By IAN WILSON
As pitchers and catchers report for spring training duty in Florida, Calgarian Mike Soroka finds himself on the cusp. On the cusp of what exactly remains unclear, but suffice to say, it’s a big season for the 21-year-old Atlanta Braves right-hander.
Last year at this time, Soroka was chasing the dream of his first start in Major League Baseball (MLB). He achieved that on May 1, 2018 during an impressive victory over Noah Syndergaard and the Mets at New York’s Citi Field.
The 2015 first-round pick of the Braves followed that up with four more starts – posting a 3.51 earned run average (ERA), a 2-1 record and 21 strikeouts over 25.2 innings pitched in the majors – before injuries sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
What will a healthy Soroka do for an encore? If 2018 proved anything to the PBF Redbirds alumni it’s that getting there is only half the battle – staying up with the big club is the other half.
So, what can we expect from the former member of the Canadian Junior National Team (JNT) heading into the 2019 season?
Our crackerjack staff of researchers (err … researcher, singular) scoured baseball magazines and the World Wide Web to see what baseball’s foremost prognosticators think of Soroka.
Here’s a look at what Alberta Dugout Stories discovered about the young man’s quest to entrench himself in Atlanta’s starting rotation:
“The Canadian righty often is regarded as the franchise’s best pitching prospect, and he’ll enter camp a favorite for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Soroka threw a few bullpen sessions in instructional league in October, going 100 percent. Early feedback indicated it was successful, and the Braves anticipated he wouldn’t be restricted in March. The team will still handle him carefully, especially knowing this would be his first full major-league season, but it’s evident a healthy Soroka will be a key part of the club.
‘He feels good, he’s healthy, but he did miss a significant amount of time,’ manager Brian Snitker said. ‘So we’re going to be cognizant of that. We don’t need him April 1. We want to make sure we have him later in the year, too, and get him through a full season.’
Wise beyond his years, Soroka impressed everyone around the organization and likely was staying in the rotation through the rest of season. When he went down, other youngsters – Touki Toussaint among them – stepped up to fill the void. Soroka will now compete with those players for a concrete role behind Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran.”
– Gabriel Burns, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Though Mike Soroka remains one of baseball’s top overall prospects, he no longer possesses the blissful innocence that evaporated when a maddening shoulder ailment robbed him of what had the makings to be a very memorable debut season.
When MLB Pipeline released its 2019 rankings, Soroka remained the top prospect in the Braves’ talent-rich system. The 21-year-old hurler also ranked as game’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 right-handed pitching prospect. Now, he must simply prove he has distanced himself from an injury that seemingly stemmed from personal physical development.
‘It was about being able to move my scapula properly,’ Soroka said. ‘I had some muscles that were overactive and some others that were underactive. It wasn’t so much about arm action or anything like that. It was more of an issue of just being able to move properly.’
Multiple MRIs showed no sign of structural damage, but instead of rushing the then-20-year-old back to the mound, the Braves instead allowed him time to get healthy and get a better feel for the stretching and maintenance exercises he’ll likely need throughout the rest of his career.
Although there were some discussions about the possibility of having Soroka pitching out of Atlanta’s bullpen in September and potentially in the postseason, the Braves stuck to their cautious approach.
Looking toward the upcoming season, if healthy, Soroka is a lock to spend some time in Atlanta’s starting rotation. But the Braves will likely limit his early-season workload while using him, Toussaint, Fried and possibly a couple other prospects to alternately fill their fifth rotation spot. This means the members of this group will be flipped between the Majors and Triple-A Gwinnett as the Braves attempt to give all of their starters an extra day of rest between starts.”
– Mark Bowman, MLB.com
“Toussaint finished 2018 strong and has a lot of upside but needs to throw strikes consistently. Soroka was impressive in a five-game cameo in Atlanta last season before a shoulder injury shut him down. If Soroka is healthy, then he has the pedigree to win the job (of Atlanta’s fifth starter) although he might not have quite the upside of a guy like Toussaint. Whatever the case, these are two guys that we should see a lot during the 2019 season.”
