Injuries and opt-outs decimated the Atlanta Braves’ rotation in 2020, but the addition of a pair of veterans, along with the return to health of Mike Soroka, has this unit again looking like a position of strength. The Braves began the 2020 season with hopes of having a rotation that featured Soroka and Max Fried at the top, veteran addition Cole Hamels in the middle, and Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and others to round things out. Veteran Felix Hernandez also pitched well during Spring Training and appeared to be in line to claim a rotation spot with Hamels expected to begin the season on the injured list.
Things went south from there. Hamels wasn’t ready to throw when Spring Training opened and he still wasn’t ready when camp resumed following the shutdown for the pandemic. He would end up logging a total of 3 1/3 innings pitched before returning to the injured list. Hernandez also wouldn’t return from the shutdown, opting out of the season entirely on July 4.
Mike Soroka was lost for the season when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in just his third start, having completed just 13 2/3 innings pitched for the season. If that wasn’t bad enough, Foltynewicz made his only start of the season on July 27, allowed six runs in just 3 1/3 innings, and was designated for assignment following the game. Foltynewicz made it through waivers unclaimed and headed to the alternate site, but would not sniff the major league roster again. He’s now with the Rangers. Newcomb made four starts, none lasting longer than 4 2/3 innings. His final start would come on August 10 when he allowed eight runs in just 1 1/3 innings against the Phillies. He too would be banished to the alternate site following that outing.
This series of unfortunate events led to the Braves giving five starts each to Josh Tomlin, Touki Toussaint, Robbie Erlin and Huascar Ynoa. Tommy Milone was picked up at the trade deadline, but was sent to the injured list after posting a 14.90 ERA/7.33 FIP in just three starts. The season was a roller coaster for Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson as both were pressed into service, but also spent time working at the alternate site.
When you spell all of that out, it is a testament to just how good Atlanta’s offense and bullpen were in helping them navigate the season and emerge with another division title, although shortening the season to 60 games certainly helped.
Depth is going to be extremely important to every pitching staff in 2021. Teams needed to only cover around 515 innings in 2020, but with the season expected to return to a full 162 games, that number will jump up to a more normal 1,400. Fried led all Braves pitchers in 2020 with 56 innings pitched during the regular season. There is some concern about pitcher workloads heading into the 2021 season and some teams are floating the idea of using six-man rotations or piggy backing starters to help. Don’t be surprised if the Braves utilize some of these concepts as well in order to try and keep their top guys fresh for what they are hoping will be another postseason run, though they probably won’t push the envelope too much despite having the arms to do it.
If there was a silver lining for the Braves’ 2020 rotation it was Max Fried. By some measures, Fried took another step forward and led the Braves staff in Soroka’s absence, posting a 2.25 ERA to go along with a 3.10 FIP. Ian Anderson didn’t make his major league debut until the end of August but quickly established himself, posting a 1.95 ERA and a 2.54 FIP in 32 1/3 innings. Both pitched well in the postseason and will be counted on heavily during the upcoming season.
Adding to the rotation was one of the team’s stated goals for the offseason and Alex Anthopoulos acted quickly, signing veterans Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals in November. Both are not without risks. Smyly appeared in just seven games with the Giants in 2020, but was impressive, showing an uptick in velocity that led to a career-high 37.8 strikeout percentage. He posted 1.0 fWAR in just 26 innings. Morton battled a shoulder issue last season while with the Rays but got better as the season went along. He brings a solid veteran presence and Atlanta is hoping that a more normal spring training will have him ready for the rigors of the regular season. Even with the “down” season, he’s just a year removed from an elite 6.1 fWAR campaign in 2019, and is generally expected to give the Braves average-to-plus production.
By all accounts, Mike Soroka’s rehab has gone well. Anthopoulos stated multiple times that Soroka’s arm is fine and he has progressed to throwing bullpen sessions. The team has no incentive to rush him though and there is a chance that he will begin the season on the injured list. With no DH in the National League (at least for now) in 2021, Soroka will have to bat and potentially run the bases. That possibility could effectively push back his return slightly as the team waits to make sure that he is 100 percent healthy.
Next man up
If Soroka isn’t ready to start the season, then Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson will likely be the choice. Injuries forced Wright into the rotation to start the season in 2020, but he struggled to pitch deep into games, lasting past the fourth inning in just one of his first four starts. He was demoted to the alternate site, but returned in September and pitched better down the stretch allowing five runs over his final 19 innings (three starts). Wright made two starts for the Braves during the postseason. He struck out seven and held the Marlins to just three hits over six shutout innings in the NLDS. His last outing was a disaster as he lasted just two thirds of an inning while allowing seven runs to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Development is a work in progress for Wright, as he struggled with finding an effective pitch mix early but seemed to have taken advantage of a kitchen sink approach to confuse opposing hitters during his last few starts.
Wilson was sent to minor league camp early in 2020 and appeared in just six games for the Braves in 2020 which given their rotation issues, wasn’t the greatest endorsement. However, he came up big in the postseason, allowing one hit and one run over six innings in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. Wilson used a sinker to great effect in his last few outings — something to watch is whether that was a fluke or something he can leverage going forward.
Atlanta needs one of Wright or Wilson to take a step forward in 2021 and log some quality innings. Both have shown glimpses and still have a lot of potential. So far it has just been a situation where they haven’t been able to put it all together.
The Braves have some other holdovers and a couple of top prospects that could also figure into the mix in 2021. Atlanta has so far resisted converting Touki Toussaint to a reliever on a full-time basis. He made five starts in 2020 but struggled, posting an ERA just under 9.00 and a FIP of over 7.00. Toussaint did strike out batters at an 11 per nine innings clip, but his walks were just under six per nine. We will have to wait and see what Toussaint’s role is during Spring Training, but it feels like there is a possibility that he makes the move to the bullpen at some point in 2021.
Huascar Ynoa could also figure into the picture somewhere, but like Toussaint, could end up as a reliever. There are others such as Patrick Weigel and Jasseel De La Cruz that have started games in the minors and could step in if needed.
On the prospect front, Tucker Davidson and Kyle Muller are the guys to watch for 2021. Davidson pitched well before the shutdown last offseason, but was a little behind the other pitchers when camp resumed. He made his major league debut during the final series of the regular season. Right now it looks like he will begin the season at Gwinnett, but could force his way into the picture. Kyle Muller is the other big name pitching prospect for the Braves. It might be a little optimistic to expect him to make an impact in 2021 but Muller has the stuff to do so. If he can harness his command, then he could be an option during the later part of the season. Both may also work in relief or swing roles.