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Max Fried Looks To Lead Revitalized Braves Rotation in 2021

A year ago at this time a number of baseball journalists were penning that the Atlanta Braves had an opulence of starting pitching. With 2018 All-Star Mike Foltynewicz, young southpaw Max Fried looking to take the next step, Ian Anderson waiting in the wings, top prospects such as Kyle Wright, Touki Touissaint and Bryse Wilson and ace Mike Soroka already on the club, they inked former American League Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez as well as gave 4x All-Star Cole Hamels a loaded one year commitment that has become the Alex Anthopoulos special.

In 2019, their starters blazed their way to a 4.20 ERA. When everything looked as though it was about to go according to plan, everything went south for the pride of Southern Baseball. They did not have a stellar rotation, as if it were still the ’90s with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Despite adding two legendary pitchers and having high hopes for the arms they already had on the club, the club Earned Run Average ballooned to a 5.51 ERA.

Felix Hernandez opted out of the season following the outbreak of COVID-19, still having yet to play a game outside of a Mariners uniform in the regular season. Mike Foltynewicz played his first game of the season at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. He surrendered six earned runs in under four innings of work, highlighted by homeruns hit by Mike Zunino, Hunter Renfroe and Joey “All We Do Is” Wendle. It was the only game Foltynewicz would play in 2020. He only induced four swings and misses across 70 pitches. He was designated for assignment following the outing.

Five of the teams starts came from Robbie Erlin, who they’d claimed off of waivers in August from the Pirates. For the Braves, he posted a ridiculously awful 8.49 ERA. They acquired Tommy Milone from the Orioles at the deadline to shore up what they would’ve hoped was a strength: he posted a 14.90 ERA across three starts. Kyle Wright made eight starts, second most on the club, and posted a 5.21 ERA.

However, the Braves took the Dodgers to seven games in the NLCS, despite their awful starting pitching. This was highlighted by a breakout performance from Bryse Wilson:

So, how have the Braves addressed it? Rather well. These are the five players they hope to pitch the entire season in 2021.

Max Fried

Max Fried was the one constant who stabilized the rotation for the Atlanta Braves this past season. Despite hitting the IL in September with a back spasm, he was scintillating the entire year. The eight day IL stint likely cost him the NL Cy Young, as he posted a 2.9 bWAR to coincide with his 2.25 ERA, 2.12 ERA+ and impressive 7-0 record. He had a 1.96 ERA heading into his final start, and the team only lost one game of the eleven he started in 2020. He did show signs of sheer luck, posting a 3.10 FIP, but that FIP still solidifies him as an ace. As aforementioned, the Braves were hoping Fried would take the next step in 2020 and that he did. Fried, who finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2020, was coming off of a 2019 season where he performed to to a 4.02 ERA over just under 166 frames. His career ERA has now dipped to 3.52 in 67 career games. As he looks to build off of 2020, one could argue that his peripherals were down, having a lower K% (22.3%), groundball percentage (53%) and a higher BB% (8.5%) to his career averages of 24.3%, 54.5% and 8.2%, respectively. Fried, who has likely become Atlanta’s Opening Day starter, has a devastating wipeout curveball topping out at around 75 mph that’s complimented by a fastball with pinpoint accuracy topping at 98 when needed, but usually sitting from 93-96 mph and slider that hits around 83 on the gun.

Charlie Morton

The biggest signing of this offseason for the Braves thus far is that of veteran Charlie *expletive* Morton, or “CFM” for short. Morton was drafted by the Braves on June 25th, 2002. That day, the Braves put out a lineup that consisted of Gary Sheffield, Henry Blanco and Keith Lockhart. When Charlie Morton made his MLB debut for the Braves in 2008, he replaced first ballot Hall of Famer and perhaps the teams most legendary starter Tom Glavine in the starting rotation. Alas, a long stint with the big league club was not meant to be as he was dealt to the Pirates for Nate McLouth in 2009. Between the Braves, Pirates and Phillies from 2008-2016, he posted a 4.54 cumulative ERA. Since the start of the 2017 season with Houston and later Tampa Bay, he is now a two-time All-Star having posted a 3.34 ERA across those four seasons. He’s aged like a fine wine, as if he’s baseball John Elway (just not nearly as good in his prime). His cutter is filthy, to go along with a lights out curveball and dominant change-up. His velocity ranges from 96-99. He is what the Braves need: a pitcher with a postseason pedigree. He has won more win or go home playoff games than any other team in MLB history, including Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and Game 7 of the 2020 ALCS. Morton signed with Atlanta on a one-year, $15M pact identical to the mutual optioned turn down by the Tampa Bay Rays for 2021. Morton cited Rick Kranitz, the Braves pitching coach, as a major reason for signing with them. Kranitz was his pitching coach in Philadelphia. The Braves catching coach Sal Fasano caught Morton in AAA and their current starting catcher is Travis d’Arnaud, who caught Morton in 2019 with Tampa Bay. Morton is familiarized with the staff. In 69 nice frames of work, Morton posted a 3.38 ERA and fanned 80 hitters with d’Arnaud as his batterymate.

