Entering play Monday night, the Braves were riding a 5 game winning streak and embracing the possibility of a 4 game sweep of the Mets. There were questions, to be sure, about whether that success was sustainable with only two proven starters in rotation and the remaining options all struggling to log more than 3 quality innings in their starts. Mike Soroka and Max Fried seemed to be coming into their own as front of the rotation starters, hearkening back to the days of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” But hey, the Braves were making it work, and who knows, in a shortened season maybe all you need are two solid starters and a bullpen full of capable relievers… Right?
Wrong. You can make all the plans you want for nefarious diseases, but there is no protection against freak, non-contact injuries. On a routine grounder to first, Mike Soroka was merely trying to get himself in position to receive a possible toss to the bag when his Achilles tendon popped, ending his season and breaking the hearts of Braves’ fans everywhere. At that moment the results of the game were inconsequential. They went on to lose 7-2 to Jacob deGrom and the Mets, but few are going to remember that outcome. Freddie Freeman said it best:
It really just… it just sucks. There’s no sugarcoating this night.– Freddie Freeman on the loss of Mike Soroka in a post game interview
Once considered one of their strongest position groupings, the Braves are now left with a rotation in tatters. Cole Hamels, signed in the offseason to be the veteran leader and middle of the rotation presence has yet to throw a single pitch in a competitive situation this year due to lingering shoulder issues. Felix Hernandez, once considered a low risk lottery ticket, would almost certainly be assured a spot in the rotation for Atlanta had he not opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Finally, Mike Foltynewicz, last year’s game two and game five starter in the NLDS, came out of the gate throwing 88 MPH and getting lit up like a Christmas tree and was designated for assignment after his first start of the season. He cleared waivers and is working to regain some weight and velocity, but he is far from viable at this point.
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The Braves are now relying on Max Fried to anchor the rotation, and he seems to be up to the task so far. In two games, Fried is 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA and 15 strikeouts, continuing the great work he posted in 2019 where he was 17-6 and had 173 k’s in 165 2/3 innings pitched. After Fried, however, things tend to get a bit dicey. Newcomb’s bid to secure himself a permanent spot in the rotation has hit a snag in 2020, though he might hang onto his spot simply through attrition. His fastball is maintaining the velocity that he had coming out of the bullpen, but his command of that pitch seems to disappear without warning, much like his much-vaunted curveball. Kyle Wright has shown that he has the stuff to get any hitter out, but much like Newcomb his command falls off a cliff and he finds himself pitching out of trouble often, driving up his pitch count in the process. Touki Toussaint similarly has excellent stuff but spotty control, and like Wright and Newcomb struggles to maintain consistency long enough to get him past the 4th inning of ballgames.
This was a known issue before the injury to Soroka, of course, and now the Braves are faced with having to fill yet another spot in the rotation. The loss of their ace likely takes some pressure off of Newcomb, Wright and Toussaint, but it places a heavy burden squarely on the shoulders of Max Fried. While a trade for an established starter seems like a foregone conclusion, Atlanta is much more likely to work through their stable of young, unproven arms and back them up with old, well-proven veterans in relief. Josh Tomlin, Jhoulys Chacin and possibly Mike Foltynewicz look to get plenty of work in relief of Newk, Wright and Touki, and guys like Bryce Wilson, Huascar Ynoa, Tucker Davidson and eventually Ian Anderson will most likely get some looks this month before the Braves reach the August 31st trade deadline. Cole Hamels will be eligible to come off the 45 day IL by the first week of September, and if they can just hold off the rest of the league, there is a good chance that Atlanta will be getting healthy and strong right as the playoffs begin.
The first domino on the board fell when the Braves activated Huascar Ynoa and Chad Sobotka on Tuesday. It’s yet to be determined if Ynoa will get the start in place of Soroka, but with Chacin recently DFA’d and outrighted to the taxi squad and Tomlin used in relief in Tuesday’s game, Ynoa might be the best bet for a spot start barring another roster move.
Speaking of roster moves…
Mike Soroka was not the only Braves player bit with the injury bug this week. Ozzie Albies’ wrist has been bothering him for the better part of the last two weeks, contributing to his slow start this season. Manager Brian Snitker has held him out of the lineup a couple of times in recent days hoping the issue would resolve itself, but the discomfort was bad enough that Albies elected to bat left handed against a left handed pitcher for the first time in his MLB career. After the game Snitker mentioned to the media that he probably would have pinch hit for Albies if the game had been closer. With the Braves up early and often on the Jays he elected to leave him in for defensive purposes. This baffled many armchair managers who argued that a blowout is the perfect time to get Albies out of the game and insert any one of 3 players on the roster who can adequately play 2nd base.
Additionally, Matt Adams, who had earlier in the game homered for the 2nd time this season, came up lame on an attempt to reach on a would-be infield single. Before crossing the bag he staggered and grabbed his hamstring, and adding insult to injury Cavin Biggio made a great play on the ball in shallow right field and threw Adams out at first. While the early returns on Adams as the team DH have been mixed, there is no doubt that he gave the Braves something they sorely lack otherwise in their potent lineup – left handed power.
Both Albies and Adams were placed on the 10 day IL with Alex Jackson and Nick Markakis replacing them on the active roster. The expectation is that Markakis and Adam Duvall will get the bulk of playing time in left field with Marcell Ozuna, whose defensive abilities have all but evaporated in recent years, moving to the role of designated hitter. What role Alex Jackson will play is unclear beyond a pure bench bat. Travis d’Arnaud has impressed since his return from the 10 day injured list (COVID-19 precautions), and while Tyler Flowers hasn’t matched TdA’s offensive prowess so far his work behind the plate remains solid.
More roster moves to come…
Per the agreement between the MLBPA and the MLB owners, roster sizes are to be reduced from 30 to 28 on Thursday. That likely means Jackson is simply a blip on the radar and will be optioned back to Gwinnett’s alternate site workout group. In addition, Chad Sobotka is a favorite of the front office to bounce back and forth, so he will probably be the second roster casualty tomorrow. Additionally, Will Smith should be returning to the roster this week after progressing through the COVID-19 protocol and pitching in simulated games in Gwinnett, which will require yet another roster move. Scott Schlebler would seem like a likely candidate to make room for Smith. Since being traded to the Braves for cash in July and activated on July 29th, Schlebler has had zero plate appearances. With the arrival of Nick Markakis, there might not be a need to carry him on even an expanded 28 man roster.