Coming into the 2021 season, one of the things that Braves fans were most looking forward to was the return of Mike Soroka as he recovered from an Achilles injury. Unfortunately, that is not how things worked out, and 2022 is now on the horizon with more questions than answers for the young right-hander.
The Braves used the 28th overall pick in the 2015 draft to select Mike Soroka out of the Canadian prep ranks. After a reasonable pro debut in Rookie ball that year, an adjustment as to where he pushed off from the rubber gave him the edge he needed to better compete against lefties; subsequently, he was named the Opening Day starter for the Rome Braves. That Rome Braves team was absolutely loaded with talent and Soroka was a key part of their push towards the Sally League Championship that year.
A very aggressive promotion to Double-A the following season yielded more of the same, as Soroka continued to leverage his off-the-charts pitching IQ, command, and ever-improving, sneaky good stuff to be one of the better pitchers in the Southern League that year. 2018 saw him make the jump to Triple-A, and it was pretty clear that he was going to be ready for the big leagues faster than anyone could have realistically imagined when he was drafted. He made his debut in the big leagues in 2018, but it was unfortunately was a short debut as a shoulder injury knocked him out after just a few starts.
For Soroka, expectations were a tricky thing, considering that there was a gradient of optimism regarding when he would actually take the mound again. The Braves essentially refused to rule out Soroka throwing at Spring Training, which seemed like an aggressive timetable, but later in the process they moved away from that since pitchers were going to have to run the bases and no one was looking to rush him back on the field. The goal was just to get him back on the mound, because if he could get to that point, he was very likely to be one of the key parts of the Braves rotation.
If you were looking at projections, ZiPS had Soroka making 21 starts and pitching around 120 innings in 2021 (cue foreboding music) with a 3.81 ERA, 3.99 FIP, and 3.2 fWAR. Both Steamer and ZiPS saw Soroka as capable of being well above average, assuming he could actually get on the field. Overall, that would have been a great addition to the Braves rotation, even if he was to miss time at the start of the season.
Unfortunately, nothing went to plan with Soroka’s return and he did not play at all in 2021. First, he suffered a setback when his body rejected the sutures from his surgery, which resulted in a clean-up procedure and a substantial delay in his rehab. Then, in far worse news, once he was out of the walking boot towards the end of June, Soroka re-ruptured his Achilles walking into the clubhouse, of all things, which ended his season and introduced a number of questions for his career going forward.
What went right? What went wrong?
For what went wrong, see above. A second Achilles tendon rupture is really bad news and is rare air when it comes to injuries and recoveries. While the prognosis after one Achilles tear is generally pretty good, a second Achilles tear has a much smaller sample size of known cases and the prognosis is much less optimistic. Soroka is still quite young and is well-known for his work ethic and attention to his body, so it is not all doom and gloom. Count this author among his believers, although its impossible to ignore the enormity of the task ahead of him as he rehabs.
On the plus side, despite not being able to play, Soroka did make his debut in the broadcast booth which was pretty sweet and he was great there. Plus, he was on hand when the Braves won the World Series which, in itself, was awesome.
Mike Soroka breaks down his bobblehead's mechanics pic.twitter.com/xEyI5REoZB— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) August 23, 2021
This is where we have to be really speculative, as it is incredibly likely that his current rehab experience is going to be very different from his rehab from the first Achilles injury. It is safe to say that Soroka will not be ready on Opening Day. The concern now is not only is there a repeat serious injury problem to manage, but there is the fundamental problem now that he has basically not pitched in two seasons and with the lockout, rehabbing with team personnel has become problematic. Soroka is really good at sticking to whatever routine and coaching he is assigned, so the generic medical rehab stuff should remain on track. However, getting him stretched back out and conditioned to start given the circumstances is no small task.
The concerns about Soroka’s long-term future were so pronounced that some openly wondered if the Braves would non-tender Mike at the deadline. Fortunately, that did not come to pass as the Braves did tender him a contract. When he plays next, though, is an open question. It remains feasible that he pitches again in 2022 sometime.. .but don’t expect to see him much or at all in the first half of the season. The rest comes down to him and his body.