The Braves’ Fifth Starter Competition

Coming off a 101-win campaign, the Braves look like one of the top teams in the National League again. There aren’t many areas of concern on the roster. On the position player side, all but shortstop and left field have established solutions that should play somewhere between an above-average level and a star if healthy. The bullpen is one of the best in the sport and the top four Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton they are elite.

However, there is a bit of uncertainty as to who will fill out the starting staff. Atlanta has a handful of pitchers vying for the final rotation spot in Spring Training. A couple have had some major success in the league but have struggled with poor performance or injury recently. Another is a less proven, younger talent.

Ian Anderson

At this time a year ago, it would have seemed foolish to imagine 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 had twice excelled on the postseason stage. Anderson looked like a middle-of-the-rotation arm, a key starter both this season and the next.

The 2022 campaign was the first in which the right faced problems. He made 22 major league starts but allowed five earned runs per nine innings in 111 2/3 frames. Anderson’s strikeout rate dropped to a personal-low 19.7% clip, though he still landed swinging strikes on an above-average 12.3% of his total pitches. While he did a good job of keeping the ball on the ground, he delivered a little harder contact than he has in previous seasons. Anderson also struck out a career high 11% of opposing hitters.

With Atlanta on the cusp of a division race, they optioned the struggling Anderson to Triple-A Gwinnett in early August. He started four games there, posting similar numbers to what he had in the majors. His season was cut short when he strained his left oblique in mid-September.

Anderson is only 24 years old and can certainly bounce back from his senior year. His average fastball velocity dipped marginally last year, but he still checked in at 94 MPH. He owns one of the best changeups in the game. Anderson’s curveball has been a bit less effective, with the absence of a bump contributing to a disappointing .313/.375/.511 line in 253 plate appearances against right-handed hitters last season. Anderson told reporters last week that he is working on a new slider to try to add a weapon to properly face batters (link via The Athletic’s David O’Brien).

Bryce Elder

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 pro season. The 6’2″ righty started nine of his first ten MLB games, posting a 3.17 ERA through 54 appearances. That happened with strikeout and walk numbers each slightly worse than league average (20.7% and 10.1%, respectively), but a quality 49.3% ground ball rate.

He had a longer run at Gwinnett, starting 17 of 18 games. Elder’s 4.46 ERA in 105 Triple-A innings wasn’t quite as impressive as the MLB run-stopping mark, but his peripherals were stronger across the board. He struck out 22.2% of opponents, held walks at a 7.3% clip and collected pitches at a 55.9% rate.

The 23-year-old is no overachiever, averaging just 90.7 MPH on his bottom during his MLB stint. However, he consistently kept the ball down in the minor leagues, posting groundout numbers on more than half the balls he allowed in each stop. Elder nearly kept it going against the big leagues in his first crack and should have some ability to avoid hard contact — thanks in large part to a cutter and slider, he was comfortable deploying against lefties and righties.

Mike Soroka

Soroka, another ground ball specialist, was one of the sport’s top young players not long ago. An All-Star at age 21, he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting after posting a 2.68 ERA through 28 starts as a rookie in 2019. That came on the strength of an outstanding 51.2% grounder rate and a paltry 5.8% walk rate. with Soroka displaying rare polish for a pitcher at his age.

Unfortunately, a brutal run of injuries has limited him to three major outings since then. Those came in the shortened 2020 season before he blew out his right Achilles. After a year in rehab, the same thing happened again just before he could return to a mound. He missed 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 soreness in his elbow — not unexpected for a pitcher coming off such a long layoff — and was shut down as a precaution.

While the Achilles and elbow concerns are hopefully behind him, Soroka has once again been slowed by his body this spring. He experienced some soreness in his hamstring that will delay him entering Spring Training games for a few weeks. It’s not thought to be a major concern, but the right-wing has frankly called it “a kick to the groinGiven how much work he’s put into recovering from other injuries in recent seasons. Whether he can be fully prepared for Opening Day remains to be seen.

Other Features

It looks like the early battle for the fifth starting spot comes down to one of the three throws above (with Soroka perhaps behind the others given his hamstring issue). However, a few others could find themselves in a position to compete for reps at some point during the season, especially if one or two of Atlanta’s top four players suffer an injury.

Colby Allarda former first-round pick of the Braves, he was acquired back from the Rangers at the start of the winter for Jake Odorici. He has a 6.07 ERA in 65 big league games but occupies a 40-man roster spot. The same applies to Darius Vineswhose contract was picked up early in the offseason to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft. He 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 promotion to Gwinnett.

Former Cubs right Matt Swarmer signed a minor league deal over the weekend and is in camp as a non-roster invitee. 2020 first round Jared Shuster had an impressive start in Double-A before a more average performance in Gwinnett last season. He’s not yet on the 40-man roster and one of the top prospects in a now thin Atlanta farm system.

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