The Braves’ rotation looks lost so far; here’s why it’s likely to be a problem all season

Heading into the season, the consensus was that the Braves were one of the powerhouse teams in baseball. Why not? They had won three straight NL East titles and took the Dodgers to Game 7 of the NLCS in 2020. They returned most of the roster while adding what appeared to be good pieces in certain places of need.

Instead, they are sitting here on June 3 and haven’t yet been above .500 yet this season. Not even for a game. They’ve been .500 four different times and then strung together multiple losses each time. 

There are some problems that are very likely to resolve themselves over the course of the season, such as some of the power on offense getting off to a slow start. Some won’t, such as the Marcell Ozuna domestic violence

All along, I’ve kind of had this feeling that the feeling that these Braves will be one of those teams that just kind of laid in the weeds for a few months before hitting its stride for hot play in August and September and then became a tough out in October. 

I’m having second thoughts, though. What was once looking like it would be a good and deep rotation appears to be neither. 

My main concern is the long-term prospects of the rotation for this season. It hasn’t been a total disaster to this point, but it ranked 18th in rotation ERA before Tucker Davidson worked 5 2/3 scoreless Thursday. It’s not the current number I’d be worried about, though. 

  • It looks like Mike Soroka might be out for the season after suffering a setback from his Achilles repair surgery that ended last season for him. Even if he makes it back, can they really count on him? 
  • Huascar Ynoa has a fracture in his pitching hand (sure could’ve used Crash Davis’ lesson to punch with your non-pitching hand, no?) and will be out for a while. Then he’ll have to work his arm back into shape. Who knows by then if he’ll be able to recreate that early 2021 magic. 
  • Free agent signee Drew Smyly has a 5.98 ERA, 6.29 FIP and 1.37 WHIP in 46 2/3 innings and he’s looked every bit that bad. He has a 5.78 ERA, 5.67 FIP and 1.47 WHIP since the beginning of 2019. Before that, he hadn’t pitched in the majors — due to major injuries, starting with Tommy John surgery — since 2016. I’m not sure there’s reason to believe he can turn it around, but there certainly isn’t reason to believe he can pitch effectively once he gets up well into the 100s in innings — especially not with his history of arm injuries. He only threw 26 1/3 innings last year and 114 in 2019. 
  • I trust Charlie Morton to be at least somewhat productive for most of the year. Right now he has a 4.26 ERA, 3.75 FIP and 1.28 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 57 innings. It’s a 102 ERA+, so he’s been around league average. The good news is velocity hasn’t gone anywhere. The bad news is he’s gotten hit a lot harder these past two years since he was a Cy Young contender in 2019. Remember, he’s 37 years old. 
  • I’m an Ian Anderson fan. He was amazing in his six regular-season starts as a rookie last year and carried it over with a big postseason. He’s taken a step back to simply being good this year, but that’s perfectly acceptable at age 23. He’s still only made 16 career starts, after all. My concern here is the workload allowance from the Braves. Anderson’s professional innings from age 18 in the lower levels of the minors through last season are as follows (we’ll include the playoffs last year): 39 2/3, 83, 119 1/3, 135 2/3 and 51. He’s already to 55 innings this year. It’s pretty clear they had a nice progression going with their 2016 first-round pick to possibly hit 150ish last season and then this season I’d have zero concern getting to a full workload of 175-plus. Instead — and to be clear, this is a league-wide question among young starting pitchers to be answered in the second half of 2021 — how will the Braves handle this prized, young arm? His career high in innings in the pros isn’t even 140. And are they really going to ramp him up that high after not getting to 55 last year? I’m dubious. There is where I thought Soroka was going to come in handy to take over in the case of a shutdown. 
  • Max Fried has gotten crushed this year. He finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting last year, but sits with a 5.35 ERA and 1.55 WHIP this year, allowing opposing hitters to slash .286/.364/.435 against him. He’s better than this, but his batted ball data looks rough (average exit velocity up, hard hit percentage up, line drive percentage up, fly ball percentage up, ground ball percentage down, etc.). He’s just not getting near as much movement or commanding his pitches as well. An adjustment is needed. 
  • After that, it’s Kyle Wright (career 6.09 MLB ERA; 3.86 ERA in Triple-A this season), Bryse Wilson (5.35 career MLB ERA, 1.35 WHIP in Triple-A this year), Touki Toussaint (60-day injured list with strained shoulder), and Davidson. Maybe Davidson builds on his outing against the Nationals from Thursday. He was stellar in his three Triple-A starts (0.90 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 23 K, 4 BB, 20 IP) before the promotion. These guys all have the same workload concerns as Anderson, though. 

Look, it’s still entirely possible things work out. Maybe Smyly and Fried get things figured out while Morton remains steady. Maybe they find a way to effectively leverage Wright, Wilson and Davidson with Anderson to maximize the innings from the youngsters without having to shut anyone down for more than a start or two at a time. Perhaps the time off is good in getting Ynoa to the end of the year before workload becomes worrisome on him. It’s possible Soroka recovers quickly and comes back. There’s a trade deadline where they can add, too. 

I’m just saying that’s an awful lot of red flags outlined above. The closest they have to a sure thing is a 37-year-old who is pitching around league average this season.

I still won’t be surprised if the Braves find a way to make that late-season run. If they don’t, aside from Ozuna, we can blame what has happened with the rotation. The issues range from performance, bad injury luck, self-inflicted injury and circumstantial. Regardless, they are very real issues moving forward. 

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