Well, that escalated quickly. Just when it appeared that Alex Anthopoulos was ready to stick to the status quo with regard to the Braves’ rotation, he pulled off a trade with the Boston Red Sox and landed veteran Chris Sale in exchange for prospect-ish infielder Vaughn Grissom. Sale comes with plenty of injury risk, but immediate upside that can be realized with every start he makes. His presence immediately improves Atlanta’s rotation situation. Below is a look at where things stand with about six weeks to go before the start of Spring Training.
Rotation Locks: Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton, Chris Sale
The top four appear set. Max Fried and Spencer Strider are as good a one-two punch as any team in the majors. Fried battled his way through multiple injuries in 2023 but pitched well when he was available. While there was concern that Fried’s effectiveness could be diminished given the nature of his injury (throwing elbow), he actually finished 2023 with his single-season best xFIP- (71), albeit one achieved in just 77 2⁄3 innings. Fried is entering his final season before free agency and will be looking to put together a monster season before hitting the open market. Critically, though, he needs to stay healthy if he wants the bidding on him to go nuts like it has leaguewide; if he has another injury-rife campaign, he will likely be looking at relatively modest deals or pillow contracts instead.
It seems ridiculous, but the narrative around Spencer Strider is getting to the point where he might be... underrated? Somehow? Sure, he surrendered a career-high 22 homers and saw his ERA jump to 3.86 in his first full season in the majors. But, that doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as he posted a 2.85 FIP and struck out 36.8 percent of the batters he faced. He put up 5.5 fWAR and set a new Braves single-season (modern era) record with 281 strikeouts. Strider is a monster anyway you look at it, even if the expectations have gotten a little out of whack.
The Braves opted to pick up the $20 million option on Charlie Morton’s contract for 2024. Given what pitchers have gone for on the open market this offseason, that could prove to be a good decision; it at least doesn’t seem like a bad one. Still, there are some concerns with Morton, who turned 40 this offseason and has thrown over 1,900 innings in his career. Statistically, Morton was better last season than he was in 2022, posting an 82 ERA- and a 90 FIP- in 163 1/3 innings. However, he saw his walk rate climb to 11.6 percent, which is the highest of his career except for his rookie season with Atlanta back in 2008. The resulting xFIP-, which is a better indicator of his performance going forward than his FIP (or ERA) was 97, his highest since his career renaissance began. Even so, projection systems have Morton as average-or-better for his age-40 season, so his presence is in no way a concern.
After totaling just 48 1/3 innings between 2020 and 2022, Chris Sale returned in 2023 and made 20 starts for the Red Sox where he had a 95 ERA- and an 88 FIP- in 102 2/3 innings. The focus for Atlanta will be to keep Sale upright through the regular season and to have him healthy for the postseason. His injury history is always going to be a talking point, especially given that aside from Tommy John Surgery, so many of his injuries are self-inflicted or otherwise odd, but his 29.4 percent strikeout rate a year ago provides optimism that there is still something left in the tank. Sale’s slider is incredibly filthy, and his fastball doesn’t work the way most hard throwers prefer these days, but there’s very little wrong with him from a performance standpoint. It’s all about just staying on the field. Like Morton, the Braves don’t need Sale to be a Cy Young contender. Adding him improves their depth in the rotation, which the team will no doubt rely heavily on throughout the season.
Fifth Starter: Bryce Elder, Reynaldo López
The question heading into Spring Training is now: who will occupy the fifth starter spot?
The easy answer would be Bryce Elder, who made 31 starts last season while posting a 86 ERA- and 103 FIP- in a career-high 174 2/3 innings. Elder made the All-Star squad with his first half performance, but lost the thread struggled starting in late June. Atlanta probably never intended for Elder to log that many innings, but it became a necessity after injuries to Fried and Kyle Wright. Elder isn’t overpowering and needs to hit his spots; if he doesn’t, things get nasty in a hurry. While there was a lot of talk about Elder outperforming his peripherals before his decline, the reality was that those peripherals were still really good. When he cratered, it wasn’t regression to his peripherals, but just some terrible pitching. The upside is that he can soak innings; if he regains some of the mechanical success that drove his breakout, he can do even more than that. But if he doesn’t, an innings-eating-only fifth starter seems fine enough.
