The Rome Braves held a Hot Stove gathering on Saturday, giving fans of the team the opportunity to celebrate the South Atlantic League champions and visit with several top prospects bound for High-A in 2017. Among those in attendance was left-hander Max Fried, who returned to the mound after two years on the comeback trail. Though Tommy John surgery may have slowed his progression through the minors, he left little doubt that he was back and better than ever in 2016. I caught up with Fried to discuss the road to recovery, getting back on the mound, being part of a talented rotation and his championship aspirations. You can read more about Max Fried and the rest of the Rome rotation in my Braves’ Top 30 Prospects.
Grant McAuley: This rotation was a big part of what was a very special run for this Rome club. After a couple of years in the rehab process to get yourself back out on the mound every fifth day, how gratifying was it to be a part of this kind of team?
Max Fried: “It was actually a lot of fun. I had a great time. The two years that I sat out with my elbow injury was definitely frustrating. I wanted to be on the field competing, especially having teammates to go day-in, day-out, blood sweat and tears and all of that. For me to kind of have my struggles at the beginning and still have these guys have the trust in me and the confidence in me to really help build me up to get through that, I felt like I hit my stride at the midway point and I felt like the team, just altogether, really meshed. Seemed like everything started to click and next thing you know, we were in first place and didn’t want to let it go. I am really glad I got to experience that with this team, because they are a great group of guys.”
GM: You have a group here with a lot of first rounders, yourself included, some drafted by Atlanta and others who came over in trades. How much friendly competition was there between you guys every fifth day to push yourselves to reach the next level?
MF: “Every day. Between Patrick [Weigel], Kolby [Allard], Mike [Soroka] and Touki [Toussaint], every day we were having some kind of competition, whether it was playing catch or in bullpens, watching each other day-in, day-out on their starts. Someone goes six shut-out innings, you want to go seven shut-out innings. You want to one-up them, not to show off, but to push it and help the team do better. I think that’s a very important part of your season, because if you don’t have any kind of motivation or someone to push you, you kind of get complacent and laid back. I’m very thankful these guys were all there pushing me and I was pushing them. Obviously, it came out pretty good.”
GM: You mentioned earlier, it was a frustrating couple of years for you and something you didn’t really plan for, that detour that comes with arm surgery. Was it something you were able to come out on the other side stronger and perhaps better for the struggle?
MF: “I thought going through a regular season was a mental grind. [There’s] travel, day-in and day-out. You’ve got to get ready and play, but the grind of rehab… sitting there and having limited activity you’re allowed to do every day as far as physical activity, just thinking to yourself and looking at all your friends go play while you’re just sitting in your spring training facility with nothing to do. Being able to get through that and focus on more of the mental aspect of pitching rather than the physical was extremely beneficial. At the same time, I probably would rather not go through that again.”
GM: From a physical standpoint, when would you say felt comfortable again and back to that pre-surgery form? When you got through something like that, I’m sure it has to be in the back of your mind for at least a little while. When did you feel you’d turned the corner?
MF: Definitely had some struggles at the beginning, but felt like at the All-Star break I started to hit a groove and a rhythm, where I felt confident and comfortable, back to where I did pre-surgery. Once I got to that point, I just kind of ran with it. I didn’t really think about it too much. I just trusted myself and let it all play out.
GM: “As you build off that going into 2017, a lot of these guys will be your teammates again. What is this group looking to accomplish this year? On a personal level, I would imagine you’ll have the chance to get a few more innings in and that has to feel pretty good.”
MF: “Absolutely. I’m extremely excited. Obviously, you can’t really finish better than winning a championship. We’re trying to build off that and continue that success this season and eventually try to win another championship. The ultimate goal is to do that at each level until you get to the big leagues, so you can do that at SunTrust Park.”
My prospect profile for Max Fried (No. 7 in my Top 30 Braves Prospects):
Max Fried | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: Trade with Padres, 2014 | ETA: 2018
The Braves had to take it slow with Max Fried, but their patience was rewarded last season. Fried was acquired from San Diego as part of the Justin Upton trade and was in the midst of his recovery from Tommy John surgery at that time. This was yet another calculated risk for Atlanta, banking on the former top 10 pick to bounce back and cash in on his potential. However, it’s worth noting that a pitching prospect like Fried may not have even been available were it not for that injury. Fried did not throw a pitch in 2015, but was back in a big way last year and is likely to jump back into those Top 100 prospect lists now that he’s healthy for the first time in two years. Fried was 8-7 with a 3.93 ERA and 47BB/112K in 103 IP for Rome last season. He also piled up a ridiculous 10 pickoffs thanks to one of the most deceptive moves in the minors.
While his overall numbers don’t look overwhelming at first glance, he was yet another Atlanta farmhand who showed more in how he finished the season than how it began. Fried was 6-3 with a 2.80 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in his last 11 regular season starts, punching out 10 men in each of his final two outings. He followed that up with a dominant performance in the playoffs, in which he struck out a career-high 11 men over 7.2 IP to send Rome to the South Atlantic League championship series and then topped that with a 13-strikeout performance to clinch the Sally League title. Fried’s velocity was back to its pre-surgery level last season, sitting in the low-mid-90s and jumping up 97 mph at times. A midseason blister issue cost him about a month, but may well have opened the door for his playoff heroics. He throws two curveballs, a sharp breaker that serves as a put-away pitch and a slower version that he can rely on to set hitters up with. Fried’s changeup is also a quality pitch and should improve as he continues to refine his repertoire. Though he could begin next year with High-A Florida, Fried may see an early promotion that allows him to spend the majority of the season with Double-A Mississippi. There are some indications that he may work his way into Atlanta’s plans before 2017 is over.