– Kris Willis, Talking Chop
“Although he only threw 25.2 big league innings last year, there’s a lot to love about Mike Soroka. The fact that he already received his major league call-up in May this past season says enough in itself that he’s a top-tier talent.
The good news with Soroka is that he’s still so young, there is a lot of room for growth with his already above average skill set. The bad news is he’s so youthful that the Braves will be cautious with their top prospect. Whether it’s this year or the next, Soroka has a very prosperous future ahead of him as a major league pitcher. He undoubtedly carries some re-draft risk with a potential innings limit and past shoulder injury, but last season was the first year since 2015 where he failed to make it at least 143 IP. He has been durable before this past season, but we know the Braves have plenty of pitching depth so they can afford to limit his work.
Soroka is fully ready for spring training and received a clean bill of health in the offseason. It’s certainly a situation to monitor in March as to where he will begin the season, but it’s more likely that he’ll start in Triple-A rather than the majors.”
– Riley Mrack, RotoBaller
“We all know as of now Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, and Julio Teheran will most likely be the teams 1-4 starting pitchers breaking camp, but the Braves will need to evaluate and decide who will be the team’s fifth starter.
The options are plentiful with players such as Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright, Max Fried, or Luiz Gohara. They could even elect to use a rotating door of all the options a la what the Dodgers have utilized over the last few seasons.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) February 15, 2019
Another option to start the year would be to carry an extra reliever and wait until the schedule dictates you need a 5th starter to call one up and take a roster spot. A lot will depend on health and the results of Spring Training, but as of now, you have to think Soroka and Toussaint are the leading candidates.”
– James Kunkle, Tomahawk Take
“Injuries stunted Soroka’s 2018 rookie season, but couldn’t hide his potential. His fastball tops out in the mid-90s, but his style doesn’t demand that he pitch at maximum speed. He shows superb command of four pitches: a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. The natural cut on Soroka’s heater allows his changeup to play off it well, and the sinker is heavy. With a healthy shoulder and the confidence to locate his slider against both lefties and righties, the right-handed Soroka could move toward the front of the Braves rotation.”
“Soroka made his big league debut as a 20-year-old last season and would have likely stuck in the Braves rotation if not for a shoulder injury that cost him the second half of the season. He was back on the mound and looked fully healthy during the fall instructional league. As long as the injury is behind him, Soroka is ready to be a mid-rotation big league starter.”
– Athlon Sports 2019 Baseball Preview
“He made an impression in his five starts (in 2018), with a 3.00 K/BB ratio and a continued strong groundball rate. The only significant criticism for Soroka up until now has been his so-so strikeout rates (career 8.0 K/9), but he’s been able to make up for it with brilliant control and good groundball ability. If healthy, that combo should make him a high floor contributor in 2019 and onward.”
– The 2019 Fantasy Baseball Guide
“With five, yes FIVE, talented starting pitchers ready to make a rookie splash in Atlanta, projection models aren’t too sure what to make of Soroka, but he is the most polished and we expect him to come out of Spring Training with a spot in the rotation. Soroka has premier command of his pitches, and while he isn’t a big strikeout guy, we could be looking at a Kyle Hendricks like fantasy asset. That is someone you’ll want to get your hands on if he emerges as the Braves No. 5 starter.”
– Bobby Sylvester, FantasyPros
PROJECTED STATISTICS FOR SOROKA 2019
Fantasy Baseball Guide … 6-4 record, 4.02 ERA, 100 IP, 33/81 BB/K, 1.37 WHIP
RotoChamp … 4-4 record, 4.10 ERA, 68 IP, 18/57 BB/K, 1.46 WHIP
THE BAT … 5-4 record, 3.99 ERA, 73 IP, 20/60 BB/K
The ATC … 4-4 record, 3.97 ERA, 62 IP, 17/51 BB/K
Steamer … 4-4 record, 4.19 ERA, 73 IP, 23/61 BB/K
FantasyPros … 3-3 record, 3.94 ERA, 42.3 IP, 12/36 BB/K, 1.39 WHIP
CBS Sports … 4-4 record, 4.29 ERA, 42 IP, 15/40 BB/K, 1.43 WHIP
ESPN … 3-2 record, 3.27 ERA, 41 IP, 10/32 BB/K, 1.24 WHIP