Top prospect Shuster on cusp of cracking Braves' rotation

March 23rd, 2023

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- has spent the past couple of weeks battling to begin the season as Atlanta’s fifth starter. He might spend the next few weeks attempting to maintain a spot within the Braves' rotation.

Shuster hasn’t won his rotation battle, but the club’s top prospect strengthened his status as the favorite while subduing many of the Mets’ regulars in Thursday afternoon's 2-2 tie at CoolToday Park. The lefty got through the sixth inning with the same poise and confidence he has shown while posting a 1.45 ERA over five Grapefruit League appearances (four starts).

“I don’t think I had my best stuff, but I still battled and got through six against a really good lineup,” Shuster said. “I’m pretty happy with it.”

will remain a candidate for the rotation when he starts Friday against the Red Sox in Fort Myers. Still, another impressive effort from Dodd might not be enough to win the battle against Shuster, who allowed two runs on two hits and two walks over six innings against a New York lineup that included every regular except for Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo.

After a leadoff walk and a double allowed the Mets to score two runs on a pair of sacrifice flies in the third, Shuster proved he can navigate a lineup multiple times. New York’s hitters went 0-for-12 when facing Shuster for a second or third time. The 24-year-old lefty fell behind Pete Alonso with a 3-1 count in the sixth, then promptly induced a fielder's choice.

Making this latest effort more impressive was the fact that Shuster’s slider was not nearly as effective as it had been during his March 12 start against a group of the Pirates’ regulars or his March 17 start against many of the Red Sox's starters.

“I just love the rhythm he has,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Infielders have to love playing behind a guy like that. They’re not running around out there with their backs on fire. No matter what happened out there, he just kept getting in the strike zone.”

Still, as good as Shuster has been, Snitker isn’t ready to declare a winner in this competition that developed once Shuster and Dodd clearly outpitched Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder during the first couple weeks of Spring Training.

“We'll have discussions after [Friday’s] game and decide what we're going to do,” Snitker said. “Anything can happen. I hope [Dodd] pitches every bit as good tomorrow. That'd be awesome.”

Everything about this battle has been encouraging for the Braves. Instead of being concerned about Anderson’s struggles extending into this season or Michael Soroka’s uncertain health, Snitker and his staff have enjoyed seeing Shuster and Dodd emerge.

Dodd, who ranks as the Braves’ No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline, wasn’t even on Snitker’s radar when camp began. The lefty has allowed one run over 13 Grapefruit League innings and he pitched effectively during the first two innings of a start against a strong Dominican Republic team in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game.

Shuster ranks as Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect and he has been on everyone’s radar since Atlanta took him out of Wake Forest in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Still, with just 212 1/3 professional innings under his belt, few could have expected he’d look as MLB-ready as he has this spring. He has allowed three runs, recorded 18 strikeouts, issued four walks and surrendered seven hits over 18 2/3 innings.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity,” Shuster said. “I’m going to keep working hard, and hopefully, keep pitching well. It’s been a great experience.”