Injuries invariably render pre-season baseball predictions meaningless.
The Atlanta Braves, favorites to win their fourth straight National League East title, may have learned that lesson over the last week when their two best starting pitchers suffered physical setbacks.
First came word that Mike Soroka, out since tearing his Achilles in his third start of the shortened 2020 campaign, has shoulder inflammation that is expected to delay his projected return until sometime next month. Then Max Fried, the durable left-hander who emerged as a Cy Young Award contender last summer, may have injured a hamstring Tuesday night during a dreadful start against the Miami Marlins in Atlanta’s Truist Park. He will have an MRI on his right hamstring.
The Marlins won the game, 14-8, after Fried blew an early 3-0 advantage by yielding eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits, fanning three and walking two, in a four-inning stint.
Fried, fifth in the 2020 Cy Young voting after a perfect 7-0 season with a 2.25 ERA, has worked 11 innings this year with a bloated 11.45 earned run mark.
Soroka, a 23-year-old righthander from Canada, has a lifetime record of 15-6 and a tidy 2.86 earned run average. He was second to Pete Alonso in the voting for 2019 National League Rookie of the Year and also finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting, won by Jacob deGrom of the Mets.
Fried has been around longer, breaking into the big leagues with the Braves in 2017 and making four relief appearances in the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers a year later. But neither he nor any other starter on the 2020 Atlanta staff had made a postseason start before last year, when the team relied on a combination of Fried, rookies Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson, and Kyle Wright, and even lefthanded reliever A.J. Minter.
Like Soroka, Fried enjoyed his best year in 2019, when he posted a 17-6, 4.02 ERA, and 173 strikeouts in 165 2/3 innings.
The irony of Fried’s injury is that it might not have happened if the universal DH had not been discarded after a one-season experiment in 2020. National League teams were allowed to use it during the pandemic-shortened season as a way of protecting pitchers from injury while batting or running the bases.
Fried, an all-around athlete, is regarded one of the best-hitting pitchers on the Braves and has also been used in the past as a pinch-runner.
Without Soroka and Fried, the Braves are fortunate they signed veteran free agents Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly and promoted Huascar Ynoa, a 23-year-old Dominican who opened the season as a spot starter but has made the most of his opportunity. In two starts, Ynoa has fanned 15 men in 12 innings and posted a 0.75 earned run average.
The key man in the rotation could be 23-year-old righthander Ian Anderson, who pitched well late last season and starred in the playoffs but still retains rookie status. He went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in six starts last year.
With Fried almost certain to join Soroka on the injured list, the team could bring back Wilson, who had a strong spring training (2-0, 1.98 in three starts), from the alternate training site.
Wilson, like Anderson and Ynoa, is 23 and righthanded. He has made just eight big-league starts plus a brilliant outing against Los Angeles in the last NL Championship Series. He worked six innings of one-hit, one-run ball against the heavy-hitting Dodgers.
Atlanta went 35-25 last year, then swept the Cincinnati Reds in the best-of-three Wild-Card Series and Miami Marlins in the best-of-five Division Series before falling to Los Angeles in the best-of-seven Championship Series after blowing an advantage of three games to one.
Entering this season with a rotation headed by Fried, many prognosticators had picked the Braves to win their first pennant since 1999 and some, including Sports Illustrated, had forecast they would also win their first World Series since 1995.
The club got off to a sluggish start, dropping its first four before winning its next four, while enduring a team-wide hitting slump that hit everyone but leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. The bullpen, a Braves bulwark last summer, has also been unreliable after losing veterans Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Darren O’Day to free agency.
Extended absences by Fried and Soroka would be difficult to overcome in a division widely considered the most competitive in the game. The Mets, Nationals, and Phillies all have title hopes and the much-improved Marlins were in the playoffs last year.