While Atlanta Braves fans have a pretty good idea about who will be occupying the first four slots in the rotation for the 2023 season, the final slot in the rotation continues to be a mystery. For a while, it seemed that Mike Soroka appeared to be a great candidate for that fifth spot. However, recent developments surrounding Soroka's hamstring, that likely change the outlook on him occupying that role at the beginning of the season.
The first four slots in the rotation will obviously be going to Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Kyle Wright, and Charlie Morton. However, who are the candidates for the fifth and final spot? It seems that would be down to Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, and Bryce Elder.
Soroka is a favorite among those three options as he has had the most success. Unfortunately for him, there have been a lot of roadblocks and setbacks that have kept him out of the Braves rotation the last couple of years. He tore his Achilles twice, once in 2020 and again in 2021. He was able to work his way back to pitching in the minors in 2022, tossing 25 innings over six starts. However, he was shut down at the end of the year, thanks to shoulder soreness.
Soroka has proven how good he can be considering his 2.86 career ERA and 4.9 fWAR in his first 214 career innings in Major League Baseball. There's clearly still a reason to believe he can be that guy again and while the hamstring appears to be a small setback, there's also reason to believe it's not a major concern and just a precautionary measure on the Braves' side. However, it is good to consider that he may not be an option to begin the season if he ends up needing more time to stretch out as a starter.
It is wild that it has been 3 years since we last saw Soroka take the mound for the Atlanta Braves. You'd be hard pressed to find Braves fans that aren't rooting for his return to success. Soroka seems like an extremely likable and hard-working guy. Hopefully, this recent setback is minor and we get to see the Canada native back on the mound for Atlanta in 2023.
Anderson was a standout for the Braves in 2020 and 2021 showing his potential to be a top-line starter for the team. Unfortunately, in 2022, Ian struggled to go deep in games and find the consistency that made him so successful just one year prior.
Anderson's struggles in 2022 ultimately led to his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. Those struggles would end up following him to Triple-A as he continued to struggle to get through six innings of work. He finished with a 10-6 record with Gwinnett and a 5.00 ERA allowing 115 hits with 54 walks and 97 strikeouts. Definitely not encouraging to see those walk numbers so high which equated to a 4.4 BB/9 rate.
When Anderson is at his best, he has command of his pitches and is able to get hitters off-balance and utilitize that plus change up to get outs. The problem is, if his fastball command is off, he struggles to get hitters out and starts to rack up walks. Therefore, if the Braves are going to consider using Ian in the rotation, he's going to have to prove that he can regain consistent command of that fastball so that he can use his changeup and curveball to get outs in big situations.
It appears that he has also been working a slider into his repertoire which would allow him to give hitters a different look and another opportunity for a pitch to get outs on. However, we will have to see how that pitch looks throughout Spring Training. The fact that he was primarily using a combination of his fastball and changeup in 2022 was not encouraging. It makes it pretty easy for the hitters to eliminate things and sit on pitches more often.
Anderson will have to prove he can regain that consistency shown in 2020 and 2021 before Atlanta seriously considers using him as the fifth starter. He will have that opportunity during Spring Training to do just that and show everyone why he was a top draft pick just a few years ago.
Elder is probably the least likely of the three to be selected as the fifth starter. However, there are circumstances that could lead him to starting some games for the Braves early on. With recent news of Kyle Wright dealing with some shoulder soreness and Michael Soroka's hamstring tightness, Elder could have a path to pitching every fifth day for Atlanta.
Elder made his Braves debut on April 12 against the Nationals. Atlanta scored 16 runs that day earning Elder a win in his debut. He allowed just three runs across 5.2 innings of work. Unfortunately, his next few starts weren't so stellar as he racked up walks and couldn't get through 5 innings which led to being sent down to Triple-A.
Bryce would be called up later in the year to help make some spot starts for the Braves. He looked like a different pitcher and was much more consistent with his command and only allowed 2 earned runs in almost 28 innings pitched. In his final few starts of the year, Elder had an ERA of 1.65 and started to see his strikeout total increase a bit. Finding success with his breaking pitches to get swings and misses more often seemed to be the key.
Long story short, if Bryce Elder can show improved consistency and the ability to get through 5 plus innings, he could force the Braves hand to use him as their fifth starter. Although, I feel like certain things need to happen first to open that door for him (i.e. Soroka and Anderson not being ready for the season). Injuries can happen at a moments notice so there's always a chance we will see Elder on the mound at some point in 2023.
There are definitely pros and cons to each option mentioned above and I'm sure there will be friendly competition to see who will earn that spot. Let's just be grateful that the Atlanta Braves have a few options to consider. That is a luxury not many teams have to take advantage of. Things will sort themselves out and happen how they are meant to happen. So, just sit back and enjoy the ride that is Atlanta Braves baseball.