Braves Opening Day starter: Morton or Fried?

March 27th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It's often been said that if a football team has two quarterbacks, it has none.

But if a baseball team has two legit Opening Day starter candidates, then it will find itself with a pretty happy manager, even if he isn’t quite ready to say which of the two will get the nod on Opening Day.

“It’s kind of like when we had [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine and [John] Smoltz,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You can’t go wrong with any of your choices."

The Braves feel far removed from the days when Julio Teheran annually drew the Opening Day start by default. With Charlie Morton and Max Fried, the defending World Series champs have two legitimate frontline starters who both arguably deserve to be on the mound when Atlanta opens its season on April 7 against the Reds at Truist Park.

As Morton pitched 4 2/3 hitless and scoreless innings in a 4-1 loss to the Rays on Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park, Fried stayed back in North Port to throw a five-inning simulated game against Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson.

“[Morton] and Max are about as good as you can be right now,” Snitker said. “Each of them will have another [exhibition game] start.”

By having Morton and Fried on the same schedule, the Braves have kept open the option of starting either one of them on Opening Day. It makes sense, given that Morton is still coming back from the right leg fracture he suffered in Game 1 of the World Series.

But for now, both pitchers look healthy. So the question remains whether the honor should go to Morton or to Fried, who would be making his first start since clinching last year’s Fall Classic with his Game 6 victory.

Morton had no problem coming off the mound to field a Brett Phillips bunt. But he didn’t need to cover first base during Sunday's outing, which was his Grapefruit League debut. The veteran hurler built his endurance by throwing some live batting practice sessions and simulated games over the past couple weeks.

“He blows me away every time he pitches,” Snitker said.

We may learn who the Opening Day starer will be later this week, when the Braves set up their probables. Either Morton or Fried will likely pitch on Friday, and the other on Saturday. Whoever gets the start on Friday would be lined up to start Opening Day with an extra day of rest. The other would be lined up to start the second game of the regular season with an extra day of rest.

Morton made his only career Opening Day start when he was with the Rays in 2020. But after joining the Braves last year, the 38 year-old hurler watched as Fried made his first career Opening Day start.

If you’re into great comeback stories, you might lean toward giving the ball to Morton. Think of how cool it would be to see him make an Opening Day start a little more than five months after his right fibula was crushed by Yuli Gurriel’s 102.4 mph comebacker to begin the second inning of Game 1.

Morton retired the only other two batters he faced in the second and didn’t exit that World Series start before striking out Jose Altuve to begin the third. A few weeks ago, he explained why he wasn’t surprised he was able to record three more outs after being hit by Gurriel’s comebacker.

“It doesn’t boggle my mind,” Morton said. “It definitely felt like there was something really wrong. But it wasn’t until the bone actually separated that I was like, ‘Now we’re risking other things.’ I was able to protect it. I would go down the [mound], finish my delivery and instead of rolling my ankle like I normally do, I just kind of lifted my foot off the ground [to] not really torque that bone.

“But that pitch to [Altuve], it was a two-strike pitch and I was trying to strike him out. I was way more worried about the pitch. That’s when I felt the bone.”

Fortunately for Morton, the recovery has gone as smooth as anybody could imagine. A few weeks before Spring Training began he was throwing bullpens and live batting practice. He came to camp without any restrictions and he has looked much like the guy who posted a 2.71 ERA over his final 20 regular-season starts last year.

Of course, Fried produced a Major League-best 1.74 ERA after the All-Star break, and then capped a strong postseason by tossing six scoreless innings against the Astros in the World Series clincher.

“It’s going to be a fun opening series, with all of the World Series stuff,” Morton said. “I think that’s the focus for me. I’m looking forward to that.”