Major League Baseball
Why Braves might still be NL's best without Spencer Strider
Major League Baseball

Why Braves might still be NL's best without Spencer Strider

Updated Apr. 15, 2024 9:03 a.m. ET

The bad news was expected this past weekend, but Spencer Strider's elbow injury will sting the Atlanta Braves for the rest of the year.

Strider's season — one built on promise and prestige with the young right-hander dubbed by many the best starting pitcher in baseball and the National League Cy Young favorite — is over. Technically, Strider's 2024 campaign ended the moment the Braves discovered that his ulnar collateral ligament was damaged, which came soon after he flagged the discomfort in his pitching elbow in early April. 

After long days of silence from Atlanta, the club finally announced the expected — and the worst — Saturday: Strider had already undergone elbow surgery and will miss the remainder of the year.

The injury does have a silver lining, however. That Strider was able to undergo the less-invasive internal brace procedure, rather than Tommy John surgery, indicates his UCL did not fully tear. Strider already had Tommy John surgery in 2019 while pitching for Clemson. Pitchers with less severe elbow damage, including partial UCL tears, are better candidates for the internal brace procedure, which has a shorter recovery time than Tommy John. 


In layperson terms, if Strider was forced to undergo a second Tommy John surgery, there was a greater chance of him missing the majority of 2025. Conversely, the Braves are optimistic Strider will return to the mound closer to the start of next season. 

Now, all eyes are on Atlanta to see how the club navigates losing the best strikeout pitcher in the game. There is no copy-and-paste replacement for Strider, not in MLB and certainly not on any level within the Braves' organization. But it does help that the team, still flashing the best record in the NL East, has pitching options in the minor leagues and the offense, unsurprisingly, is the best in baseball. 

While reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. continues searching for his first home run of the season, the rest of the Braves offense has compiled the highest wRC+ (125) in MLB through the first two-plus weeks of the season. No lineup can be counted on more to lift its starting pitcher out of a shoddy start. And every fifth day, at least until the trade deadline, there will be more pressure on this offense to put up crooked numbers and support whoever is filling in for Strider. 

After winning the NL East six years in a row, the Braves are mostly taking care of business without fully clicking to start 2024. There's still every reason to believe they will qualify for the postseason without their ace. It's not inconceivable that when Strider returns to the mound in 2025, he's pitching for the reigning world champions. That's how strong the roster construction is in Atlanta. For now, the Braves' record has allowed general manager Alex Anthopoulos more time to consider internal options for the starting rotation.

Braves' Spencer Strider's UCL & the pitcher injury epidemic

The veteran-laden group has stuff to figure out, as well. 

Max Fried, the 2022 NL Cy Young runner-up who will enter free agency this offseason, is most concerning after surrendering 11 earned runs in 11.1 innings (8.74 ERA) over his first three starts. The southpaw's lengthy track record suggests he'll turn things around. Chris Sale, meanwhile, is registering whiffs and, most importantly, is still intact and healthy. Charlie Morton merits further monitoring after two bad starts following a good one against the hapless White Sox. Reynaldo López (0.75 ERA) has been Atlanta's best starter.

Who's headlining Strider's possible replacements? The guys López defeated in a spring competition for the fifth starter spot. 

There's right-hander Bryce Elder, who earned an All-Star nod last year after beginning the season in Triple-A. Elder recorded a 2.97 ERA in his first 18 starts of 2023 before fading in the second half. There's also top organizational prospect AJ Smith-Shawver, who competed with López and Elder in spring. The 21-year-old righty has coughed up six earned runs in just three innings (two starts) at Triple-A Gwinnett, so it's likely the Braves let him continue throwing in the minors before they give him an injury-induced promotion.

Marcell Ozuna hits go-ahead, 3-run HR in Braves' 9-7 win vs. Marlins

In general, the Braves at this early juncture of the season have the benefit of waiting until July's trade deadline to fully commit to Strider's substitute. As long as Atlanta is still leading the NL East, which is no sure thing with the Phillies looking to snatch the division crown, the rotation can dabble with its depth, implant a revolving door with the No. 5 starter, and hope for the best. 

That strategy will likely strain the Braves' bullpen, a relief unit that's ranked 14th in ERA (4.06). But if even one of those depth options works out, Anthopoulos can completely avoid picking up a pitcher in the summer. If not, the Braves can tap into their farm system to beef up the rotation at the deadline. 

A lot could change over these next few months, but it's still good to be the Atlanta Braves. Despite a 5.50 rotation ERA that ranks 27th in MLB, despite Acuña sporting a .712 OPS through 14 games, Atlanta leads its division and has the third-best winning percentage in the NL. While the Strider injury is a loss for baseball, it's not grounds to count the Braves out of the title chase. It's not even a cause for concern about their immediate future. 

They earned the benefit of the doubt long ago. And their roster provides more reason(s) to believe they might still be inevitable.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.


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