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Braves Mailbag: Roster decisions, Michael Soroka, playoff rotation and more

This week’s mailbag is full of questions about the rotation and some of the bullpen decisions that the Braves are going to have to make.

Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

A huge thank you to everyone that sent in questions for this week’s Atlanta Braves mailbag. I couldn’t get to all of them, but we are going to try do these more frequently over the final month of the regular season. Let’s go to it!

Do you think Alex Anthopoulos looks for a cost controlled starter this offseason with Max Fried’s departure looking more and more likely after next year?

Let’s just dive right in here. Max Fried’s injury kind of pushed off the discussion of his contract status. He is arbitration-eligible for the final time this offseason and will be a free agent at the end of the 2024 season. Given recent history, it feels like if the Braves were going to keep Fried, that he would already have a contract extension in place. I don’t know that you can say that is a certainty, but looking at what happened with Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson, it is easy to draw that conclusion. Throw in the fact that Fried is a union representative and it doesn’t seem likely that the Braves can retain him unless they pony up a free agent-type deal, which they haven’t been too interested in doing, even for the faces of their franchise.

Alex Anthopoulos has shown that he enters every offseason looking for ways to make the team better. They technically didn’t need to add a catcher last winter, but ended up with the biggest name on the trade market in Sean Murphy. I think the rotation is always a focus and he hinted at the Trade Deadline that they were looking for a starter that could help multiple years. I’m sure Fried’s status plays into that at least partially.

I do wonder if the injury plays a part in any of this. If he finishes the season healthy and effective, then probably not. But that is something that we will just have to wait and see for how it plays out. It is possible that Fried, post-injury, has an outlook tempered enough to put his expected contract somewhere the Braves are comfortable with, but there’s no real way to know that right now.

Looking to the future, which starting pitcher has the best chance of returning to their former glory, Ian Anderson, Michael Soroka or Huascar Ynoa?

This is a great question as all three have pretty big question marks. I wasn’t a big believer in Huascar Ynoa just because of his lack of a third pitch. I think he could be really effective as a power arm out of the bullpen, so I am interested to see what role they use him in once he does return.

Ian Anderson is a guy that had a lot of success in 2020 and then through the first part of 2021. He’s pitched well in the postseason as well, but the underlying numbers with him were always a concern. That leaves with the question of was his decline just an inevitable regression to the mean or was it injury related. I noted that he didn’t quite look like himself when he returned from the shoulder injury in 2021. Could the shoulder injury have led to problems with the elbow? I would say that is all possible. I’m really intrigued to see what he looks like once he does return. I also need to mention that there are questions about his curveball and if he needs a better third offering, but I feel like his biggest issues before the injury included his fastball command, and the switch from a low fastball that tunneled well with his changeup despite not being a great pitch by itself, to a more traditional high fastball that coincided with all of his struggles but wasn’t necessarily the reason for them.

So I guess my answer is Michael Soroka, which seems weird considering how he has been used this season and that he missed basically two seasons with injury. I’m going to talk about Soroka’s season below, but of these three, I think he has the best hypothetical pitch mix. In a small sample, he has been more of a four-seam/slider guy than the sinker/slider combo that we have seen in the past. By all indications, he has been healthy throughout the regular season and I think there is more to work with here at the moment. If the four-seamer becomes workable as a main pitch, there’s a lot there because his slider is already interesting.

Are the Braves practicing service time/contract manipulation with keeping Soroka simmering in the minors? With 20 or so days left on having 5 full years of MLB service, as well as neglecting to call him up recently and just have him work out his comeback in Atlanta, certainly feels like it. Any additional pitching this club can stack towards the post-season, we need to stack it. Hopefully a September call-up finally sticks for Soroka.

A lot to unpack here, but let me first say that I have also been surprised by the way Soroka has been handled. I have spoken about it on the radio a couple of times and on our podcast. With that said, I don’t think I would go straight to service time manipulation conspiracy theories either. I did ask and was told that there could be some benefit to Soroka staying down in terms of service time, but it is an edge case and may or may not come to fruition. I think we also need to remember that the Braves chose to tender contracts to Soroka throughout his rehab while the likelihood of him returning and contributing was unknown.

Soroka has made six appearances and five starts in the majors and wasn’t great in any of them. Even when he pitched pretty well, like against the Marlins, he ran into homer issues. At this point, you have to wonder if the Braves are just comfortable getting him back on a regular schedule and workload. They have been managing his workload basically all season and that is a lot easier to do at Triple-A with a six-man rotation and off days every Monday. At this point, that is how it looks to me.

The last part of the question about stacking pitching. Soroka is on the 40-man roster. There is no threshold he needs to cross to be eligible to pitch in the postseason. Whether he doesn’t make another appearance during the regular season or joins the rotation full time in September doesn’t change that.

Knowing that these sorts of trades are rare, what LF/OF targets might be realistic targets in a Vaughn Grissom trade?

I think you have perhaps hit on the two biggest storylines of the offseason. Left field and what will the Braves do with Vaughn Grissom? I went into the Trade Deadline thinking there was a chance that the Braves would move Grissom in a trade and given where things are with the roster, I believe there probably is a better chance of that during the offseason. I don’t like speculating on trades simply because they seem to come out of nowhere with the Atlanta Front Office, like the Sean Murphy trade last offseason that no one saw coming. My opinion is that if they move Grissom, it might be for a pitcher than an outfielder. If you go back to Alex Anthopoulos’ comments after the Deadline, he said they had the prospects to make a deal, but were looking for someone that could contribute for multiple seasons. I think it was possible that he was talking about Grissom there, but they didn’t find the return they were looking for. More on the left field situation below.

