The Braves have opened their 2023 season facing a great deal of uncertainty in the rotation. The club went into camp with a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, expecting Bryce Elder, Ian Anderson, and Michael Soroka to be the favorites for the role. That didn’t come to pass, however, as Soroka was slowed early in camp while both Anderson and Elder struggled, opening the door for Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd to elevate themselves on the organizational depth chart with strong springs. MLBTR held a poll toward the end of Spring Training regarding which of the two young lefties should start the regular season in the rotation, which Shuster won with 68.56% of the vote.
Ultimately, the Braves were never forced to make a decision between Dodd and Shuster for the fifth spot, as Kyle Wright began the season on the injured list, allowing both lefties to open the season in the rotation. Since that time, the rotation picture in Atlanta has gotten far more hectic. Club ace Max Fried went on the injured list with a hamstring injury, while Anderson went on the IL in the minors due to elbow issues, leaving Elder to join the rotation in Fried’s stead. Meanwhile, both Shuster and Dodd have struggled to open the season.
With Wright expected to make his first start of the season on Tuesday and Fried expected to miss roughly the fifteen day minimum, the Braves find themselves once again forced to make a decision on who their fifth starter should be once the front four of Fried, Wright, Spencer Strider, and Charlie Morton are all healthy and starting every fifth day. With Soroka still not fully ramped up, it appears the options for the club’s fifth rotation spot are Dodd, Shuster, and Elder, each of whom have made at least one start for the club this season.
Shuster appears to be the least likely of the three options. The 24-year old lefty has made two starts for Atlanta so far this season, but has struggled in both. In his major league debut, Shuster allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Nationals, allowing six hits and 5 walks while striking out just one. His second start was worryingly similar to his first, albeit against a much more threatening Padres team than the lowly Nats: four runs in four innings of work on six hits with four walks and four strikeouts.
While Shuster impressed with a 1.74 ERA in 20 2/3 innings of work this spring, he’s appeared over-matched two starts into his big league career, and it seems safe to assume that the Braves will allow him time in Triple-A to right the ship before returning him to the big league rotation, barring further injuries to the big league club.
Dodd has a stronger case for a longer leash in the rotation than Shuster, having impressed in his MLB debut by holding a loaded Cardinals lineup to just one run over five innings of work, striking out three while walking none. Dodd’s first start of the season showed the same promise as his spring performance, where he posted a 2.00 ERA in 18 innings of work, striking out 20 while walking just four. Unfortunately, Dodd’s second start was not as successful as his first, as he struggled badly in 4 1/3 innings against the Padres, allowing seven runs on ten hits (two home runs) and a walk while striking out three.
After such a difficult second start, it’s reasonable to wonder if Dodd might also benefit from additional time in Triple-A before becoming a mainstay in the Braves’ rotation. After all, the 24-year old has made just one start in Triple-A, with only 53 innings of experience above High-A in the minor leagues.
That lack of experience seems likely to open the door for Elder as the most likely option to stick in Atlanta as a member of the rotation once Fried returns from the injured list. Though Elder struggled badly in Spring Training surrendering three home runs and five walks in just 11 2/3 innings of work, he dominated the Cardinals for six innings in his first start of the season on Wednesday, allowing no runs on two hits while striking out six over six innings of work. Though his spring problems with the free pass carried over into the regular season as he walked three in his season debut, Elder was able to find success in the big leagues last year in spite of a 10.1% walk rate, posting a 3.17 ERA in 54 innings of work last season.
With Fried set to miss at least another week of action, both Dodd and Elder figure to get at least one more start before the Braves make a decision, to say nothing of the possibility that an injury elsewhere in the rotation or a setback for Fried could delay the decision even further. Barring those outcomes, who should the Braves keep in the rotation going forward? Is Elder’s experience and past success in the big leagues too valuable to pass up, or should the Braves stick with their initial decision and give the fifth spot in the rotation to one of Dodd or Shuster?
(poll link for app users)