, Soroka has been everything a team would want in a No. 1 starter. He was summoned to the majors in May 2018 because the Braves caught a hot start. In his first year as Braves general manager, Alex Anthopoulos wanted to see if the addition of the club’s top pitching prospect could push the team even higher. He made three starts before developing a twinge in his shoulder. After two more starts in June, he was done for the season.

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That was the Braves being careful. They knew he was a talent of the highest order. They wanted to protect his right arm. Turned out his right arm wouldn’t be the limb of greatest concern.

Soroka’s season-long presence in 2019 helped those Braves win 97 games. If they had it to do again, they wouldn’t have held him until Game 3 of the NLDS against the Cardinals. He was assigned the first game in St. Louis because his road splits were tremendous. Dallas Keuchel started Games 1 and 4, both of which the Braves lost. Mike Foltynewicz started Game 2, in which he was dominant, and Game 5, from which he was gone in the first inning.

It’s 2022. The Braves can’t be certain about anything involving Soroka. Max Fried and Ian Anderson are rotation staples. Charlie Morton, coming off a leg broken in Game 1 of the World Series, should be, too. Huascar Ynoa, who’s 23, started 17 games last season. It’s close to a put-up-or-shut-up season for Kyle Wright, who’s 26. Tucker Davidson, who started Game 5 of the World Series, is a possibility.

Not long ago, Soroka would have topped any Braves’ rotation. In an organization that rebuilt around pitching, he was the best of the young arms. He hasn’t proved he can stay healthy, which renders everything else a moot point. The Braves just proved they could win it all without him. With him, they might win it all a few times more.