There’s no question about the top four in the Braves rotation. Atlanta acquired Chris Sale over the weekend to join Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Charlie Morton in a high-upside staff, then promptly extended Sale. The Braves don’t have a set choice for the #5 spot to open the year. It seems that’ll be up for grabs in camp.
On an appearance on The Bill Shanks Show on Tuesday, Atlanta president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos suggested the front office was willing to consider a number of options for the last rotation job. “It’ll be open competition for the fifth spot,” he told Shanks. The front office leader name-checked five candidates for the position (albeit without saying it was an exhaustive list): Bryce Elder, Reynaldo López, AJ Smith-Shawver, Huascar Ynoa and Hurston Waldrep.
Atlanta had a camp battle for the final two spots last spring. They surprisingly tabbed Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd, neither of whom had made their MLB debuts, for season-opening roles after impressive Spring Training performances. While neither rookie fared all that well, the Braves are open to again turning to a young arm if they outperform others in the spring.
“We’re going to take the best players,” Anthopoulos said. “We never assume the division. You can lose it or win it by a game, as we saw in 2022 (when) it came down the wire. … We’re going to break with the best team. Like anything, we’ll try to maintain our depth. If there’s a lot of ties or it’s close, we’ll keep our depth. But we’re hopeful these guys are all good in Spring Training and make it hard on us.”
Perhaps an opportunity will arise for the Braves to add a surefire #5 starter within the next couple months. That doesn’t appear to be an organizational priority, however. There seems a good chance Atlanta is content with a camp battle between the group that Anthopoulos referenced. They’ll likely all play roles at some point as injuries necessitate, but we’ll run through the top candidates for the Opening Day job as things currently stand.
Elder surprisingly emerged as a rotation mainstay for Atlanta a year ago. Despite briefly starting the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, he wound up taking the ball 31 times and tossing 174 2/3 innings — second on the team behind Strider. Elder had a great first half, pitching to a 2.97 ERA en route to an All-Star selection. He didn’t find that same level of success down the stretch, as he surrendered a 5.11 mark in the second half. The Phillies tagged him for six runs in 2 2/3 frames during his only postseason start.
At year’s end, Elder still carried a solid 3.81 ERA. Despite the rough finish, he was a valuable part of Brian Snitker’s pitching staff. It’s nevertheless questionable whether he can replicate a sub-4.00 ERA without missing many bats. Elder had a below-average 17.5% strikeout rate and 9.9% swinging strike percentage a season ago. He’s a ground-ball specialist whose sinker was below the 90 MPH mark on average. It’s a very different profile from the high-octane strikeout stuff of the top four in the rotation (and that of some of his competitors for the #5 job). Anthopoulos pointed out that Elder still has a full slate of minor league options and could start the year in Gwinnett if he doesn’t break camp with the MLB team, as Ian Anderson did in 2023.
López, on the other hand, is certainly going to be on the major league roster. The question is whether that’s in the rotation or the bullpen. Atlanta signed the 30-year-old righty to a three-year, $30MM free agent deal at the start of the offseason. While the price tag wasn’t a surprise, the Braves’ subsequent announcement they might stretch López out as a starter was unexpected.
Teams have used López almost exclusively in relief for the past two and a half seasons. He hasn’t had a full year as a starter since 2019, when he was tagged for a 5.38 ERA in 184 innings for the White Sox. López has shown the durability to hold up from the rotation, topping 180 frames in consecutive seasons for Chicago in 2018-19. The former top prospect has been much more effective when working in shorter stints, though. He owns a 3.02 ERA with a 27.4% strikeout percentage in 131 1/3 innings between a trio of clubs since the start of 2022.
Smith-Shawver, who turned 21 in November, was among the youngest players to reach the majors last season. He got to the big leagues within two years of being drafted out of high school. Smith-Shawver didn’t hold a long-term rotation role, appearing in six games (five starts). He posted a 4.26 ERA through 25 1/3 innings despite middling strikeout and walk rates and seven home runs.
The 6’3″ hurler had a more impressive statistical track record in the minors. He combined for 62 frames between the top three minor league levels, allowing a 2.76 ERA while striking out 31.3% of opponents. Smith-Shawver walked over 13% of batters faced in the minors, so he’s clearly not a finished product. That’s to be expected given his youth. The Braves were impressed enough with the huge swing-and-miss potential he’d shown to carry him in relief on their playoff roster last October. He has two options remaining.
Ynoa, still just 25, pitched at the MLB level from 2019-22. He turned in mid-rotation results (4.05 ERA, 26.9% strikeout rate and 6.7% walk percentage) in 2021, although he was limited to 91 innings thanks to a self-inflicted hand fracture when he punched a dugout wall. He dropped into a depth role by the ’22 season, allowing a 5.68 ERA over 18 Triple-A appearances. He underwent Tommy John surgery that September and missed all of last year. He is expected to be a full participant in Spring Training. The Braves tendered him an arbitration contract but could send him to the minors for another season, as he has one option remaining.
The only player in this quintet who has yet to reach the majors, Waldrep is on a fast track to MLB. Atlanta’s first-round pick a year ago, the hard-throwing righty went from the College World Series in June to Triple-A by September. The Florida product had a brilliant 1.53 ERA while fanning a third of batters faced in his first eight professional starts at four levels (including one appearance in Gwinnett).
Atlanta is among the most aggressive teams in promoting its top prospects. As a college draftee, Waldrep is around nine months older than Smith-Shawver is. He has far less professional experience and isn’t on the 40-man roster, but he was drafted out of a strong program in college baseball’s top conference. Anthopoulos conceded it’d be ideal for both Waldrep and Smith-Shawver to have more developmental time but rhetorically asked, “if they come in and they are so much better than anybody else, how we do deny them?“