The Braves inked Lopez to a three-year deal this offseason and announced that they were going to stretch him out this offseason and give him a chance to start. Lopez has mostly pitched out of the bullpen the last three seasons and has seen his stuff play up considerably since making the switch to the bullpen. It is unknown yet if Atlanta will stick to giving Lopez a shot at the rotation after the addition of Sale, but if they do, then he will be competing with Elder for the final spot provided everyone stays healthy.
Without any other information in hand right now, it seems best to have Elder take the fifth spot and put Lopez in the bullpen where he would be another power arm that could possibly throw multiple innings.
Depth: Dylan Dodd, Allan Winans, Darius Vines
The aforementioned injuries to Fried and Wright forced the Braves to rely heavily on their rotation depth in 2023, and pressed several young players into action. Dylan Dodd turned in a good Spring Training and essentially began the season in the rotation. After allowing just one run over five innings with pinpoint command of his slider in St. Louis in his MLB debut, Dodd struggled over six more appearances and at Triple-A. He ended the season with a stint in the Arizona Fall League where he allowed 13 runs in 19 innings across four starts. Dodd has an interesting breaking pitch to work with, seems to be tinkering with his arsenal, and has shown flashes of effectiveness, but also has been pretty horrible.
Allan Winans put together a good showing at Gwinnett and pitched well overall in six appearances with Atlanta. His final numbers were skewed by a pair of rough outings against the Mets and the Nationals, but he also had some impressive performances, including a start where he tossed seven scoreless innings in New York. While Winans is very different from most major league pitchers these days, as a junkballer who doesn’t really even have great command even though it seems like he should, he seems like he could channel some Jesse Chavez-type magic into decent production. ZiPS is fairly high on him and Steamer thinks he could be above-replacement as a reliever.
Darius Vines would have probably figured into the picture much sooner if not for an early season injury. He made his major league debut at the end of August and appeared in five games the rest of the way. He doesn’t seem to offer as much as Winans, but did decently at managing contact in his short MLB stint, so the Braves may have some interest in seeing if they can get some more out of his profile.
None of the three are overpowering, but all will likely see opportunities as Atlanta tries to limit the wear and tear on Morton and Sale.
Prospects: AJ Smith-Shawver, Hurston Waldrep
AJ Smith-Shawver began the 2023 season at High-A, but advanced three levels and made his major league debut as a 20-year-old. The injuries to Fried and Wright certainly played a part in that, but he showed glimpses along the way, and it is notable that Atlanta chose to hang on to him this offseason instead of including him in a deal for an established starter.
Hurston Waldrep was the Braves’ first-round pick in 2023 and advanced through four levels to finish the season. He allowed just five earned runs to go along with 41 strikeouts over 29 1/3 innings in his pro debut. He walked a ton of guys at every stop, but everyone raves about his splitter.
Both players would be best served to spend most of the season in Triple-A before becoming real rotation possibilities in 2025. Still, they could force their way into the picture with solid performances, as the Braves are nothing if not aggressive with throwing guys they think are ready into the fire.
Injury Returns: Huascar Ynoa, Ian Anderson
Huascar Ynoa burst onto the scene for the Braves in 2021 and filled a rotation spot before his season was derailed by a self-inflicted broken hand. He began the 2022 season in the rotation, but struggled and was sent back to Gwinnett after just two starts. The struggles didn’t stop in the minors, and he eventually underwent Tommy John Surgery. Ynoa is expected to be ready for the start of the spring. He has a power arm, but was essentially a two-pitch pitcher as a starter, and his effectiveness was predicated on some arm slot adjustments the Braves made ahead of the 2021 campaign that maybe won’t end up sticking. It will be interesting to see if the Braves continue to utilize him as a starter or transition to a flamethrower role out of the bullpen. With him and Lopez in hand, the Braves have some flexibility to avoid the traditional mop-up long guy and instead cover many innings with a few potentially-effective hurlers.
It wasn’t that long ago that Ian Anderson was one of the team’s top pitching prospects, and he looked liked he would be a big part of the rotation for years to come. He suffered a shoulder injury right before the All-Star Break in 2021 and never looked quite like himself after returning, despite pitching pretty well during the World Series run (spoiler alert, though: Anderson had a 37 ERA- and an 87 FIP- in the playoffs that year, but a horrid 117 xFIP-). Anderson struggled to find his footing in 2022, with a 122 ERA-, 108 FIP-, and 106 xFIP-; he found himself back at Gwinnett for a stretch after the inconsistency in the summer reached extreme proportions. He made just one appearance for Gwinnett in 2023 before undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Anderson is expected to be ready to return around mid-season and could be an option over the final couple of months of the season.