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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Well-Stocked Atlanta Braves Don’t Fret Over Delayed Return Of Injured Star Starter Mike Soroka

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The lingering absence of injured pitching ace Mike Soroka is not causing agita in Atlanta.

The Braves have an abundance of talented young arms who can plug the rotation hole created when Soroka, a 2019 National League All-Star, tore his right Achilles in his third start last year and then suffered shoulder inflammation just when he seemed primed for a return this month.

It is uncertain how long the 23-year-old right-hander will be sidelined, though it is certain he will need to regain the sharpness he showed by the end of spring training camp in North Port, FL.

Huascar Ynoa, a 22-year-old Dominican, threw five scoreless innings in Washington Wednesday in a seven-inning game the Braves won, 2-0, and right-handers Kyle Wright, 25, and Bryse Wilson, 23, are getting ready at the team’s alternate training site after pitching well in the 2020 postseason.

Two years earlier, Touki Toussaint worked three scoreless innings against the Dodgers in the NL Division Series and got credit for the lone Atlanta win.

Atlanta actually entered the expanded post-season last year without a single pitcher who had made a playoff start. But Wilson, Wright, and Ian Anderson – all officially classified as rookies – backed young lefty Max Fried in pitching the Braves to the brink of the World Series.

Seeking its first pennant since 1999 and first world championship since 1995, the team swept the Cincinnati Reds in the best-of-three Wild Card Series and the Miami Marlins in the best-of-five Division Series before falling to the powerful Dodgers in a Championship Series that went the maximum seven games.

Had Soroka been available, things might have been different.

In 2019, the last full season, the 6-5, 220-pound right-hander from Calgary was second in the Rookie of the Year voting and sixth in the Cy Young Award balloting. In three full seasons, he has posted a 15-6 record and 2.86 earned run average. But he’s also missed time with previous and current shoulder problems.

Soroka, a former first-round draft pick, had been expected to form a strong right-left tandem with Fried at the top of the team’s 2020 rotation.

A Los Angeles native who idolized Sandy Koufax, Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 earned run average to figure in the Cy Young conversation but the rest of the rotation was a work in progress all year after injuries idled Cole Hamels and fellow veteran Felix Hernandez opted out with Covid concerns after a strong spring training.

Refusing to be caught short again, Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos spent a combined $26 million in one-year contracts for two experienced starters, righty Charlie Morton and lefty Drew Smyly, as soon as the free agent market opened. Both pitched well in their first outings for the team.

That gave the Braves a rotation of Fried, Morton, Anderson, Smyly, and Soroka’s understudy. Brian Snitker, voted Baseball Manager of the Year by Baseball America, indicated the No. 5 spot could be occupied by almost anybody. Even hard-throwing left-handed reliever A.J. Minter got a rare start in the playoffs last year and responded with three scoreless innings and seven strikeouts while yielding just one hit in NLCS Game 5 against Los Angeles. It was his first career start.

Finding, developing, and nurturing young pitching has been a hallmark of team philosophy since Bobby Cox was general manager in the ‘80s. Under his administration, the Braves traded for John Smoltz and signed left-handed high school pitchers Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. Three seasons after Cox became Braves manager again, the team made the signing of the century, adding Greg Maddux as a veteran free agent.

The talented troika of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz wound up in Cooperstown, along with Cox and the man who succeeded him as GM, John Schuerholz. The Braves won 14 straight division crowns, a record that still stands, from 1991-2005 and the club’s best position player of the period, Chipper Jones, also earned a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The current crop of Atlanta pitchers may not reach Cooperstown but do seem to have bright futures. Youth is certainly on their side.

Wilson, for example, was only 20 years and 243 days old when he became the youngest starter in major-league history to win a 1-0 game in his major-league debut, on Aug. 20, 2018 in Pittsburgh. But he really opened the eyes of scouts last fall, when he limited the Dodgers to one hit and one run in six innings of Game 4 in the National League Championship Series. That win gave the Braves a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven series but they couldn’t close the deal.

Also in the 2020 playoffs, Wright and Anderson became the first pair of rookies to throw six scoreless innings in their playoff debuts in the same postseason. Wright’s gem came in Game 3 of the Division Series, when he yielded three hits and two walks while fanning seven Marlins in decisive Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

The 6-4, 215-pound right-hander, still just 25, started this season at Atlanta’s alternate training site after an erratic spring training performance. Wilson and Toussaint are there too because of all the off-days built into the April schedule.

Ynoa, who made the varsity as a long man and spot starter, made the most of his first chance. The 22-year-old Dominican, who had made five starts and 11 appearances over parts of two seasons, didn’t get the win in his Washington outing but certainly deserved it. He was no longer the pitcher of record when Pablo Sandoval pinch-hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh – the last inning in a game that is part of a double-header.

Toussaint, a 24-year-old curveball specialist, was Atlanta’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2018 while pitching for Double-A Misssissippi. Like Ynoa, who was obtained from Minnesota, Toussaint was acquired in trade, from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015.

None of the young Atlanta arms has the upside or credentials of Anderson, who did not yield a run in his first three postseason starts. After coming up in late August, he went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA, then added a 2-0 record and 0.96 ERA in post-season play. If he even approaches those figures this season, Anderson could join Fernando Valenzuela of the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers as the only players to win Rookie of the Year honors and the Cy Young Award in the same season. Anderson still retains his rookie status.

When Soroka returns, someone will have to sit – unless Snitker decides to go with a six-man rotation that would give everyone more rest.

For the Atlanta Braves, it’s better to have too much than too little. Only four of the 13 pitchers on the active roster have seven-digit salaries and the team’s payroll of $138,698,859 is squarely middle-of-the-pack, ranking 14th among the 30 clubs in the latest Spotrac listings.

Morton is the highest-paid pitcher at $15 million per annum, followed by closer Will Smith at $13 million, Smyly at $11 million, and Fried at $3,500,000. The kids rank at or near the minimum salary of $575,000. In that vicinity are Anderson, Ynoa, and Toussaint, to be joined by Wilson and Wright if and when they are recalled to the majors.

Soroka’s salary was $2,800,000 but he’d be worth much more than that when he gets healthy again. The Braves are seeking their fourth straight title in the National League East, a division most experts say is the most competitive in the majors this season.

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