This is the second part of the series where I break down each of the Braves roster battles as we approach spring training. Check out the first part, here.
Pitchers and catchers report in just a couple of days. The Braves currently have four starters set in stone — Max Fried, Mike Soroka (when he’s 100% healthy), Ian Anderson, and Charlie Morton. But the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will be tense. Atlanta went out and signed veteran Drew Smyly to a one-year pact; however, Kyle Wright or Bryse Wilson could steal the job with a stellar spring training.
Smyly’s career began with loads of promise, posting a 3.29 ERA in his first two seasons combined with the Tigers. Detroit traded him to Tampa Bay the following year. His success continued, boasting a 1.70 ERA over his final seven starts before Tampa Bay decided to shut him down for the remainder of the season. Then the injury bug began to hit profusely.
Smyly was limited to just 12 starts in 2015 before throwing the most innings of his career (175.1) in 2016. But after that, he was out of the league for two years, thanks to multiple arm injuries, one being Tommy John Surgery. When he returned in 2019, it wasn’t pleasant, as he recorded a 6.24 ERA between two teams in 25 appearances (21 starts). However, it looked like Smyly started to regain some confidence in the shortened 2020 campaign. He only made seven appearances (26.1 innings), but he struck out a ridiculous 42 batters (14.4 K/9) and had an extremely low FIP of 2.01.
Smyly is a high-upside, versatile signing. Going into camp, he’s expected to be the team’s fifth starter and will have every opportunity to lock down the job. However, Wilson and Wright are no slouches, and Smyly also has plenty of experience coming out of the bullpen. If one of Wilson or Wright thrives during spring training and Smyly struggles, the veteran lefty could find himself in a relief role to start the season.
Wright’s first couple of years of major-league experience have been bumpy. During spring training in 2019, he asserted himself into the starting rotation with a dominating performance. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to the regular season. He was rocked in his first start by the Phillies, and it wasn’t long before he found himself in AAA for the remainder of the year. ‘
2020 began similarly. After four abysmal starts, Wright was sent back to the team’s alternate site to work out the kinks. His control was just not there, as he walked 16 batters in only 15 innings, resulting in a 7.20 ERA. However, he must have figured something out because when he returned, he was lights out. In his final three starts, Wright went 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA, allowing just five walks over 19 innings. Then he capped it off with arguably the best outing of his career in the Divisional round of the playoffs, tossing six innings of shutout ball against the Marlins.
Of course, Wright’s final outing of 2020 was a brutal one. The Dodgers lit him up for seven runs before he could even get out of the first inning. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t take away from the drastic improvements he made over the final month-plus of the season. Wright has all of the talent in the world. If he can limit his walks, he deserves to be apart of the starting rotation.
I wouldn’t consider any of these guys long shots to begin the season in the starting rotation, especially with the possibility that Mike Soroka could start the year on the Injured List. But of the three, Wilson has the most to prove, simply because he has yet to prove he can handle major-league lineups consistently. With that being said, his performance in Game 4 of last year’s NLCS showed the world his potential.
I will be the first to admit: I was firmly against Wilson starting a critical game in the postseason, especially against a potent Dodgers lineup. To that point, he had shown absolutely nothing to prove that he could handle the magnitude of the situation. But he proved me and many other people wrong by pitching the game of his life. Wilson went six innings, striking out five and allowing just one hit — a home run off the bat of Edwin Rios. He easily out-dueled future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, putting the Braves only one win shy of the World Series.
Wilson will still need to be more consistent to earn a permanent spot in the Braves rotation, but he should have plenty of confidence after that Game 4 performance. If he looks like that in spring training, it will be difficult for Brian Snitker not to give him starts — even if it means beginning the season with a six-man rotation.