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Where the Braves are concerned, the hot stove has resembled something a little more lukewarm. Maybe a hot plate? A candle warmer?
The Braves need an outfielder and the Blue Jays and Astros took two of the top options off the table, with Toronto snagging George Springer and was the reported destination for Michael Brantley before he opted to return to Houston. Meanwhile came a report that Marcell Ozuna is “highly unlikely” to resign with Atlanta given their payroll structure.
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The sad-face emoji is the choice du jour here, but the Braves remain of interest, both as that need for a bat (preferably right-handed) that may be headed for a lackluster resolution, and what comes out of two pieces of its young core — Mike Soroka and Dansby Swanson — potentially heading to sticky arbitration hearings.
On Soroka, Swanson, what’s next for the lineup, a farewell to another Braves legend and more in this week’s Starting Nine.
1. Are Mike Soroka or Dansby Swanson extension candidates?
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The Braves’ file-and-trial ways leave two potential outcomes for Soroka and Swanson after the sides failed to agree to one-year deals before last Friday’s deadline: a hearing or a multi-year deal. Those hearings, as best illustrated by Mike Foltynewicz in 2018, can be the stage for some hurt feelings, be it in the performance undressing that’s part of the process, or a misunderstanding of the process itself. It’s a situation Atlanta would likely look to avoid with two key players, whose salary demands were $700,000 below what the Braves wanted to pay (Swanson filed at $6.7 million and Soroka was at $2.8 million), putting their candidacy for extensions up for discussion. Soroka is a year removed from being National League Rookie of the Year runner up and top five in Cy Young voting, yet he’s thrown just 214 innings in three seasons due to a shoulder injury in 2018 and last year’s Achilles tear that sidelined him after just three starts. Swanson is coming off career peaks — a .274/.345/.464 slash line and 116 wRC+ — in a shortened season that was bolstered by a .350 BABIP, but he has yet to play more than 144 games in any normal season due to injuries (wrist in 2018 and heel in ‘19).
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As of now, the Braves and starter Mike Soroka are headed to an arbitration hearing next month. That prompted the thought: Whether it’s in the next few weeks or down the line, the Braves would be wise to explore an early extension with their budding ace, who as a Super-Two player will be eligible for arbitration four times.
Soroka, 23, is the organization’s most prized pitcher. He emerged as the Braves’ crown jewel after they spent years of accumulating pitching prospects. In 2019, Soroka’s first full season, he had a 2.68 ERA with a 142:41 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He earned All-Star honors — the youngest pitcher in Braves history to do so — and finished sixth in Cy Young voting.
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There wasn’t an encore in 2020, however, because Soroka tore his Achilles in his third start of the abridged campaign. It was an enormous blow to a Braves team that finished one game away from a World Series berth. Their hope is Soroka’s return will help push them over that final hump.
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Mike Soroka compared with Greg Maddux
So if the Braves believe he’ll recapture his 2019 form – and they seem confident in such, with Soroka likely to return sometime early in the coming season – there should be motivation for both sides to explore an extension.
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A long-term commitment, say four or five years, provides Soroka financial security. While the contract would buy out a free-agent year or two, Soroka would still be positioned to hit the market in his late 20s. For the Braves, they secure one of their more promising young players while having a known number on the books. Cost certainty always is a plus.
What’s the price for a pitcher under these circumstances? It’s difficult to speculate because circumstances are always unique. But we’ll go off recent history and find a reasonable range.
For one, Soroka has accrued 2.146 years of service time. The Braves last signed a pitcher with such little service time in 2014, when they gave Julio Teheran a six-year deal worth $32.4 million after Teheran had just over a year in the bigs.
Soroka’s price will be much higher. The Rays extended Blake Snell for four years, $50 million in March 2019, when the 26-year-old was fresh off winning the Cy Young award. It was the biggest deal given to a player with two years of service, covering the 2019 season, three arbitration seasons and one season of free agency.
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The fact that Swanson hasn’t performed like to that level or been able to stay on the field in a 162-game season may be why Soroka may be the better option to end the standoff with an extension. We’ve seen him become one of the NL’s top arms, ranking third with a 2.43 ERA over 29 starts in ‘19 but may not have seen his ceiling yet. Consider the paths the Phillies and Yankees took with Aaron Nola and Luis Severino, respectively. Nola and Philadelphia were $2.2 million apart — he wanted $6.75 million — before they agreed to a four-year, $45 million contract and Severino wanted $5.25 million — $800K below New York’s offer — and they reached a four-year, $40 million deal.
Both of those pitchers would have set a record for a player without a Cy Young Award on their resume in their first year of arbitration eligibility before those deals, which Soroka would have likely bettered had he been healthy in 2020. From that end, the Braves may be getting a bargain given the starting point of his 2021 compensation and a similar pact to those of Nola and Severino would either take Soroka into free agency in 2025 or buy out walk years as well seems prudent, especially with the uncertainties that come with collective bargaining agreement negotiations looming. There’s the chance that leads both Soroka and Swanson to be more amicable to a multi-year deal but locking up the Braves’ ace seems the more likely of the two.
Rest In Peace, Don. pic.twitter.com/wk8q2yVeyO
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) January 19, 2021
2. Remembering Don Sutton
Hall of Famer. A 300-game winner. Don Sutton’s baseball life was truly unique in that he’d go on to become a part of the fabric of a team he never even played for, broadcasting Braves games for nearly three decades. Sutton died Monday at 75, and with his passing I can’t help but think of how welcoming he was as I began covering the Braves in 2013. He was the first in-person guest Zach Dillard and I ever had on Chopcast, and going back and listening to the interview, it stuck with me how grateful Sutton was to not only find his second career, but that he got to do it Atlanta. He told the story of Pete Van Wieren approaching the then-Dodgers right-hander before a start in 1976 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Van Wieren asking Sutton asking Sutton to appear on a pregame show.
“I wasn’t concentrating on his questions — I hope the interview turned out alright — I was sitting there thinking ‘You know, one day I’m going to work with him” and that was in 1976,” Sutton said. “I said to him as we were wrapping up the interview, ‘One day we’re going to work together’ and 13 years later we started working together.” I asked how Sutton how he was able to endear himself to Braves fans despite his having spent the brunt of his 23-year career in Los Angeles and Sutton replied “I think part of it is being real. I was a fan of Atlanta. I pitched against the Braves a lot. I’m a Southern boy. I’m from the South. So, it’s not like I had to learn the history of Chicago or I had to learn the traditions of Philadelphia. I came back here as someone who was coming home.” He came home and to Braves fans, he became part of the nightly soundtrack of their homes. Rest in peace, Don and thanks for always being so gracious.