Braves Free Agent Preview: Starting Pitchers
deGrom? Rodon? Or searching through the bargain bin? Maybe none of the above
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What was supposed to be a strength for the Atlanta Braves quickly turned into a weakness in the Division Series. Max Fried looked a shell of his former self after suffering from a stomach bug in his final regular season start. Spencer Strider dazzled for two innings, but quickly ran out of gas in return from a strained oblique. And Charlie Morton was hit by a comebacker yet again in a playoff game and never looked the same.
Only Kyle Wright, the question mark entering the 2022 season, performed well in the postseason as he out-pitched Zack Wheeler on his way to securing the team's only win in the playoffs.
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Prior to the postseason, the Braves starters finished the 2022 campaign with 15.1 fWAR, good for seventh in the majors. Only three teams had a better K-rate. The Braves starters also finished with the fourth-lowest Barrel-rate. And that is despite Morton struggling to keep the ball in the yard and the season-long struggles to find a competent fifth starter.
Today, let's look at what's still in the cupboard for the 2023 season and, briefly, take a gander at what might intrigue the Braves in the free agent market. Arbitration numbers are courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. For pre-arbitration, I applied a minor increase over 2022 salary.
2023 Starters At A Glance
Charlie Morton - $20 million
Spencer Strider - $1 million
Max Fried - Arbitration Year 3 of 4 ($12.2M)
Mike Soroka - Arbitration Year 3 of 4 (2.8M)
Kyle Wright - Team control ($800K)
Ian Anderson - Team control ($800K)
Jake Odorizzi - Player Option ($12.5M or $6.25M buyout)
40-man & team-controlled - Bryce Elder, Kyle Muller, Alan Rangel.
As you can see, this is a hefty group returning with a lot to cover.
So, that 2023 Option…
Let's start with Odorizzi. His contract is one that will make you tilt your head to the side. When he signed with Astros, he was guaranteed $23.5 million over three years. That comes from $11 million in base salary over two years, a $6 million signing bonus seemingly split between 2021-22, and the $6.25 million buyout on a player option. He could earn an addition $6 million should he opt for the player option instead.
But here's why I don't think he will. Odorizzi will be 33 next March. He's coming off a four-year fWAR of 6.7 with most of that coming in 2019. For everything he's not, he's good for 20-24 starts and a fWAR above 1.0. Someone, somewhere, will give him $8 million for 2023 and, maybe, an option for 2024. When you add the buyout on the player option, Odorizzi would likely top what he could get if he simply exercised the option with potentially another buyout or guaranteed year in 2024. When you take into account that Odorizzi didn't exactly pitch that well in Atlanta, I cannot see him returning in 2023.
The Big Three
That leaves the previously-extended Morton and Strider, the team-controlled Fried and Wright, and a battle for the fifth job.
Briefly, the top four of the Braves rotation combined for 13.6 fWAR last season with both Fried and Strider ranking among the top eight pitchers in fWAR. There's no reason to think, if healthy, a repeat effort isn't possible with a higher ceiling since Strider only started 20 games. Then you add Wright, who lacks the tools that lead to a big fWAR, but his 3.89 xERA was still better than Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker. He may not be on the elite level of Fried and (hopefully) Strider, but as a #3, he's an excellent option.
Morton's Disappearing Break
That leaves Morton. In many ways, Morton is a fine #4 starter. He ended the 2022 season with a 4.34 ERA, 4.11 xERA, and 4.26 FIP. Would you like all three numbers to be under 4? Absolutely. The problem with Morton was that he couldn't generate the same level of sink he made a career out of. His groundball rate dropped 10%. As a result, his solid and barrel rates soared. Nearly all of his five pitches lost noticeable break in 2022, but the problem was especially noticeable on his two-most used options - the curve and four-seamer.
Maybe the most eye-popping change was launch angle. The only season since 2015 that Morton's launch angle went into double digits was the pandemic-shortened 2020 and the smart money is on that number lowering with more time. That was until 2022, that is. The previous season, the average launch angle was 7.7 degrees. In 2022, it was 13.6 degrees. His hard-hit rate went up 9.6%.
Yet, the Braves brought Morton back for a $20 million extension that was quite confusing considering they already had an identical $20 million team option for next season.
In the end, Morton's success or continued decline will be something to watch next season. Will he return to "Ground Chuck" or will he become even more vulnerable to homers? Or has he plateaued for now and we can expect a bunch of K's, innings, and dingers in 2023? Whatever happens, the Braves could definitely use a return to his previous self. While the rotation is deep, a 2021 Morton would be huge.
Fifth Starter Battle
The five-spot in the rotation was a merry-go-round of mediocrity prior to Strider getting the call last season. But then, it became Anderson and the struggle to find a competent fifth starter continued. The Braves are hoping that gets resolved in 2023 and they will have five starters they can count on. Don't get your hopes up too high, though. The last time the Braves had five pitchers make at least 25 starts in a season was 2003. For that matter, the last time they had four do it was 2014. It's just so hard to find that level of depth and health. That's why the Braves will hope to have five ready to go to at least open 2023.
Aside from Odorizzi, who I think won't be back, there is a big crew coming for the final spot.
