Coming off a 101-win campaign, the Braves again look like one of the top teams in the National League. There aren’t many areas of concern on the roster. On the position player side, all but shortstop and left field have established solutions who should play at somewhere between an above-average and star level if healthy. The bullpen is one of the sport’s best, and the top four starters of Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton is elite.
There is a little bit of uncertainty as to who’ll round out the starting staff, however. Atlanta has a handful of pitchers vying for the final rotation spot in Spring Training. A couple have had some big league success but struggled with underperformance or injury recently. Another is a less proven, younger talent.
At this time a year ago, it’d have seemed foolish to picture Anderson fighting for a rotation spot at any point in the near future. Heading into 2022, the former third overall pick carried a 3.25 ERA with a 24.5% strikeout rate in 30 career regular season starts. He’d twice excelled on the postseason stage. Anderson looked like an upper mid-rotation arm, a key starter both in the present and over the coming seasons.
The 2022 campaign was the first in which the righty ran into trouble. He made 22 big league starts but allowed five earned runs per nine innings across 111 2/3 frames. Anderson’s strikeout rate fell to a personal-low 19.7% clip, although he still picked up swinging strikes on an above-average 12.3% of his total offerings. While he did a solid job keeping the ball on the ground, he surrendered a little more hard contact than he had in prior seasons. Anderson also walked a career-high 11% of opposing hitters.
With Atlanta in the thick of a division race, they optioned the struggling Anderson to Triple-A Gwinnett in early August. He started four games there, posting similar numbers as he had in the majors. His season was cut short when he strained his left oblique in the middle of September.
Anderson is just 24 years old and certainly capable of bouncing back from the down year. His average fastball velocity was down marginally last year but still checked in at a solid 94 MPH. He owns one of the game’s better changeups. Anderson’s curveball was a little less effective, with the lack of an impact breaking ball contributing to a disappointing .313/.375/.511 line in 253 plate appearances against same-handed hitters last season. Anderson told reporters last week he’s working on a new slider to try to add a weapon to deal with righty batters (link via David O’Brien of the Athletic).
A fifth-round pick out of Texas in 2020, Elder flew through the minor leagues. He was in the majors by April of his second full professional season. The 6’2″ righty started nine of his first ten MLB contests, posting a 3.17 ERA through 54 innings. That came with strikeout and walk numbers each a bit worse than league average (20.7% and 10.1%, respectively) but a quality 49.3% ground-ball percentage.
He had a longer run in Gwinnett, starting 17 of 18 games. Elder’s 4.46 ERA in 105 Triple-A innings wasn’t as impressive as his MLB run prevention mark, but his peripherals were stronger across the board. He punched out 22.2% of opponents, kept walks to a 7.3% clip and racked up grounders at a 55.9% rate.
The 23-year-old isn’t overpowering, averaging only 90.7 MPH on his sinker during his MLB action. He consistently kept the ball down in the minor leagues, though, posting grounder numbers on over half the batted balls he allowed at every stop. Elder almost carried that over against big league competition in his first crack and should some aptitude for avoiding hard contact — thanks in large part to a cutter and slider he was comfortable deploying against lefties and righties alike.
Soroka, another ground-ball specialist, was one of the sport’s top young pitchers not too long ago. An All-Star at 21, he finished sixth in NL Cy Young balloting after posting a 2.68 ERA through 28 starts as a rookie in 2019. That came on the strength of an excellent 51.2% grounder percentage and tiny 5.8% walk rate, with Soroka demonstrating rare polish for a pitcher his age.
Unfortunately, a brutal series of injuries has limited him to three big league outings since then. Those came in the abbreviated 2020 season before he blew out his right Achilles. After a year of rehab, the same thing happened again shortly before he could make his return to a mound. He lost all of 2021 and almost all of ’22 recovering. Soroka returned from the injured list to start five Triple-A games late last year but felt some soreness in his elbow — not unexpected for a pitcher coming off such a long layoff — and was shut down for precautionary reasons.
While the Achilles and elbow concerns are hopefully behind him, Soroka has again been slowed up by his body this spring. He experienced some hamstring soreness that’ll delay his getting into Spring Training games for a few weeks. It’s not believed to be a major concern, but the righty candidly called it “a kick in the groin” given how much work he’s put in rehabbing from other injuries the past few seasons. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to fully build up for Opening Day.
It looks as if the early battle for the fifth starter job comes down to one of the three pitchers above (with Soroka perhaps behind the others given his hamstring issue). However, a few others could find themselves in position to vie for reps at some point during the season, particularly if one or two of Atlanta’s top four starters suffers an injury.
Kolby Allard, a former Braves first-round pick, was acquired back from the Rangers at the start of the winter for Jake Odorizzi. He has a 6.07 ERA in 65 big league contests but occupies a 40-man roster spot. The same is true of Darius Vines, whose contract was selected at the start of the offseason to keep him from the Rule 5 draft. He’s never pitched in the majors but posted a 3.95 ERA with a 28.5% strikeout rate over 20 Double-A starts to earn a late-season bump to Gwinnett.
Former Cubs righty Matt Swarmer signed a minor league deal over the weekend and is in camp as a non-roster invitee. 2020 first-rounder Jared Shuster had an impressive start at Double-A before a more average performance in Gwinnett last season. He’s not yet on the 40-man roster and one of the better prospects in a now-thin Atlanta farm system.