Report :Braves are ready to make amends…

Even if Charlie Morton returns in 2024, Braves need to add another frontline starter.

Battery Power: Expectations for Charlie Morton in age-38 season - Battery Power

ATLANTA — Even if Charlie Morton decides to continue pitching in 2024 and the Atlanta Braves exercise a $20 million club option on the soon-to-be 40-year-old, the team still needs to add another proven and durable starter, one who is top-half-of-the-rotation quality.

That much became obvious when the Braves were again abruptly eliminated from the postseason by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies’ starting pitchers were healthy and at their best when it mattered, and for the second year in a row they outpitched a Braves rotation diminished by injury and rustiness.

The Braves have until five days after the World Series to decide whether to pick up Morton’s option. It’s also possible they could work something out with the veteran right-hander to bring him back on a one-year deal with a reduced salary, perhaps in the $15 million neighborhood.

If they don’t pick up Morton’s option, the Braves will have a glaring need for a veteran starter to go with Spencer Strider and Max Fried, who missed more than half of the 2023 season due to three injuries including a three-month absence for a forearm strain. Fried, who turns 30 in January, will be in his final season before free agency unless signed to an extension. The left-hander is projected to make about $14.5 million in arbitration.

The Braves expect continued improvement from Bryce Elder, who made the All-Star team in his first full season but faded in the second half and got rocked in the NLDS, and from Jared Shuster, hard-throwing AJ Smith-Shawver and fellow rookie Darius Vines. But it would be a big gamble to fill three spots in the rotation behind Fried and Strider with all young pitchers and the kind of journeymen the Braves called upon too frequently in 2023.

And whether or not they tender a contract to star-crossed Michael Soroka — he’s projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make about $3 million in arbitration and would presumably have to accept a lesser deal to return — the Braves know they can’t count on the popular Canadian. Soroka has pitched in just 10 games over the past four seasons due to well-chronicled injuries including a twice-torn Achilles.

What the Braves need is to bring back Morton and add another proven starter, or to acquire two such starters if Morton doesn’t return. The latter course could be difficult to do without boosting payroll considerably.

Either way, expect the Braves to peruse starters in places other than the nine-figure shopping aisle that free agents Blake Snell and Aaron Nola will occupy. The high end of the team’s free-agent interest might be Sonny Gray, who will be 34 in November but is coming off his best season in nearly a decade. He had a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts for the Minnesota Twins, with 183 strikeouts in 184 innings and a 2.83 FIP that led major-league starters.

Because of Gray’s age and injury history — he pitched more than 135 1/3 innings in only one of the previous four full seasons — he isn’t likely to get much more than $20 million annually, but will probably command a three- or four-year deal. Would the Braves be willing to make such an offer? Perhaps, especially if Morton doesn’t return. Gray’s competitiveness and reputation as a leader, in addition to recent high-level performance, are attractive.

There are interesting potential trade targets, led by former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, who just turned 29 and posted a 3.39 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 193 2/3 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers while leading NL starters with a 1.069 WHIP. Burnes is expected to make about $15 million in his final year of arbitration before free agency, but it’s unclear if the Brewers would be willing to trade him now that co-ace Brandon Woodruff will miss most of the 2024 season following shoulder surgery.

The asking price for Burnes would be considerable, as he would appeal to many teams looking for an ace but unwilling to pay the free-agent price for Snell or Nola. The Braves don’t have many elite prospects in their minor-league system and made clear to teams last summer that Smith-Shawver was all but untouchable. But it’s possible they could do a trade package featuring another pitching prospect and position prospect along with infielder Vaughn Grissom, who has excellent bat-to-ball skills but doesn’t have a place to play in Atlanta’s lineup unless they convert him to left field by next season.

Boston’s Nick Pivetta is probably a more realistic target for the Braves. Pivetta is obviously less of a pitcher than Burnes but not nearly as costly, either in terms of salary — projected at $6.9 million in his final year of arbitration — or young talent required in a trade. Pivetta is coming off a good season with the Red Sox in which he split time between starting and relieving and had a 4.04 ERA and career-best 1.121 WHIP in 38 games (16 starts), with 183 strikeouts and only 50 walks in 142 2/3 innings.

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Pivetta was much improved in the second half with a 3.30 ERA in 16 games including eight starts and 102 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings. You think the Braves could’ve used that when they were piecing together the back of their rotation and giving starts to the likes of Yonny Chirinos?

For the Braves, much depends on the situation with Morton. He missed the NLDS after straining a ligament in his index finger in his final regular-season start but has been one of their best and most durable starters in three years with the Braves, going 37-24 with a 3.77 ERA in 94 starts while averaging 201 strikeouts in 174 innings.

While 40 is an advanced age for a pitcher, Morton was a late-bloomer on the MLB scene and still has fewer than 2,000 innings on his arm, which might help explain how he still throws mid- to upper-90s fastballs and continues to have elite spin rates and one of MLB’s best curveballs.

Unless the Braves think they can acquire two other proven starters in a market that has at least a dozen teams looking to add top-of-the-rotation arms, it seems prudent to retain Morton if he wants to keep pitching, then pursue another starter as well.

