After Smith-Shawver's injury, Braves' rotation depth to be tested

May 25th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Brian Snitker learned could be sidelined for the next two months and then he watched struggle in his first career start. It was just another fun Friday night for the Braves skipper.

Suffering an 11-5 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park put a fitting end to a rough day for the Braves, who suddenly have rotation issues. Smith-Shawver, Atlanta's No. 1 prospect, created a lot of excitement when he tossed 4 1/3 scoreless innings in his season debut against the Cubs on Thursday. But he learned Friday that he has a Grade 2 left oblique strain that might sideline him for six to eight weeks.

Smith-Shawver felt some discomfort during the third inning, but was able to work into the fifth.

“I hate it,” Snitker said. “I’m kind of amazed he pitched through what he did as effectively as he did. I just hate the setback for him when it was going so good. He was making strides, learning and maturing as a pitcher. And now, I don’t know how long [he’ll be on the IL].”

The Braves have persevered since losing preseason Cy Young Award favorite Spencer Strider to a season-ending elbow injury at the end of the regular season’s first full week. Max Fried, Chris Sale and Reynaldo López have all performed like frontline starters. Charlie Morton has continued to provide stability at the age of 40. But the organization’s starting pitching depth has taken a hit over the past week.

Bryce Elder was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday, after he struggled against the Padres on Sunday. This led to Smith-Shawver being called up to start Thursday’s game at Wrigley Field. Everyone who spoke to the media after the game seemed excited about the 21-year-old hurler’s season debut and his potential to capably fill a rotation spot on an extended basis at some point this year.

But the Braves provided some surprising news early Friday afternoon, when they announced Smith-Shawver was going on the 15-day injured list with a strained left oblique. There had been no previous mention of an ailment. Things got worse about five hours later, when the team announced the highly-touted pitcher underwent an MRI exam that showed the extent of the injury.

Braves catcher Sean Murphy has missed two months with the Grade 1 left oblique strain he suffered on Opening Day. But his absence was elongated because of the ferocity with which he swings a bat.

Players with a Grade 2 oblique strain are often sidelined for six to eight weeks. This creates the possibility Smith-Shawver won’t be available until late July or early August.

“It’s just a time consuming thing,” Snitker said of the recovery.

So, what might the Braves do to fill the void in the fifth starter’s spot?

“It’s never perfect and it’s never easy,” Snitker said. “We’ll just keep battling our way through it, figure it out and then make it work.”

Kerr hasn’t been used exclusively as a starter since 2018 and he has made 12 spot starts in the Minors since 2019 (10 of which came in '19). He earned this chance because of the success he had with a couple three-plus inning relief appearances last Wednesday and on Sunday. He was optioned Monday, but was able to be recalled Friday because he was replacing a pitcher (Smith-Shawver) on the injured list.

Though Kerr arrived in Pittsburgh Friday night, he didn’t know he was starting until Friday afternoon.

“It was surprising for me,” Kerr said. “But to know that I was starting today, when I came in. I was like, ‘Oh crap. Okay, let's get after it.’ I put together a routine in my head and went by it. Hopefully, I add stuff to that routine the longer we go. Now we're gonna get nasty.”

Kerr allowed seven hits and five runs over four innings. The starting pitching depth issue will likely lead the club to allow him to keep starting. He’ll have to be more effective with his fastball. The seven fastballs the Pirates put in play against the lefty had an average exit velocity of 98.8 mph.

Elder was optioned Monday. So unless he replaces a pitcher placed on the injured list, he won’t be eligible to be recalled before June 4. The 2023 All-Star could benefit from some time to focus on his slider, which was a plus pitch last year, but has not been reliable this year. He hasn’t missed barrels like he did last season, especially in the first half.

Darius Vines allowed six runs over three innings after Kerr exited Friday’s game. He will be optioned on Saturday, meaning he won’t be eligible to be recalled until June 9.

So, Kerr could make another start when this turn comes up again during next week’s homestand. Other options are Allan Winans and Dylan Dodd. The value of this depth will be tested, especially with Sale and López both attempting to get through a full season as a starter for the first time since 2019.