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Braves Mailbag: Rotation questions, AJ Smith-Shawver and more

Mailbag time!!

AJ Smith-Shawver delivers a pitch for the Rome Braves Photo credit: Mills Fitzner

A huge thank you to everyone that submitted questions for this week’s mailbag. If I didn’t get to your question, we will do it again soon. Let’s get right to it!

How concerned should we be about A.J. Minter? How much do you think his struggles are related to the pitch clock?

Glad you asked because we had a really good article looking at Minter’s struggles earlier this week. It is a little concerning when you see him struggling along with guys like Raisel Iglesias and Joe Jimenez, who still hasn’t quite settled in. I think Minter will be fine long term, but the volatility of relievers in general gives a little pause. I think there is a chance that some of his struggles are tied to the pitch clock, but that is something that every pitcher is dealing with and he is simply going to have to adjust. There has been some bad luck mixed in there as well that should even out over time. The bottom line is that Minter’s 2022 was an elite relief season and there’s little reason to expect him to replicate it, but he’s not actually pitching any worse right now than he has over the arc of his career, and that guy has been a pretty good reliever (career 83 xFIP-, with quite a lot of homer suppression to give him a career 65 FIP-) with a lot of ups and some downs.

What are the statuses of Kolby Allard and Darius Vines who both went on the IL at the end of March? When the 60 days for Allard expire, will he resume pitching?

Brian Snitker said during the last homestand that Allard had begun throwing again, which is good news considering the current state of the team’s rotation. Allard suffered an oblique injury during Spring Training, and oblique injuries have notoriously slow recoveries, though the time a guy is shelved with one depends on the severity of the injury. As far as the 60-day Injured List goes, he will resume pitching when he is physically ready and no one has put a timetable on that yet.

Vines has been out all season as well and I haven’t heard any updates there.

While we are out two starting pitchers, why won’t they consider using a Dylan Lee as a starter and bring someone else to replace him in the bullpen?

Any chance that the Braves look to stretch Michael Tonkin or someone else like that out to start or do you think they’d prefer to keep him in the pen?

Dylan Lee turned in a solid performance last week when he threw a pretty lengthy stint to kick off a bullpen game. This question though reminds me of those we got about A.J. Minter after he pitched well as an opener during the postseason. The short answer as to why the team won’t consider these guys starters: because they are relievers. Lee hasn’t truly “started” a game since the 2017 season and has pitched in a relief role ever since. There is a possibility that he or Michael Tonkin could be stretched out, but that would mean removing two effective pitchers from the bullpen.

There is value in having a reliever that can throw multiple innings and I think those roles suit Lee and Tonkin better than trying to convert them to starters, especially because the Braves aren’t exactly getting lengthy starts every day anyway.

I know injuries have not been kind to our pitchers, but the poor performances of some of the healthy arms is pretty disturbing. At what point does Rick Kranitz start shouldering some blame for the bad results?

About once every two years someone suggests that Rick Kranitz has not been a good pitching coach. Despite being down two starters and the recent bullpen struggles, Atlanta entered play Wednesday fifth in pitcher fWAR. They are fifth in ERA (a minor miracle considering the team’s defense, though the club focuses so much on strikeouts and limiting walks that perhaps it’s not too miraculous at all) and second in FIP. Pitchers struggle sometimes because that is what pitchers do. It’s why teams will stockpile as many as they can in the hopes that a few meet or exceed their expectations. It’s not clear what “bad results” we are talking about, as the pitching staff is closer to “elite” than “bad” by basically any measure.

For just about every story about a pitcher struggling, there has been another that exceeded. expectations. Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek, Michael Tonkin, Anibal Sanchez are just a few that come to mind.

With the pitching staff being as taxed as they are and being down two starters in the rotation, who are some guys you think will get a shot in the bigs that wouldn’t have even been considered in preseason?

When is the absolute earliest date you could imagine AJ Smith-Shawver in Atlanta?

Now we are getting to the fun stuff. These questions came in before the news broke that AJ Smith-Shawver was being promoted to Gwinnett. He is the easy answer because I don’t think anyone really expected him to be an option at any point during the 2023 season. Smith-Shawver has made five starts between High-A and Double-A this season. If he has a good showing at Triple-A, there is no reason to think that the Braves won’t promote him to the majors. For proof, you need only look to last season, when Atlanta promoted Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom from Double-A to fill needs on the major league roster.

I think we will continue to see Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster get opportunities. Michael Soroka will enter that picture at some point too, but if they think Smith-Shawver is ready to contribute, then it wouldn’t be shocking to see him go to the head of the line. Kolby Allard should also enter that mix once he is back healthy as well.

