Just last week, I wrote about how the Braves could creatively juggle their pitching staff to allow Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, and Max Fried spots on the Opening Day roster and innings throughout the season. That was before news broke that Soroka had a setback of sorts with his throwing shoulder.
Last Friday, Mark Bowman reported that Soroka would be shut down temporarily with shoulder discomfort after a side throwing session. On Sunday, Bowman reported that the injury was to a different set of muscles than the injury that ended his 2018 season. He further reported that Soroka hopes to throw again in a few days and could throw in a game later in Spring Training. While the latter gives some hope for Soroka’s 2019 season, what does it mean for the Braves Opening Day roster?
Soroka’s setback almost certainly means that he will not be on the Braves’ Opening Day 25-man roster. Even under Soroka’s hopeful timeline of being able to pitch before Spring Training is over, he will need a good bit of time to prepare for major league hitting again, both physically and mentally, after not pitching competitively since June 19. There is no need to rush Soroka along when there are other good options to fill the roster.
This makes the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation effectively a two-man competition between Touki Toussaint and Max Fried with the odd-man-out likely being utilized as the Braves’ long reliever.
Toussaint has been highly regarded in the Braves organization since he was acquired in what was a cash-dump deal for the Diamondbacks in 2015 after the Diamondbacks selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Toussaint has been highly regarded due to a mid-90’s fastball and devastating curveball (graded 60 and 65 pitches respectively, per Fangraphs).
Toussaint’s potential was realized in 2018. After dominating AA and AAA, Toussaint made his major league debut for the Braves on August 13. He posted a 4.03 ERA, 3.78 FIP, and 101 ERA+ over 29 innings for the Braves in 2018. The Braves had enough confidence in the 22-year-old to add him to the postseason roster, where he pitched three scoreless innings in relief in the NLDS. However, Toussaint will need to significantly reduce his walk rate of 17.1% (6.5 BB/9) to succeed in the majors going forward.
The Braves acquired Max Fried in the Justin Upton trade of 2014. At the time, Fried was consider to have great potential but high risk, as he was the Padres’ 7th overall pick in the 2012 draft that was recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time he was traded. After making his major league debut in 2017, Fried has posted a 3.32 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 127 ERA+ in 59.2 innings over the past two seasons for the Braves as both a starter and reliever.
Both Fried and Toussaint have already made their Spring Training debuts, and both looked poised to pick up where they left off in 2018. On Monday, Fried allowed one hit, one walk, and one unearned run while striking out one over two innings. On Saturday, Toussaint allowed two hits, two earned runs, and zero walks while striking out two over two innings. Both runs were scored on a Pete Alonso homerun on an outside fastball that Alonso impressively reached out and hammered opposite-field. To me, it seemed like more of a great swing than a bad pitch. (Toussaint impressively only allowed one homerun over 79.1 innings between AAA and the majors last year.)
Toussaint is likely the front runner for the fifth rotation spot, in my opinion, based on his durability. In his three seasons coming back from Tommy John surgery, Fried has not pitched 115 innings in any season, as he has also had blister issues that have limited him. Toussaint, on the other hand, has pitched more than 130 total innings in each of his last three seasons, topping out at 165.1 IP across the majors and minors last year.
While I predict that Toussaint will be the Braves’ fifth starter going into the season, that shouldn’t lessen Fried’s impact in 2019. Fried could certainly be next in line for a rotation spot if a starter misses time and serve as a valuable long-reliever.
This also does not mean that Fried and several other young pitchers won’t perform well enough during Spring Training to make it a difficult and interesting decision for the Braves.
Many people believed Luiz Gohara would snag a spot in the rotation going into the 2018 season, only to see those hopes dashed after Gohara battled injury and personal issues that made for a disappointing 2018 campaign. However, Gohara has reportedly lost a lot of weight during the offseason and could remind the Braves of his upside during Spring Training.
Kyle Wright is one of the Braves’ top prospects who made his major league debut during the 2018 season. Wright has performed well at every level, and it will only be a matter of time before he is contributing in the majors. However, Wright has just two professional years under his belt and has only pitched 34.2 innings above AA (including 6 innings in the majors).
Bryse Wilson impressed during his major league debut in 2018 when he picked up a win by pitching five scoreless innings. But like Wright, Wilson also has little experience above AA, totaling only 22 innings in AAA.
Although it is certainly possible that some or all of the young pitchers just listed could contribute during the Braves’ 2019 season at some point, each would benefit from some additional time in the minors to start the season. Barring one of them setting the Grapefruit League on fire this spring, Toussaint and Fried seem further along in their development and ready to start the season in the big leagues.
Another ripple effect of Soroka not making the Opening Day roster is that the spot will likely go to a veteran reliever like Sam Freeman, Jesse Biddle, or Shane Carle. Each experienced periods of success and struggle at different points during the 2018 season. It will be interesting to see whether one of these relievers can separate themselves from the pack during Spring Training and make 25-man roster. It is important to note that, although Sam Freeman signed a 1 year/$1.575 million contract with the Braves in January, that money is not guaranteed unless he makes the Opening Day roster. Alternatively, there is still time for the Braves to add to the bullpen competition if they don’t like what they see. For a more in-depth look at the Braves’ potential bullpen for 2019, read this by our own Kris Willis.
Although you can probably count on Soroka not being in competition for an Opening Day roster spot, there will still be compelling battles for the fifth starter and the bullpen throughout Spring Training. Additionally, it will be interesting how the Braves handle the pitching staff if/when Soroka gets healthy and other young pitchers appear ready for the majors. For now, though, keep an eye on how these roster battles play out over the next month.