For Braves Country, the mood entering the team’s off day on Thursday is probably best described as mixed. On the one hand… there’s cause for concern as former Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka is reportedly dealing with shoulder discomfort and will be shut down for at least two weeks; on the other hand, though… questions regarding Atlanta’s pitching staff — specifically the fifth-starter spot — were perhaps answered during Tuesday’s doubleheader as 22-year-old Huascar Ynoa tossed a two-hit gem against the Nationals to complete the day’s sweep.
The news regarding Soroka most certainly sucks. But Ynoa’s most recent performance offers a sneak peek into what some of the Braves’ many talented pitchers can offer.
I know it’s just one start. And despite showing flashes of brilliance during camp this spring, Ynoa’s 7.79 ERA in 17.1 innings doesn’t necessarily scream rotation material. But he was in complete control on Tuesday versus Washington, with just a single and a double as his pair of blemishes, to go along with five strikeouts and one walk through five innings. About as good as anyone really could have expected, Ynoa went toe to toe with a dangerous Nationals offense, and even with Atlanta struggling to get anything going against his counterpart, Stephen Strasburg (6 IP, 1 H, 2 BB, 8 K), the Dominican righty kept pounding the strike zone with his filthy fastball-slider combination. Ynoa didn’t do enough to earn the win, but now in his seventh professional season, it appears he’s finally peaking at just the right moment.
And despite him only being 22, it’s really been a rather long road for Ynoa. This is a guy that started his pro career as a 16-year-old when the Twins signed him as an international free agent for $800K back in the summer of 2014. Thanks to command issues, though, Ynoa’s upside has always been hard to gauge, considering his stuff on the mound impressed evaluators even as a young teen.
Used solely as a starter while in Minnesota’s system, Ynoa was solid in rookie ball prior to the Braves acquiring him via trade in the summer of 2017 (the Jaime Garcia deal). But once in Danville — Atlanta’s advanced rookie club — those results quickly wavered. After posting a 4.56 ERA in 24 starts (116.1 IP) combined between Single-A Rome and High-A Florida in 2018 (with the latter level featuring an 8+ ERA), the Braves had seen enough and decided to transition Ynoa to the bullpen.
With so much pitching talent coming up through the system over the last few seasons, Ynoa has sort of gone under the radar. Although, his brief two-game MLB debut in 2019 didn’t help matters. After working one good outing and one terrible one (1 IP / 6 ER), Ynoa’s prospect stock perhaps took an unfair blow as he finished up the ’19 campaign in Triple-A Gwinnett. Ynoa got another shot last season, used in a hybrid-like role with the Braves. But once again, command issues stunted his potential, and by the end of 2020, his ERA sat at 5.82.
Fortunately for him, as is usually the case with Atlanta to open each new season, in 2021, there’s an opening in the starting rotation due to Soroka’s injury from last year.
I have to admit, entering Spring Training, I had a lot more confidence in one of either Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, or the ultra high-ceiling Touki Toussaint. From a results standpoint on paper, the others either had more of a track record or appeared to possess more consistency. But Ynoa came out looking much more refined this spring and instantly garnered attention with what looked like a different delivery and arm angle. Like what happens so often in baseball, Ynoa seemed improved, but his numbers didn’t show it on the stat sheet.
But Tuesday’s outing featured a moment where seemingly everything aligned for Ynoa. And if he can continue to pitch well and build off that impressive start against the Nationals, his role will become more and more significant with the Braves. With Soroka likely out until at least sometime in May (maybe longer), someone must step up and help stabilize this starting staff. So far, it appears Ynoa is prepared to take on that responsibility.
Photo: Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire