It remains incredible to think the Braves own the National League’s best record despite Max Fried (left forearm strain) and Kyle Wright (right shoulder inflammation) combining to make 10 starts, eight of which would qualify as healthy starts. But there’s still reason to wonder if they could benefit from adding an additional starting pitcher at the Trade Deadline.
The Braves have spent most of the season’s first half without one guy who finished second in last year’s National League Cy Young Award voting (Fried) and another who was MLB’s only 20-game winner last year (Wright). Still, they stand with the Rays as the only teams that have won at least 50 games this year.
But growing content can weaken a team’s attempt to contend.
So, it might be valuable to look at how the rotation is trending and where it might stand over the next couple of months.
• Spencer Strider: As Strider frustrated the Phillies on Wednesday, he again looked like a legit Cy Young Award contender. Those two rough starts he had earlier this month are already a distant memory.
• Charlie Morton: Morton showed his significant value again on Sunday, when he encountered some early trouble and still managed to limit the Reds to three runs over five innings within an offensive haven. He’s still providing great value at 39 years old.
"I think he's got good stuff,” Harper said. “I feel like he's going to be a really good pitcher. If [the Braves] get into the postseason, he's going to be really good for them, I think, just because he has no heartbeat. He's very slow out there. He knows what he's doing.”
• Jared Shuster: Shuster has worked into the sixth inning in five of the seven starts he’s made since rejoining Atlanta’s rotation in May. Even with the rough outing he had against the Reds on Saturday, he still has a 4.21 ERA over those seven starts. But his inability to consistently miss bats creates reason to question his long-term value.
• AJ Smith-Shawver: When I first wrote this last night, this section said the next couple starts would be big for the rookie hurler, who was brought up much earlier than anticipated or desired. The Braves accelerated that thought process when they sent him back down on Monday to get more seasoning at the Triple-A level. The 20-year-old could make some more big league starts at some point this year, or even end up being a key bullpen piece at some point.
• Michael Soroka: With Smith-Shawver down, it looks like Soroka could return from the Triple-A level to make Wednesday afternoon’s start against the Twins. It remains to be seen how much more ready he is now than he was when he was sent down a few weeks ago. But he has allowed one run or fewer while completing at least six innings in each of the three Triple-A starts.
Whatever the Braves do, Fried’s health could influence the Braves rotation as much as anything this year. He hasn’t been cleared to face live hitters yet, so he’s certainly not coming off the injured list before the All-Star break. But it would certainly be nice to get a feel for his health before the Trade Deadline comes on Aug. 1.
The Braves are hoping Fried could return during the second half of July, and they’re hoping Wright could return during the second half of August. But there’s no guarantee when either might return to their respective levels from last year.
At this point, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the Braves need to get a starting pitcher before the Trade Deadline. But there are a number of things to evaluate, including how strong some of the younger starters might be near the end of the season.
This is not to say the Braves would seek a top-tier starter. I don’t think they have the prospects to make a significant deal before the Trade Deadline. But they certainly have enough to acquire a potential innings eater, whose presence could ensure the bullpen also stays strong down the stretch.