ATLANTA — Ask any Braves fan what their worst nightmare is, and none of them might be creative enough to describe the scene that played out Monday night at Truist Park, where Braves manager Brian Snitker helped carry an injured Mike Soroka off the field and into the clubhouse.
What looked to be another innocuous sprint to cover first base—a trot he made twice two innings prior—turned into disaster. As Soroka pivoted and planted, his right leg gave way and left the Braves’ young Canadian star helpless on the infield grass.
Just as helpless now is the Braves starting rotation, both in the short- and long-term. The staff’s No. 1 is now Max Fried—another big talent, but a pitcher still learning the ropes after becoming a full-fledged major league starter last season. And it only gets worse from there.
The Braves signed Cole Hamels to an $18 million contract in the offseason to fill the vacuum of veteran leadership following the departures of Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel. Of course, Hamels was supposed to be much more than a veteran leader for a young staff. The Braves were relying on the former World Series MVP to have a bounce-back year and be a key figure in another chase for the National League East crown. Instead, he’s also been sidelined with both shoulder and triceps injuries. Yet to make an appearance for the Braves even in a spring training game, the club might find themselves fortunate if they ever see him on the mound in a Braves uniform.
Throw in a COVID-19 opt-out from Felix Hernandez in early July and Mike Foltynewicz getting designated for assignment after losing five miles per hour in velocity from last season, and the Braves are now facing dire circumstances. Sean Newcomb and Kyle Wright—two more youngsters with big question marks around their current abilities—will presumably both be vaulted up in the rotation order behind Fried. Touki Toussaint, who filled Foltynewicz’s spot in the rotation, will likely keep his place as well.
Soroka himself talked last week about the challenge some of these young prospects face when breaking into a team chasing for a title like the Braves. “It’s kind of a tough thing to break in with a really good team because you’re expecting wins every night,” said Soroka. “And you need to find those wins, or [the team] is going to look somewhere else.”
Now General Manager Alex Anthopolous and Snitker will need to find yet another arm, which will be anything but an easy task. With an expanded playoff pool, a highly-condensed season, and a short spring training to get arms stretched out, starting pitching is already priced at a premium on the trade market. What about a free agent? The Braves already tapped tapped that well when they signed Jholys Chacin, but he was designated for assignment after just two outings.
So, who can the Braves go to?
Josh Tomlin: Outside of the Tomlin family, no one is a bigger fan of the Braves’ versatile bullpen arm than Snitker. Speaking after the Braves’ win Saturday, Snitker said of Tomlin: “He’s something else, man. He saved our rears all last year. He competes, he’s so efficient, and he’s a great guy to have down there that’s for sure… I like him in jams and coming in and facing the heart of an order. You hate to use him up only in a long role just because he can cover innings, because he can be so valuable in [high leverage] situations also in the middle of a game. He can close a game—he can do anything, really.”
Tyler Matzek: Maybe the one saving grace in the Braves’ pitching staff is that the team has been blessed with some relievers having resurgent years, and Tyler Matzek at the top of that list. Once a top prospect, Matzek nearly fell out of baseball altogether as he dealt with anxiety issues. But the Braves took a flier on him, and he’s come back as strong as ever in a bullpen role. Kyle Wright said of Matzek after Sunday’s win: “He’s awesome…He’s been incredible. I’ve seen him toward the end of last year when we got him at AAA. He pitched for us in the playoffs and several of us were like ‘Wow, this guy’s good.’ Coming into this year’s spring training, it looked like he’d only gotten better. Then in summer camp he got better. Now he’s doing an incredible job throwing strikes. He’s just fearless out there.”
More prospects: The Braves are not shy of more near-MLB-ready arms in youngsters like Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson, or the top starting pitcher in the pipeline in Ian Anderson. But there’s a big difference in being “near” MLB ready, and actually taking the mound in the majors. Tyler Flowers explained last season that going from the minors to the big leagues is unlike any other jump in levels any player will make in their careers. “It’s not like going from AAA to AAAA, because the majors have guys that would be anywhere from 4-A to 20-A.”
While the Braves are still competitive and leading the NL East as they were following Monday’s game, it seems much more likely that Snitker will initially go with an experienced player like Tomlin. And there’s every chance that more starting opportunities could present themselves if some of the existing inexperienced starters falter.
If you’ve made it this far without rage quitting, I salute you. But then there’s another harsh reality. If Soroka indeed has a torn Achilles as is feared, the Braves will likely be without him for most of next season as well. You know what, let’s deal with that later.