Mark Bradley: The Braves are truckin' down to North Port
Published in Baseball
Today is Truck Day at Truist Park. For the longest time, it was just truck day, no capital letters. The Braves would load an equipment van and their highest-salaried player would drive it to Florida for the start of spring training, even though the actual first day of spring was a ways away.
That part about the highest-salaried Brave being the wheelman? I made it up. Though Greg Maddux and his heavy-duty ride clogging the McDonald’s drive-thru in Lake City, Fla., would have made quite the photo op.
That’s what Truck Day has become – a moment for photographers and videographers. There’s the gear being toted. There’s the back door being shut. There’s the vehicle pulling out. Pitchers and catchers to report soon! Spring is here! (Sort of.)
Pitchers and catchers – at least those participating in the World Baseball Classic – are due in North Port next Monday. The first full workout will be Feb. 21. The first exhibition game is Feb. 25. I know some folks get excited about spring training. I’m not among them. Then again, I’m easily bored.
My first exposure to spring training – this was when the Braves trained in West Palm – coincided with their first workout. The team exited the clubhouse and took a languid lap and a half around the bases. (Two full laps would have been too much too soon.) Batting practice commenced. Around 10:30 a.m., the players returned to the clubhouse. By 11, they were walking across the infield in civilian clothes, headed – I assumed – for lunch before returning for the afternoon session.
Then it hit me. There was no afternoon session. These weren’t two-a-days. (That’s for football.) The Braves were done for the day, off to practice golf or fishing or napping. How do baseball players maintain such a frantic pace?
But maybe that’s just me. Maybe you’ll be riveted by reports of who shows up In The Best Shape Of His Life. Maybe the Braves’ few issues will obsess you until Opening Day, which is March 30 in D.C. I’m willing to take some things on faith. I have confidence the Braves will find someone to play shortstop and left field by the time real games begin. If not, Austin Riley and Michael Harris will have much acreage to cover.
My interest in spring training 2023 begins and ends with two names – Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka. These were the most promising young pitchers drafted during the Great Reset. Soroka made the 2019 All-Star team. Anderson remains one of two starting pitchers to exit a World Series game without yielding a hit. (The other is Don Larsen.)
The 2022 Braves won 101 games while getting 111-2/3 innings from Anderson and nothing from Soroka. The latter hasn’t thrown a big-league pitch since Aug. 3, 2020. He tore the same Achilles tendon twice. Anderson has had shoulder issues; he also tweaked an oblique. Still, his problem in 2022 was that he didn’t resemble his former self. His ERA in the majors was 5.00. In the minors, it was 5.40.
As we speak, the Braves have filled 80 percent of their rotation: Max Fried, Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider and Charlie Morton. That leaves one spot. Could be Soroka’s. Could be Anderson’s. If it falls to neither, what do the Braves do with these two? Long relief?
Yours truly has long identified Soroka as the most important player in the organization. He isn’t anymore. He has worked 214 big-league innings, 174-2/3 of those coming in 2019. Of the Braves’ five consecutive division titles, only the second saw him play a major role. In that year, he was this team’s best young pitcher since the days of Smoltz and Avery. Then again, Josh Donaldson was a big deal back in 2019, too.
Anderson’s biggest moments have come in postseason. He made four starts in 2020, four more in 2021. His playoff ERA is 1.26, which is Koufax/Gibson stuff. He left Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS with the score tied. He left Game 3 of the 2021 World Series after five innings with the Braves ahead and the Astros hitless. Had there been a Game 7 in Houston, he’d have started it.
The Braves drafted both out of high school. Soroka was the No. 28 pick in 2015, Anderson No. 3 the next year. Soroka is 25; Anderson will turn 25 in May. They’ve started 96 games, counting playoffs, between them. Max Fried has started 118 by himself.
For now, we’ll leave it there. Godspeed to the truck and its drivers. Let me know when Soroka/Anderson get around to pitching a game that counts.
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