Do you think that Grissom will ever get a chance in LF, with Orlando Arcia looking as our everyday SS?

It has been a popular thing online, but except for a little pregame work in 2022, the Braves have never really shown that they would consider moving Grissom to left field. He’s played all of the 2023 season on the infield. Perhaps that is to try and continue his development while providing the added bonus of increasing his trade value, who knows? His lack of a first step in the infield makes me wonder if he would be a good outfielder. His lack of power at the plate also doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a corner outfielder, although Atlanta has plenty of power elsewhere to make it work — if they even want to.

There is also another important thing to consider here and that is Eddie Rosario. Rosario is a notoriously streaky player and we have seen that again during the 2023 season. He’s put up 20 homers and has a 111 wRC+ in 111 games, not to mention plenty of postseason success. He’s also got a $9 million club option for next season; at this point, I will be surprised if the Braves don’t pick that up. Could Grissom pair with Rosario in left? Maybe, but I think he’d have more value to the club at this point through a trade.

How would you set up the playoff rotation? Piggybacking any starters?

Another great question that I am sure we are going to talk a lot about down the stretch. Teams will be able to get by with just three starters in the NL Division Series this year so that makes the decision easy with Max Fried, Spencer Strider and Charlie Morton. They are probably unlikely to carry 13 pitchers for the Division Series, but it would be possible with the DH. I think Elder still makes it as a multi inning guy that could come in if a starter exits early.

Of course the x-factor in all of this is Kyle Wright, who made his first rehab appearance at Rome. Assuming that he feels good following that outing and doesn’t have any setbacks, he thought he would probably need about three more rehab appearances. If he makes it back and looks strong, perhaps he bumps Elder off the Division Series roster. If the Braves feel that Wright needs more time, then maybe he doesn’t make the Division Series roster and goes to Gwinnett to continue building up and then becomes an option in the LCS should the Braves advance.

The Braves have basically never done anything like piggybacks unless their hands were forced, and even then it was pretty half-hearted, so it’s hard to assume that any of those considerations are immediately in play here.

What will the Braves’ bullpen look like by season’s end, while considering roster expansion (so, likely a 9-man pen)? Which guys are projected to get healthy enough to return? Which guys could be staring a DFA in the face? Which guys currently in a SP-ish role might transition to a long man pen role? Is there anyone not currently on the 40-man who might claim a pen spot by season’s end? Etc.

From what I have heard and what is being said, they anticipate having Nick Anderson, Jesse Chavez and Dylan Lee back in the mix by the end of the season. Lee would probably be back right now if not for the roster crunch in the bullpen. Chavez is progressing and Anderson Is still expected back sometime in mid-September. Of that group, I’d say Anderson is probably the one to keep an eye on, but right now it sounds like they expect everyone back.

Under the old September rules this wouldn’t be a problem, but as you pointed out, the Braves have a bullpen that is pitching pretty well currently and none of those guys have options available. Before I try to build this out let me say that I am as intrigued as anyone to see how this comes together and everything I am saying is just speculation on my part. I’d say Lee is the pitcher added on September 1. From a performance standpoint, Collin McHugh might be the most vulnerable, but he did pitch pretty well on the most recent homestand. Perhaps McHugh or Michael Tonkin go to the injured list to make room for Chavez, who could probably give multiple innings once he is ready to return. I do wonder about Brad Hand as well. They will certainly want to keep him around as a postseason option and insurance for Lee. If they need another spot for Anderson, then maybe Hand sees an IL stint as well.

I don’t see anyone not currently on the 40-man roster being an option simply because they have such a roster crunch already. I wondered if someone like AJ Smith-Shawver would perhaps transition to the bullpen for the postseason there are still a lot of moving parts that are yet to be determined.

Perhaps all of this works itself out, but they are going to have some interesting roster decisions to make soon.

Based on what we know and have seen to date, including uncertainties surrounding Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, please predict in some degree of specificity how Atlanta’s FO will approach building a 5-man starting rotation next April.

The first question about the rotation to be answered this offseason is whether or not Charlie Morton will return. The Braves currently hold a $20 million option for Morton for next season and I expect him to be back if he wants to continue to pitch. If we have learned anything about Alex Anthopoulos over the last few seasons, it is how much he values depth. There is a chance that next season’s rotation looks a lot like this one with Fried, Strider, Wright, Morton and Elder. That is a pretty solid place to start.

Add in Soroka, Smith-Shawver, Dylan Dodd, Jared Shuster, Darius Vines and you get the picture. I also advocated a couple of times above for them bringing in another starter with some team control. I think that becomes more of a priority if Morton were to choose not to return.

What is it gonna take to get Greg Maddux in an alumni booth game? Also, who else would be good?

I don’t know what it would take to get Greg Maddux, but I would love to see them make it happen. I was happy that they got Brian McCann in the booth during this latest broadcast because I feel like he has been great every time he has been there.

What’s the purpose of a postgame Q & A if the media cannot ask the tough strategic questions?

Tough or not, those questions do get asked. Whether they are answered is up to the manager. That isn’t something that just happens with the Braves, but all 30 teams. Sometimes the answers are obvious and that can be annoying, but it is ultimately the team’s call and decision.

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