As for the earliest date, well, don’t bet against the Braves getting guys up well before anyone figured they would. A “safer” bet seems to be after a handful of starts, provided he succeeds at Gwinnett... but as for “earliest,” well... pretty much any day now would fit the Braves’ M.O.

Why haven’t the Braves promoted Michael Soroka?

The short answer is that they don’t believe he is ready yet. The Braves have waited this long for Soroka alrady, and they don’t really need to push the issue now. He has made seven starts at Gwinnett and Atlanta has been careful to manage his workload. Perhaps the injuries to Max Fried and Kyle Wright expedite things, but I don’t see them promoting Soroka before they think he is ready to stick in the rotation.

How much cause for concern is there in the terrible early OAA numbers for some of our players?

Even in a small sample size, those numbers are ugly. Especially for a team like the Braves that prides itself on being a good defensive team. The infield numbers in particular are stark and I’m not sure I ever had a healthy Ronald Acuña Jr. among the worst-rated outfielders defensively.

It no doubt matters, but how much remains to be seen. None of these guys are in danger of losing their spot, and I’m curious if banning the shift has added some noise to what is still kind of a small sample (though it probably hasn’t). But, in the end, the Braves haven’t played great defensively. We have seen a lot of missed chances and just not the same attention to detail that we have seen in the past. I believe some of that will even out over time, but it is something to keep an eye on.

In particular, the ugly numbers so far have come from Acuña, Albies, Riley, and Grissom. Acuña’s issues seem to be a mix of messing up routine plays and not getting enough chances on 50-50 plays to make up ground lost on botching a few of those. Over time, it seems like he will have the opportunity to improve and not be anywhere near as horrendous as he has been so far. Albies is a puzzle as he’s been absolutely torched on plays up the middle by righty batters. He had a similar ghastly problem going to his right in 2019. The Braves could creep him ever closer to the second-base bag, but for now, the best explanation is probably just a cluster of bad fielding on a specific type of play that will even out to some extent with more chances. Riley is Riley at this point, and his limited range forces the team to play him closer to the line and eat the singles that get through the hole, which ding his defensive stats. Grissom isn’t around to further eat into the team’s defensive value at this point.

If you’re looking for a real gauge of concern, it’s probably fairly mild at this point. The defensive numbers will jump around all season, and while Acuña, Albies, and Riley probably won’t dig fully out of their holes, there’s little reason to think that the first two guys there are going to be horrible the whole way through. Maybe if it keeps up all season we can start to reevaluate, but even that probably won’t be enough of a sample.

If the starters settle down by the trading deadline, Michael Soroka and someone takes the 4th/5th spots for now. The news on Wright and Fried appear like they will be back and good for the end of the year playoff run. If the starters work out and the bullpen rights itself, what if anything do the Braves trade for?

The answer is always the bullpen. I will be shocked if the Braves don’t add a reliever or two to the mix at the deadline. Another starter is also a possibility even if the back half looks to be solidified just because of the uncertainty surrounding Fried and Wright going forward. If they get sick of Sam Hilliard, they might look for a more reliable outfielder that can man center field.

What do you think are the possibilities of trading Marcell Ozuna for a reliever or a back of rotation starter? Also would a trade like that make sense for the Braves to do given the injuries in the rotation and the instability at times of the pen?

Does Marcell Ozuna’s recent power production mean the Braves should keep him for the rest of the season? His contract is too big to be traded, right?

We have now reached the Marcell Ozuna portion of the mailbag. I think a trade of Ozuna for anything useful would make a lot of sense for the Braves, but I still think it is easier said than done. Despite his recent hot streak, I’m still of the mind that if a team was willing to take on just a part of his contract, he would already be gone. Him playing better no doubt helps the situation, but it is worth remembering that he is hitting .215/.278/.402 with an 85 wRC+ in 828 plate appearances since the start of the 2021 season. All of his value is tied to his bat and it's going to take more than a week or so-long hot streak to change the industry perception.

At this point if there was a team that was interested in Ozuna and thought they could fix him, they probably think it is inevitable that the Braves will just cut him loose at some point.

What do you think the LF and DH situation should be going forward. Who should be getting the bulk of the time in those slots ideally?

I think they have handled the situation pretty well in recent weeks with Eddie Rosario and Kevin Pillar essentially platooning in left. Those guys have had an interesting adjustment to the Braves’ approach over the course of the season and Rosario is clearly still a work in progress that the Braves don’t mind sinking PAs into. I expect them to work Travis d’Arnaud into the lineup more as he gets his feet back under him following his concussion. When Sean Murphy is not behind the plate, then he needs to be in the lineup as the DH as much as possible. If d’Arnaud returns to form, that doesn’t leave much more than spot duty for Ozuna.

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