Braves’ quiet offseason on pitching front could create opportunity for young arms, injury returnees

ATLANTAMike Soroka’s highest hurdle during his impressive yet abbreviated rookie season might have been exercising patience, setting aside the urge to rush back to the mound after suffering the first significant injury of his young career. The 21-year-old watched the Atlanta Braves’ playoff run on television from Orlando, Fla. while rehabbing his right shoulder, relegated to a spectator after debuting as MLB’s youngest pitcher last season.

“It’s definitely a little bittersweet,” Soroka said of being separated from his teammates during their NL East title run and the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013. “ … Just kind of dealing with possibilities that you haven’t really thought of before. You always kind of wrote off injury because you’re naive and you think that just because you eat properly and you work out that you’re gonna stay away from injuries. That’s not how it is.”

Now the 6-foot-4 top prospect returns to the fold for Atlanta after posting a 3.51 ERA in his first five big-league starts. And he’s got company.

Soroka co-headlines a running storyline with spring training report dates less than a month away: General manager Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves’ front office have yet to make a significant pitching addition this offseason, instead banking (thus far) on player development and notable returnees from the disabled list.

Top pitching prospects Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard combined for 129 MLB innings last season. Trade-deadline acquisition Kevin Gausman made only 10 starts in a Braves uniform. Experienced relievers Darren O’Day, who joined Atlanta in the Gausman deal, and Grant Dayton did not pitch last season due to injury, but both are on schedule to compete for bullpen jobs this spring. Right-handed rookie Chad Sobotka made the postseason roster after just 14 1/3 innings. Patrick Weigel, considered one of Atlanta’s top prospects two years ago before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2017, is back on the mound.

As manager Brian Snitker put it: “We’ve made some really good additions without losing anybody.”

Though Atlanta needs to replace productive innings from Nationals signing Anibal Sanchez, that’s 12 internal candidates capable of taking on the 327 innings left behind by roster departures, excluding future call-up options waiting in the minors.

The front office is not ruling out making pitching additions — at the desired price, either in prospects or money, similar to the team-friendly signings of Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis and Brian McCann — but it does not see the need to overextend itself addressing a group that finished among baseball’s 12 best in league- and park-adjusted ERA and fielding-independent pitching.

“We like our internal pitching options because we think there’s upside,” Anthopoulos said. “I think that’s where we targeted the position players side because we just didn’t think with the internal options we had the upside and the depth. We do think guys like Soroka, Fried, obviously Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, all these other guys — we wouldn’t be surprised if they go out, like Foltynewicz a year ago (or) Sean Newcomb, and have big years. They have the stuff. They have the experience. They’re going to get better.

“ … That was the biggest challenge with a guy like Anibal Sanchez, who we would have liked to have had back, we’re ultimately trying to weigh at what point do we allocate those dollars and take away an opportunity for one of those young starters. It doesn’t mean that we won’t pursue a starter and if we think someone can make us better, but knowing that we have guys internally that we think can take a step, the bar’s high for us.”

Braves rookie starters ranked third in adjusted ERA and adjusted FIP, first in home-run rate, eighth in strikeout rate and 10th in wins above replacement (FanGraphs) over 88 1/3 innings. The production was there. Now the question falls back on opportunity.

Anthopoulos confirmed earlier this offseason that starting pitching prospects could receive bullpen consideration — where Toussaint, Fried and Sean Newcomb each excelled in the NLDS against the Dodgers’ high-scoring offense — but the team’s preference is to keep young arms stretched out, especially with bullpen help already on the way.

O’Day, much like Soroka, was unable to assist the team’s playoff run due to injury in 2018. The 36-year-old right-hander could not take the mound (or sit comfortably) after undergoing surgery on his left hamstring, suffered while fielding a bunt against Seattle, but doctors assured him he’s going to be ready for early 2019.

“There’s not a big case history for baseball athletes doing this,” O’Day said. “It’s mostly like water skiers and snow skiers, if you can kind of envision falling over when you’re water skiing. A lot of football players do it. They said the repair is stronger than the original hamstring.”

When healthy, O’Day’s production is rarely in question: Since 2008, the only relievers to pitch 500 or more innings with a lower ERA are Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel.

The veteran found himself in an odd situation as a trade-deadline pickup who was a consistent presence at SunTrust Park, just not in game situations. As O’Day, who expects to be ready for spring training action, joked at Chop Fest, “Everybody was like wondering who the guy in the corner was, eating all the food. That was me.”

That will not be the case in 2019.

“Let him fly below the radar,” Anthopoulos said back in December. “We knew about him as a guy in the clubhouse and a leader. He was great when he was here the last two months of the season. He comes out basically every day doing his rehab and feeling good. He was performing really well for the Orioles before. We had actually talked about him in trade before he got hurt. And then he obviously blew out and we had to take him as part of the (Kevin Gausman) deal, but we like the upside.

” … We have a young pen and he’s a great example and also we think he’s still going to get guys out and be very good.”

Dayton is another veteran wildcard in the bullpen mix. The 31-year-old southpaw, acquired during Anthopoulos’ streak of Dodgers acquisitions (Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, Josh Ravin, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir) last offseason, missed the 2018 campaign due to Tommy John surgery, but he claims 59 strikeouts in 50 career major-league innings with an 8.9 percent walk rate. Injury comebacks provide few guarantees, but the two Southeastern Conference products — Dayton went to Auburn, O’Day went to Florida — are oft-forgotten pieces to the equation.

Throw in impressive minor-league arms like Corbin Clouse and Thomas Burrows, along with any number of starting pitchers like Weigel or Gohara, and there’s a potential surplus of quality bullpen options.

The question for Anthopoulos & Co. after signing Markakis for just $6 million guaranteed: Is it enough? There’s no shortage of available money and top prospects. It’s simply a matter of how, and when, the organization elects to make its next move amid a hyperactive divisional arms race.

Atlanta’s front office has spent the entire offseason addressing its primary concern, but Josh Donaldson represents the only projected upgrade in the batting order and the front office continues to acknowledge the opportunity cost of making marginal upgrades on the pitching front, leaving the door at least partially open to devote most, if not all, of its remaining resources toward addressing offensive needs and trusting that the arms needed for the NL East title defense are already wearing Braves uniforms.