Max Fried to return, but can Braves patch rotation for October?

Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) delivers a pitch at Truist Park on Saturday, September 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Braves starting pitcher Max Fried (54) delivers a pitch at Truist Park on Saturday, September 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Probably every Braves backer that heard left-hander Max Fried was headed to the injured list figured that if he’s out for the season, then the Braves are finished. That wouldn’t be an overreaction, which tells you something about the state of rest of the rotation.

“We’re extremely confident this will be short-lived,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said, alleviating those fears.

If that optimism is warranted, then Fried will miss no more than two starts because of lower back tightness. That’s not optimal given that the Braves are 8-1 when he starts and 16-16 when he doesn’t. But the Braves are a virtual lock to make the playoffs, so they can afford to absorb a few losses over the final one-third of the 60-game season. Fried should have time to shake off any rust before October.

The bigger issue for the Braves remains the rest of the rotation. They’ve ruled the National League East with one consistent starter. Braves hitters get on base often and bash a lot of homers. Their deep roster of relievers effectively fills the innings the starters can’t.

Could the Braves really use that formula to make a playoffs run? Obviously, it’s better if they don’t have to find out. The later it gets, the more it looks like they won’t have a choice. It’s plausible they could use the same blueprint in October, considering the randomness of the postseason, the schedule of games and the quality of their hitters and relievers.

The wild-card round this year features every team playing a best-of-three series. The schedule would allow Braves manager Brian Snitker to deploy his best relievers as needed. Snitker cited the risk of overwork as the reason he didn’t do that in Washington last weekend. That shouldn’t be a factor in October.

In the postseason, Snitker can pick from no fewer than four effective relievers to pitch the late innings. It will be five if Will Smith figures things out by then. There are good options for the middle innings. There are bullpen guys who can go long after short outings by starters.

Braves pitchers are backed by the Big Three bats of Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna. It will be four if Ozzie Albies finds his form once he returns from wrist injury. There’s plenty of lineup length, which is a reason why the Braves have worn out opposing relief pitchers.

The Braves may be better positioned than any other team to patch together bullpen games this October. It’s not ideal — last year’s playoffs continued the recent trend of starters working longer. That may may not be an option for the Braves. When Mike Soroka went to the injured list, Fried became the only pitcher the Braves could expect to provide quality starts consistently.

Cole Hamels still may be the best hope of changing that. He hasn’t pitched in an MLB game (exhibition or otherwise) in nearly a year because of shoulder and arm issues. The Braves nonetheless have Hamels, 36, on an accelerated schedule to return.

Hamels pitched a bullpen session Sunday. He’s scheduled to throw again Thursday in Gwinnett. If that goes well, he could join the Braves next week. Hamels has a very good postseason track record over his career. He won’t have much time to get ready for this one.

“It’s a matter of he knows himself and his body,” Anthopoulos said of the Hamels' truncated timetable. "Seeing how he threw Sunday, he looked good. He looked sharp. His stuff was good. (Pitching coach) Rick Kranitz thought he looked outstanding.

“This whole year hasn’t been a normal year in terms of ramp up and prep. It’s one of those things. ... As long as Cole is healthy and continues to build up (innings), we’ll do what’s best for the team and for him as well.”

Those interests are aligned. Hamels has missed time with injuries two years in a row. Another effective October would expand his market in free agency. The Braves are desperate for a second reliable starter. Hamels becoming that guy would increase their chances in October.

The Braves and Hamels face a choice. He can build up his pitch count in Gwinnett before returning to the big leagues or do that with short outings in MLB games. The second scenario would put pressure on their bullpen. I still like that option better considering the state of the rotation and the cushion the Braves have built: FanGraphs put their playoff odds at 98.8 percent entering Tuesday’s games.

If Hamels finally makes his Braves debut, he immediately would join Fried at the top of the staff. Hamels was effective for the Cubs in 2019 when healthy. The chances of him being at least average for the Braves in October seem at least equal to the odds of one another starter emerging to be a solid No. 2 behind Fried.

It could be top pitching prospect Ian Anderson. His third career start Monday wasn’t good, but his talent is obvious. It could be one of three veterans: Tommy Milone, Tommy Erlin and Josh Tomlin. They have similar profiles in that they throw with modest velocity but don’t walk many batters (none of the young pitchers can say the latter).

Then there’s Mike Foltynewicz, who ended up at Gwinnett after one start for the Braves. The hope was that he would gain weight and rebuild velocity for a return to the big leagues. But Anthopoulos didn’t seem enthusiastic about “Folty” coming back soon.

“He continues to work extremely hard, but it’s hard to put any kind of expectation on it at this point,” Anthopoulos said.

The Braves called up Kyle Wright for another chance Tuesday. He already had washed out along with fellow young arms Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint. As for late-blooming prospect Tucker Davidson, Anthopoulos said: “The best way to put it is, he’s been solid (at Gwinnett) but ... guys like Wright and Bryce are ahead of him right now.”

There is no quick fix for the Braves' rotation. That opportunity came and went at the trade deadline. Fried was the last pitcher standing from among the opening-day starters.

“That’s got to be a first,” Snitker said before the Braves played the Marlins on Tuesday. “Thank God we’ve got 19 (games) left instead of 119.”

The Braves also are thankful that Fried, their one good starter, will be back soon. With him, it’s at least conceivable they can cobble together enough pitching to finally advance in the postseason. Without him, they’d be all but finished.

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