After facing a string of contending teams throughout May, the Atlanta Braves will close out the month with a three-game series against the struggling Oakland Athletics. The Braves are 14-12 in the month after salvaging a series split with an 11-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday night, with a chance to add quite a few to their tally during their time in Oakland. The Braves come into the series with a 32-21 record and a 4.5-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins) in the NL East standings.
While most of the headlines around the Athletics have focused on their potential move to Las Vegas, the story on the field has been one of historical levels of futility. The Athletics have lost a season-high 11 straight games and are 10-45 on the season. Their pitching staff entered play Sunday dead last in the majors in ERA (6.81), FIP (5.88) and fWAR (-3.6, yes, that is a negative number), and that was before they surrendered seven home runs to the Houston Astros in a 10-1 loss. (It’s -4.3 after the loss, which is like the opposite of a video game number.)
Of course, for all their futility, the misery in Oakland has played a direct role in the Braves’ current success, thanks to two major trades over the last two offseasons. While Matt Olson and Sean Murphy are key pieces of Atlanta’s core going forward, Oakland has gotten very little from those trades as yet.
In the Olson trade, only Shea Langeliers has made much of an impact and is currently the team’s starting catcher. Unfortunately, that impact hasn’t been too exciting, as Langeliers has struggled substantially on both sides of the ball through his first 86 major league games. Hitting is one thing and that may come around, but he’s been a horrendous framer so far as well — though he does have a challenge in trying to frame offerings from some truly horrible pitchers. Cristian Pache was designated for assignment at the end of the spring and was traded to the Phillies. Ryan Cusick and Joey Estes have gotten good results so far at Double-A after both struggled in 2022, but both have horrid peripherals.
The three-team trade that landed Murphy in Atlanta hasn’t brought much to the Athletics either. Esteury Ruiz, who arrived in the deal from Milwaukee, leads the majors with 27 stolen bases, but is currently in a 1-for-17 skid. He’s not playing anywhere near as poorly as his teammates (0.9 fWAR so far), but his value seems to be driven by getting hit by pitches and stealing bases, as he’s struggled to actually hit the ball with the bat or provide steady defense. Kyle Muller was the Athletics’ Opening Day starter, but was recently optioned back to Triple-A after posting an 8.04 ERA and a 6.03 FIP in 10 starts. Manny Piña hasn’t played all season due to reoccurring issues with his injured wrist and Freddy Tarnok only recently began throwing again after suffering a forearm injury during the spring.
Perhaps surprisingly, Oakland’s offense is not horrendous, as their 88 wRC+ is better than that of five other teams so far this season. Both Brent Rooker and Ryan Noda have hit incredibly well in the early going, and the Athletics are surprisingly 19th in team homers hit. The problem has been more that there’s not too much help from the other bats, and the team’s defense is horrible, which compounds the issues with their pitching staff. Granted, they’re not really trying to win, but 44 percent of the team’s PAs so far have gone to sub-replacement players, which isn’t fun for anyone except maybe their opponents.
Monday, May 29, 8:07 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Michael Soroka (Triple A: 8 GS, 35.1 IP, 23.0 K%, 7.2 BB%, 4.33 ERA, 3.52 FIP)
Michael Soroka will make his much anticipated return to the majors in Monday’s series opener in Oakland. Soroka’s last major league start came in August 2020, when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon. The Braves brought Soroka along slowly at Gwinnett and he is coming off of his best start of the season, where he allowed two hits and one run over six innings while throwing 96 pitches.
Paul Blackburn (Triple A: 5 GS, 16.1 IP, 13.0 K%, 6.5 BB%, 7.16 ERA, 6.10 FIP)
Soroka won’t be the only pitcher making his season debut in Monday’s opener. Paul Blackburn was an All-Star in 2022, but began the season on the Injured List due to a cracked fingernail. As he was working his way back, he developed a blister which sidelined him again. He also had a stint on the paternity list, which pushed back his debut even further. Oakland is hoping that his return can provide some consistency to a rotation that has been battered over the first two months of the season.
Tuesday, May 30, 9:40 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Bryce Elder (10 GS, 58.1 IP, 21.5 K%, 6.8 BB%, 2.01 ERA, 3.46 FIP)
Bryce Elder will be operating with an extra day of rest when he takes the mound Tuesday. Elder has been one of the biggest surprises of the Braves’ season and he has been a key to their success given the injuries to the starting rotation the team is currently weathering. Elder allowed seven hits and a walk, but just one run over six innings, in his last start against the Dodgers. He has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his 10 starts this season.
JP Sears (10 GS, 53.2 IP, 23.4 K%, 4.5 BB%, 4.70 ERA, 5.15 FIP)
Like most of Oakland’s starting pitchers, JP Sears’ season got off to a rough start, but he has turned the page in May. Sears has a 3.25 ERA through five starts this month, albeit with a 4.59 FIP and 4.60 xFIP. Sears allowed three hits and one run over five innings in his last start against the Mariners, but was inexplicably pulled after just 59 pitches in a game that the Athletics would go on to lose. He has allowed a total of five runs over his last three starts.
Wednesday, May 31, 3:37 p.m. ET (Bally Sports South)
Jared Shuster (5 GS, 25.1 IP, 18.5 K%, 13.9 BB%, 5.33 ERA, 4.63 FIP)
Jared Shuster will make his sixth start of the season in Wednesday’s series finale. Shuster opened the season in the rotation, but struggled and found himself back at Triple-A. He returned to the majors in mid-May and has given the Braves a chance in each of his three starts. Shuster allowed three hits, three walks and three runs in 5 2/3 innings last time out against the Phillies. Improved control has played a part in Shuster’s success since returning. He issued nine walks and struck out five combined over his first two starts (8 2/3 innings). In his next three starts, he has issued six walks and has 15 strikeouts (16 2/3 innings).
Oakland hasn’t announced their starter for Wednesday’s game but the odds-on favorite is right-hander James Kaprielian, who last pitched on May 26 against Houston. It is also worth mentioning that Oakland manager Mark Kotsay has begun using an opener in recent days, and there is a chance that he goes that route at any point during this series.