Without Spencer Strider, How Far Can the Braves Go in 2024?

The Atlanta Braves keep chugging along, but not without some lingering doubts after possibly losing ace Spencer Strider for the 2024 season.

Spencer Strider of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.
DENVER, CO - JUNE 4: Spencer Strider #65 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on June 4, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. The Colorado Rockies debuted the team's city connect uniforms in the game. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

If there was ever a reason to cast doubt over the prospects of this Atlanta Braves season, an injury to ace Spencer Strider would qualify.

By now, we’re well aware of Strider’s diagnosis: a sprained ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow following an abbreviated start on Saturday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He left the game after just four innings, citing elbow discomfort and decreased velocity as the defending National League champions jumped on Strider early and often.

The 25-year-old right-hander will soon be heading to Arlington, Texas to meet with noted surgeon Dr. Keith Meister as they mull over treatment options, including what could be the second Tommy John surgery of Strider’s career.

And if the consensus is indeed surgery? The Atlanta Braves’ 2024 season could become a little turbulent.

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The Braves Rotation Must Step Up Without Spencer Strider

Strider is the unquestioned ace of the Braves’ starting rotation. Yet, after many thought a Cy Young season was looming for the right-hander in 2024, that no longer appears to be a possibility.

But all is not lost in the wake of Strider’s injury: depth is one of Atlanta’s specialties, and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos’s team made a diligent effort to stock the cupboard behind their ace with lefties Max Fried and Chris Sale as well as righties Charlie Morton and Reynaldo López.

What you see isn’t always what you get, however. Fried, for example, has an 18.00 ERA in two starts this season after an injury-riddled 2023 campaign. That’s been a frustrating early development for the Braves.

Atlanta desperately needs Fried to step up in 2024, now more than ever in the absence of Strider. It’s enough being down one ace, so being down two would be particularly concerning.

Behind Fried are veterans Chris Sale and Charlie Morton. Sale, of course, has a lengthy injury history, although he did make 20 starts for the Boston Red Sox last year. On the other hand, that was his most productive season since 2019 (when he made 25 starts).

Therefore, it’s fair to wonder just how durable Sale will be at age 35. His results aren’t likely to be an issue: he already sports a 3.38 ERA and 13 strikeouts over two starts to begin 2024. But the season is long and Sale is hardly a beacon of health.

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The opposite is true of Morton, who has been a model of consistency and durability since joining the Braves in 2021. He’s made at least 30 starts in each of those seasons, including 30 in 2023.

The knock on Morton, though, is his age. At 40 years old, will he continue to be an iron horse? We’ve seen fellow elder statesmen like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander break down in recent years, which doesn’t bode well for Morton. But we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since he’s been extremely productive and reliable in recent years.

Between those three starters, the Braves should have enough to power through the regular season, assuming their health. In addition, Atlanta has veteran righty López, who performed well in his first appearance back in the rotation last week.

The club’s other depth options include Bryce Elder, Dylan Dodd, AJ Smith-Shawver (Just Baseball’s No. 56 prospect), Allan Winans, and Ian Anderson. In addition, pitching prospects Spencer Schwellenbach and Hurston Waldrep (Just Baseball’s No. 100 prospect) are also waiting in the wings.

Simply put: This team can (and will) find innings over the course of the season, so give credit to Alex Anthopoulos and Atlanta’s front office for assembling all of this pitching depth.

The burning question, though, is whether the depth is quality and not just quantity. If Fried doesn’t round into form soon, or if Sale and Morton break down at any point during the season, no amount of depth can replace their high-level production. Entering a potential playoff series with Elder, Anderson, Dodd, Smith-Shawver or Winans in line to start a crucial game wouldn’t be optimal, by any means.

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In the end, Spencer Strider was the one “given” the Atlanta Braves could safely depend on to deliver a big-time outing under pressure. Without that crutch, this team will now be calling upon its depth to shoulder the load – a tall (but not impossible) task, to be sure.

Atlanta’s Vaunted Lineup Must Hit in October

Spencer Strider doesn’t hit (anymore), but we’d be remiss to ignore this massive elephant in the room: the Braves lineup has a history of going cold with the October weather.

The baseball world waxes poetic about Atlanta’s dominant batting order and for good reason: they’re absolutely loaded in 2024, and they were historically great the year prior.

For starters, the 2023 Braves tied the all-time team home run record in MLB with 307 long balls, matching the 2019 Minnesota Twins. They also led MLB in runs per game, averaging nearly six runs on a nightly basis thanks to the likes of Ronald Acuna Jr. (first 40-70 season in MLB history) and Matt Olson (54 home runs), as well as Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Sean Murphy, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Harris II and Travis d’Arnaud.

Even shortstop Orlando Arcia, replacing Dansby Swanson, had a career season in 2023 with 17 home runs and a 99 wRC+.

In the truest sense of the expression, everything was firing on all cylinders for the 2023 Atlanta Braves. That was, until the postseason.

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For the second consecutive year, Atlanta met its match in the NLDS: the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies were a formidable opponent in their own right, but after the Braves’ historic 2023 season, their second straight NLDS loss was a massive upset.

The culprit of Atlanta’s demise? A combined team OPS of .519 in that series.

The same vaunted lineup that made every game look like a track meet in the regular season couldn’t replicate those results in October. And not to mention, that narrative had also carried over from 2022, where they similarly shrunk under the postseason lights with a team OPS of .594, resulting in an early NLDS defeat to those same Phillies.

It goes without saying that the Braves must find a way to hit in the postseason just as they do in the regular season. But what’s worth mentioning is that the potential loss of Strider to season-ending surgery only increases the pressure on the lineup to produce.

Without a stopper like Strider to shut down an opposing playoff batting order, Atlanta will need to rely on its offenses to outhit opponents. Fortunately for the Braves, their bullpen is stout, meaning a lead late in a game is usually safe.

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Getting to that late lead, however, is the first order of business, and the Braves have not demonstrated the capacity to hit at a high level in recent Octobers. That needs to change in 2024, no matter what they achieve this regular season.

So, How Far Will the Braves Go Without Spencer Strider in 2024?

The answer hinges greatly on Atlanta’s rotation stepping up and the lineup’s ability to turn the corner in October.

The good news for the Braves? Their path to winning yet another NL East division title looks to be one of little resistance: They handled the Phillies solidly in their first series of 2024, while their other rival clubs in New York, Miami and Washington leave plenty to be desired.

But once Atlanta makes it through 162 games, likely capturing another division title along the way, the real work begins. And that’s where the Braves will feel Spencer Strider’s absence the most.

Ultimately, the Braves’ ceiling remains among the highest in baseball. And with the level of production they’ve sustained in recent years, this team should still command plenty of respect.

If nothing else, though, Strider’s injury adds an aura of uncertainty for Atlanta in 2024.

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