This story was excerpted from Mark Bowman’s Braves Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.
As I drove away from the Braves’ Spring Training complex on a February afternoon, a friend informed me Kyle Wright was dealing with some right shoulder discomfort. When I asked Wright and the Braves about it the next day, I got the dreaded “it’s no big deal” response.
Sometimes, it actually isn’t a big deal. But when a pitcher has a shoulder problem, far too often it’s a huge deal.
In fact, a little more than eight months later, the Braves are still dealing with the lingering effects of this shoulder ailment. Wright won’t be available again before the 2025 season. His absence is fueling the rotation concerns the Braves face as they enter this offseason knowing the upcoming season could also be Max Fried's last in Atlanta.
Charlie Morton is waiting to learn whether the Braves will exercise his $20 million option for the 2024 season. If Morton returns, he would join Fried, Spencer Strider and Bryce Elder to fill four of the rotation’s five spots. If he doesn’t return, Atlanta would be staring at two rotation voids for ‘24 and possibly three for ‘25 if Fried ends up signing elsewhere next offseason. [Editor's note: The Braves have since exercised Morton's $20 million option.]
Still, while Fried’s future has to be factored into every decision, the Braves don’t necessarily have to address his potential departure this offseason.
Some potential free-agent starting-pitching fits include:
Blake Snell: Snell’s 13.3% walk rate has understandably drawn a lot of attention. But while evaluating whether the National League Cy Young candidate can continue to be as fortunate with runners on, it’s fair to point out his ground-ball rate rose to 43.7%, one percent lower than the mark he produced during his 2018 American League Cy Young Award-winning season. But the 30-year-old has been consistently hampered by some minor ailments. He has started 27 games or fewer in three of the past four full seasons.
Aaron Nola: Nola is widely regarded as a tremendous teammate. He spent time with Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz with Philadelphia from 2016-18 and has gotten a feel for the Braves while being a part of the Phillies’ rotation since '15. Nola has three top-10 finishes in NL Cy Young balloting over the past six seasons. He has made at least 32 starts during each of the five non-shortened seasons within this span.
Sonny Gray: Gray bolstered his stock with a 2.79 ERA over 32 starts for the Twins this year. But the soon-to-be 34-year-old hurler pitched 135 1/3 innings or fewer during each of the four previous full seasons. Gray’s age combined with his recent workload entering this season might create hesitancy to enter a multiyear deal.
Maybe Japanese product Yoshinobu Yamamoto could indeed become a legit front-line starter. Maybe one of Fried’s high school buddies, Lucas Giolito or Jack Flaherty, will regain consistency. Maybe Jordan Montgomery ’s postseason success with the World Series champion Rangers was just a reminder of how good he could be over the next few seasons.
Regardless, there’s risk in any free-agent deal, especially those involving starting pitching. Next offseason’s starting pitcher market could include Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes and Walker Buehler. So perhaps it might be better to wait to make a splash in the always unpredictable starting-pitching pool.
Or maybe the Braves could look to strengthen their rotation via trade. This might provide a safer return, in the form of what would likely be a cheaper and younger starter than you’d find on the free-agent market. But to get a front-line starter, the Braves would likely have to trade Ozzie Albies, Michael Harris II or another member of their stars who are controllable for most of this decade.
That wouldn’t be a comfortable move. So maybe it’s best to get a feel for the high-ceiling potentials of Hurston Waldrep and AJ Smith-Shawver before making a move.
Regardless of what the Braves do this offseason, the focus will be on what they do to address their rotation in 2024 and beyond.