Mike Soroka

Soroka is a bit more of a question mark as there is still speculation regarding the health of his ankle. There is zero doubt that at 100% he is the Braves smartest pitcher. Perhaps, his arm doesn’t have as much thunder in it as a Max Fried, but it’s hard to find somebody that plays a better chess game than Mike Soroka. The 23-year-old righty was the Braves Opening Day starter in 2020, but barely got out of the gate before suffering a debilitating injury. In just his third start of the season, a freak injury tore his Achilles tendon coming off of the mound. Full recovery is usually 9-12 months, so while Soroka is ahead of schedule and currently throwing bullpen sessions, he still may not be available to start the 2021 season and if he is, he is unlikely to be at 100%. When he is 100%, though, boy is he something else. He has 2.86 ERA over his first 214 innings of work. In his one full season, he finished top five in Cy Young voting, was elected an All-Star and had a 2.68 ERA over 274.2 innings of work. His peripherals are naturally a bit higher, considering he isn’t a strike out pitcher but he also isn’t prone to the longball which is rare for a pitcher who pitches to contact. He induces groundballs at one of the most efficient rates in baseball. He has more of an old-school, fluid wind up and delivery as well.

Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson made his MLB debut a lot sooner than anybody could’ve anticipated due to how much of an oddity the 2020 season was. However, he certainly delivered among expectations. In 32 innings of work, he posted an incredible 1.95 ERA. His MLB debut came in the Bronx against the vaunted New York Yankees, where he held them to one hit across six innings. He outdueled Gerrit Cole. It was the first game Gerrit Cole had lost in the regular season in 28 starts. He has three plus pitches: his changeup, curveball and fastball. He uses the curveball over 20% of the time and the change over 30% of the time, doing an excellent job mixing up his pitches to keep hitters unbalanced. In 18.2 postseason innings, his star shined bright, though, posting a 0.96 ERA between outings against the Reds, Marlins and Dodgers. In five postseason starts, he gave up just two total runs. It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments the league makes and if Anderson is able to adjust to the league in the mean time, but he’s an early favorite for National League Rookie of the Year, and for good reason.

Drew Smyly

Drew Smyly, alongside then-teenage shortstop Willy Adames, were the main pieces for the Tampa Bay Rays in the deal that sent David Price to Detroit. Price, who won the Cy Young for the Rays in 2012, had already been a three-time All-Star. Smyly hasn’t quite reached the same success, or even came close to replicating such success. But, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a quality arm going forward. Across seven MLB seasons spent between the Tigers, Rays, Rangers, Phillies and Giants, Smyly has posted underwhelming results overall (35-35, 4.13 ERA in 188 lifetime games) and dealt with a number of injuries, which included missing all of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. That said, Smyly posted terrific results in 2020 and there’s a lot to build off of. In his lone season in San Francisco, Smyly posted a 3.42 ERA and a 14.4 K-per-nine. Atlanta shouldn’t expect this, seeing as his lifetime K-per-nine is 9.0. However, there are signs that Smyly was even better than his 3.42 ERA, having posted a 2.01 FIP. The excellent peripherals garnered him a one year pact worth $11M from the Braves earlier this offseason.

Other Options:

The Atlanta Braves main five may be set, but with questions marks surrounding Soroka’s health and the potential for there to always be more injuries, depth is key. The Braves currently have Bryse Wilson waiting in the wings, who outdueled Clayton Kershaw last postseason. Kyle Wright, despite an awful 2020 season, performed extremely well against Marlins in October, giving the Braves reason to be hopeful should they need to rely on him again. Josh Tomlin looks to be in the mop-up role in 2020, but the career swingman can easily give the Braves innings if needed, with 150 starts under his belt. Sean Newcomb (57 starts) and Huascar Ynoa (five starts) also have experience starting games in the Majors. That also doesn’t factor their pitching-rich farmsystem into the equation.

The Braves have a loaded offense that includes reigning MVP Freddie Freeman, as well as young phenoms such as Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna that carried them throughout the year in 2020. This year, the weight seems to be taken off of their shoulders a bit with what should be a solidified rotation going forward. The Braves were one win away from a World Series appearance without these moves, how good can they be with them?

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