July 12, 2024

Good News For Braves: He’s Returning…….

The Braves announced Monday morning that they’ve optioned right-handers Bryce Elder and Huascar Ynoa to Triple-A Gwinnett. That follows last week’s option of righty AJ Smith-Shawver and closes the book on Atlanta’s fifth-starter competition. Offseason signee Reynaldo Lopez will open the season as the team’s fifth starter behind Spencer StriderMax FriedCharlie Morton and Chris Sale, tweets Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While it’s looked quite likely for some time now that Lopez would get the spot, it’s nonetheless a scenario that would’ve sounded outlandish after the conclusion of the 2023 season. Elder faded down then stretch in the final couple months of the ’23 campaign but was an All-Star last July. Smith-Shawver rose from High-A to the big leagues in a matter of months last season. Lopez, meanwhile, moved to the bullpen early in the 2021 season with the White Sox and has worked as a reliever for the bulk of the past three seasons.

However, even at the time the Braves signed Lopez to a three-year, $30MM contract, they made clear that the plan was going to be to stretch the right-hander out as a rotation option. Atlanta scouts and evaluators are clearly bullish on the right-hander’s power arsenal and feel it can indeed still hold up in a starting capacity. Lopez started 73 games for the ChiSox from 2018-20, so he’s no stranger to the role, but the vast majority of his MLB success has come since moving to short relief stints.

Thus far in camp, he’s at least looked the part of a viable rotation piece. Spring stats should always be taken with a grain of salt, but through 16 2/3 frames Lopez hasn’t done much to hurt his chances. He’s posted a sharp 2.16 ERA with a 21% strikeout rate, 9.7% walk rate and 45.2% grounder rate. Elder has been tagged for 11 runs on 15 hits and six walk with 13 strikeouts through just 12 innings. Ynoa, who’s still making his way back from 2022 Tommy John surgery, was slowed early in camp by some shoulder soreness and only made his spring debut on Saturday, tossing one inning. Were it not for the shoulder issue, perhaps he’d have been more firmly in the mix this spring, but he didn’t have the chance to build up and will open the season as a depth option in Gwinnett.

Once Smith-Shawver was optioned a week ago, the competition was largely down to Elder and Lopez. It might seem surprising to push an All-Star out of the rotation in favor of a converted reliever, but after a brilliant start to his 2023 season, Elder limped to a dismal 5.75 ERA with just a 15.1% strikeout rate against a 10.4% walk rate over his final 72 innings of the year (14 starts).

Lopez, over the past three seasons, has pitched to a 3.14 ERA with a 26.7% strikeout rate, 7.7% walk rate and 39% ground-ball rate through 189 innings, most of which has come in a relief setting. He pushed his average fastball velocity up to a career-high 98.4 mph in that role last season, though he’ll likely see that number dip a bit over longer stints as a starter.

Lopez posted a 3.91 ERA in 32 starts for the ’18 White Sox but did so with shaky strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates that prompted metrics like FIP (4.63) and SIERA (4.92) to cast a much less favorable light on his work. The secondary numbers indeed served as a portent for regression; from 2019-20, Lopez was torched for a 5.52 ERA in 210 2/3 innings, thanks largely to pedestrian K-BB numbers and a sky-high 1.88 HR/9 mark.

If Lopez is able to break out as a starter, the three-year, $30MM contract he signed could well look like a bargain. If not, he’s proven over the past few seasons that he can be an impact late-inning reliever, so he could always be shifted back into a one-inning role and deepen an already excellent Atlanta bullpen that features Raisel IglesiasJoe JimenezA.J. MinterPierce JohnsonTyler MatzekDylan Lee and Lopez’s former White Sox teammate Aaron Bummer.

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