Morton hadn’t made his decision when the Braves were jettisoned by the Phillies and went their separate ways, with Morton returning to Bradenton, Florida, where he and his wife and four kids have lived for years. His family home’s proximity to Braves spring training in North Port is just one of the reasons Morton has so enjoyed pitching for the Braves in the twilight of his career, along with his relationships with teammates, coaches and fans who’ve gotten to know the amiable pitcher.

Again, the Braves need to add more to their rotation, not just bring back Morton. They need more certainty for the late season and playoffs than they can get by simply expecting a 40-year-old to continue pitching at a high level, keeping Fried healthy and developing young starters.

Yes, there were other reasons the Braves lost three of four games to the Phillies, failing to make it out of the NLDS for the second consecutive postseason since winning the World Series in 2021.

Most glaring: The record-breaking offense that fueled the Braves’ 104-win season, tying an MLB record with 307 homers and becoming the first team in history to slug .500 for a full season, was woeful against the Phillies, whose hitters totaled 11 homers to the Braves’ three.

The Braves’ and Los Angeles Dodgers’ offenses, the two most powerful and proficient in the majors during the regular season, were the worst among the eight teams in division series play. Only the Dodgers had a lower average ( .177) and OPS (.498) than the Braves’ .186 and .519. The Braves slugged .501 during the season and .264 in the NLDS.

Three of the four MLB teams that had first-round byes — Braves, Dodgers, Orioles — finished among the bottom four in average and OPS in the LDS round and were all eliminated.

Then there was the bullpen. Braves relievers were superb for two months in the second half but struggled down the stretch and in the postseason. Atlanta’s bullpen had a 4.50 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and 11 homers allowed in 34 postseason innings against Philadelphia, while Phillies relievers churned out 35 innings with a 1.80 ERA and 1.00 WHIP.

Whether five days off between the regular season and the NLDS hurts or hinders teams that earn byes has been widely debated. A consensus around baseball seems to be that it helps a team’s starting pitching situation but can hurt relievers and hitters, who must find ways to stay sharp in the interim.

But the bottom line is, that’s the system for the time being, and top regular-season teams better find ways to work within it if they want to buck the trend of the first two years in the 12-team playoff format and wild-card round, which has seen most 100-win teams eliminated in their first postseason series.

For the Braves, their NLDS performance couldn’t have been more disappointing, given how they barreled over teams for six months during the regular season and by midseason had become Vegas oddsmakers’ favorite to win the World Series.

With a healthy starting trio of Fried, Strider and Morton, they might’ve at least stood a chance, since their starters keeping them in close games for five or six innings would’ve lessened the load on a faltering bullpen and provided more of an opportunity for the suddenly dormant offense to snap to attention and get back to something resembling the power-laden lineup that overwhelmed so many opponents during the season.

But the Braves got little from their starters in the NLDS in the two games not started by Strider. Fried, weakened and rusty in a 2022 NLDS start vs. Philadelphia due to a late-season bout with the flu, wasn’t sharp again in his only start in this year’s NLDS. This time he was making only his second start in four weeks and first in nearly three weeks after a recurrence of a finger blister.

Fried allowed six hits and four walks in four innings in Game 2, though he did limit the Phillies to three runs, getting a no-decision in the Braves’ only win in the series.

As diligent and exceptional as Fried has been over the past four seasons — he has a 2.66 ERA in 83 starts and two top-five Cy Young Award finishes in that span — in his past five postseason starts he’s 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA. His only good outing in those five was momentous — six scoreless innings in a World Series-clinching Game 6 win at Houston in 2021.

But Fried has surrendered 14 hits and nine runs (seven earned) in just 7 1/3 innings over two starts against the Phillies in the past two division series. Philly has a lot of veteran hitters who know him too well for Fried to thrive against them when he’s not at full strength. And in each of the past two postseasons, he wasn’t.

If the Braves’ rotation had been healthy, Elder wouldn’t even have been on the postseason roster after pitching to a 5.75 ERA in his final 14 regular-season starts, including a 9.49 ERA in his last three starts while twice lasting fewer than four innings. Instead, he was thrust into a critical start.

The Braves didn’t think they had better options. They didn’t want to pitch Smith-Shawver in the cauldron of Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, understandable considering his lack of experience. They didn’t want to do a bullpen game that would further tax a pen with no obvious “opener” candidate since lefty A.J. Minter was needed for high-leverage situations later.

Kyle Wright to make rehab start for Rome Thursday - Battery Power

Kyle Wright, MLB’s only 20-game winner in 2022, missed most of the 2023 season for shoulder issues, finished the season on the injured list and had shoulder surgery in October that will sideline him for all of 2025.


If things had gone as the Braves envisioned six months earlier, they would’ve had a tough choice of an entirely different kind. That is, they would’ve had to decide which of their four top starters would be shifted to the bullpen for the best-of-five NLDS, since only three starters were needed for that round with its three off days built into the schedule.

Instead, the Braves had one healthy frontline starter in Strider, and had Fried, whom they didn’t know what to expect from in the NLDS for the second year in a row.

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