Ian Anderson - Probably the favorite right now, Anderson suffered a strained oblique in early September and was never considered a possible factor after that. Of course, his struggles in the season had a lot to do with that. At some point during the year, I said that Anderson wasn't as good as he looked in 2021 (3.58 ERA) and wasn't as bad as he performed this season (5.00 ERA). I still think that. His problem is simple to identify, harder to fix. Anderson's fastball has good movement - better in 2020 and 2021 than last year - and his changeup is his put away pitch. The problem is if you don't have a good breaking pitch, hitters will time you pretty well. Anderson, sadly, doesn't have a good breaking pitch. He had more spin on the pitch in 2020 and hitters hit the top of it. He's lost roughly 200 rpm on it since (sticky stuff ban?) and now, hitters can elevate it and that's not what Anderson wants nor needs. His changeup has also lost a lot of spin as well and, while it's not nearly the problem the curve is, the average exit velocity has climbed from 81.4 mph in 2020 to 86.6 mph last year. For Anderson, he needs to look more like the 2020 version, less like the 2021 one, and look nothing like the 2022 one. Like I said, easier said than done.
Bryce Elder - After some early season bugaboos, Elder returned and looked like a changed man down the stretch. His performance was so good that we started to wonder if he might make the postseason roster. It's difficult to really get a feel on Elder. One thing that's obvious between his early-season struggles and his late season performance is Elder believed in himself. He nibbled a lot in April, leading to 14 walks to 12 strikeouts in 19 innings. When he returned, he walked just nine and K'd 35 in 35 innings. He finished the year in a much better position and is primed to be a top contender for the fifth spot in the rotation. Elder is a bit like Kyle Wright. When he's right, he's forcing hitters to hit the top of the ball for easy outs. We saw two different Elders in 2022. If we see more of the second one - and I think that's more of a sign of who Elder actually is - he's got a real shot to be a quiet force in the fifth spot.
Mike Soroka - 2019 seems like ages ago. That was the only chance we really got to see what Soroka could do. He had a 2.68 ERA over 174.2 innings and a 4.0 fWAR. But between that were a five-start 2018 and a three-start 2020. Since then, he's been on the shelf with a pair of ACL injuries. He was able to get back on the mound this year with six rehab starts, though the results weren't thrilling before elbow soreness ended his season. Soroka is going to be a roughly $3 million lottery ticket in 2023. He could be the feel-good story of the season if Maple Maddux returns in all his glory. Or he could be yet another reminder that you build so much pitching depth because the Sorokas of the world happen.
Kyle Muller - Muller has thrown 49 innings over the last two seasons in the majors. At this point, he'll either become the next Kyle Wright or the next Touki Toussaint. My gut says he's closer to the latter, though. With Gwinnett in 2022, he cut his walk rate from 12% to 7%. Generally, he looked like a mature arm that was spending his second year at Triple-A. He checked all the boxes the Braves probably were looking for compared to what he did with Gwinnett in 2021. At this point, something needs to happen with Muller. The Braves have avoided a move to the bullpen which some think he's best suited for. It's easy to see why - he retains more trade value as a starting prospect. But if he lasts through the offseason, it might be time to unleash Muller as a reliever.
Alan Rangel and Freddy Tarnok - Both righties have made progression over the last several years. Both righties have slow curves and a lot of action in their deliveries. And both righties might be best suited for a bullpen role in the majors. In Rangel's case, he has a better off-speed pitch. In fact, it might be his best pitch. Tarnok has the higher-end talent with a big fastball and the better chance to be a mid-rotation arm or better. Rangel has the better floor right now. But neither arm is probably ready to push Anderson or Elder.
Jared Shuster - Shuster was a high-floor southpaw out of Wake Forest in 2020. The biggest criticism about Shuster is that his fastball lacks enough velocity or bite to avoid getting destroyed when he doesn't locate it. The changeup is excellent and the slider flashes with plus potential. Even if there weren't a host of options ahead of him right now, Shuster needs more development. Long-term, he has the tools and skills to be a steady performer in the bottom of the rotation.
Free Agent Preview
There are, of course, many exciting names on this market. Jacob deGrom is sure to opt-out and hit the market. Justin Verlander has a player option that he probably won't exercise. And while he's said a lot about wanting to stay in San Francisco, I can't imagine Carlos Rodon not choosing to hit the market after finishing fourth in baseball in xERA.
Other arms will be available like Clayton Kershaw, Nathan Eovaldi, Zack Greinke, Carlos Carrasco, and probably Chris Bassitt. Chris Sale could join the market, but considering how many arms are already available, I imagine he'll not opt out and return to the Red Sox after a broken wrist ended his season.
A lot of people feel deGrom is a likely target of the Braves and he certainly is an exciting option. I'm inclined to believe after signing Morton, the Braves will stay out of the free agent market for a starter. At best, I could see them going after a guy trying to re-establish value like Sean Manaea on a one-year deal. But the idea of carving out $35 million-to-$40 million for deGrom - especially considering his plethora of issues lately staying healthy - seems far-fetched to me.
To Sum Up...
The Braves have a small army of starters for the 2023 season already in the mix. Beyond the top three, the hope is that Morton can get back to what he was in 2021 and one of the cast of thousands auditioning for the fifth starter job can rise to the occasion. I could see the Braves dipping their toes into the market, but I think their sights will be set on value for their dollar rather than bidding wars with the big spenders.
What could be the best play to seek improvement would be to embrace the trade market. Might the Marlins entertain moving Pablo Lopez? How about Brandon Woodruff from the Brewers? Yes, the Braves lack the top prospects other teams can offer, but if other squads are focused on the free agent market, it might be a good time to try to steal a player for less prospect capital than they would cost at the deadline.
So, I'm sorry. I don't see Jacob deGrom coming to the Braves.
But I've been wrong before.
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