In 2022, I was fortunate enough to travel to Atlanta for the first time. The ultimate reason I was there is a story for another time, but I took in the ring ceremony at Truist Park. The then-defending champs took on Cincinnati in a game that was otherwise not super memorable. 1. Because it was a game against the Reds in April and 2. Because it had been a long day and I consumed exactly one IPA out of a baseball bat. The murkiness of the game itself is not all that dissimilar to the general attention that the club has received heading into 2022.
Sure, they acquired Sean Murphy. They had a little movement in their bullpen. Dansby Swanson left. But in the midst of the excitement over the title-or-bust attitudes of their division rivals in New York and Philadelphia, it’s almost as though we’ve forgotten to focus on this team as a legitimate contender. Legitimately shocking, given what they accomplished last year from April on.
Ultimately, this is a roster that is among the best in baseball. Determining busts isn’t easy. Determining sleepers on a roster that has added stars to its World Series roster via trade and had two more emerge as rookies last year is even more difficult. Nonetheless, here are some names to keep an eye on as the spring creeps ever nearer.
Key Concept: Pitch Mix
Raisel Iglesias had a couple of years (2017 & 2018) in Cincinnati where he walked more folks than usual. He had a couple of others where he was serving up homers at a higher rate. It’s led to sort of an unfair perception of what Iglesias can provide as a reliever.
Atlanta let Kenley Jansen walk this winter. He’s in Boston, now. That left the door to the closer role swinging in his absence. Iglesias and his continually evolving pitch mix could very well be the one to close (not a pun, just unfortunate) it:
What the influx of the sinker has done is kind of dilute the pitch mix in an interesting way. The changeup only accounted for 24 percent of the usage. But in adding the sinker, you’ve now got two groundball pitches that accounted for something closer to 45 percent together last year. A pair of groundball pitches after you’ve thrown your four-seam to get ahead in the count? Sure. Or you could just toss the slider, your best in the whiff game. Either way, the four-pitch mix from Iglesias is extremely unique for a reliever, and the fact that it continues to evolve leaves him as the man best suited to take over ninth-inning duties from Jansen in 2023.
Key Concept: 2022 was the outlier.
Everything was abnormal for Rosario in 2022. Whiff rates were way up, and contact rates were way down. Quality of contact? You guessed it. This, while Rosario didn’t really experience any change in the way he had been pitched to prior to last year. Pitch types remained the same. If anything, pitchers were working outside the strike zone more frequently because they knew they could.
Based off a 2022 baseline, there’s almost no way Rosario isn’t better in 2023. He was just so bad. He’s now had a full offseason to recover from the eye procedure. Also working in his favor? The elimination of the shift. Rosario was on the higher end of shifts against, at 83.6 percent. Given his heavy pull tendencies, there’s likely something to be unlocked in terms of the on-base. Add in the health factor for a player who has a career .192 ISO and three seasons in the last five (2020 notwithstanding) with at least 24 homers, and you have a really interesting player. He’s not a star among the outfielders like even his compatriots in Atlanta, but there’s a ton of stability to be had as a low-punchout, medium-power guy on any roster.
Key Concept: Major League Appearances Since 2020
Hear me out. Mike Soroka is, of course, an extremely obvious choice here. So obvious that to even call him a ‘bust’ would indicate expectations from the outset. Soroka very likely has none. In fact, my inclusion of Soroka on this list at all is a completely hilarious and foolhardy choice by me. But do you know who drafted Soroka in 2022 thinking he put one over on everyone? Do you know whose brother-in-law did the same? Right. The 2023 season is all about staying healthy through a full campaign, whether at the big league level or those below. That, in itself, would represent a successful year. But no matter how healthy he is in 2023, it’s extremely unlikely he provides value on the bump.
In the minuscule sample that we’ve seen from Soroka since his 2019 breakout, the results haven’t been terribly encouraging. His 2020 featured a decrease in Zone% and an overall decrease in Swing%. Soroka isn’t an overpowering pitcher. He thrives on keeping walks down, getting hitters to drive the ball into the ground (50.9 career GB%), and using punchouts as a supplement rather than a necessity.
To say the slip in command across a trio of starts in 2020, of all years, would be absurd. But we saw a little bit of that again across his rehab appearances in Triple-A, where he pitched to a 6.43 ERA and 5.03 FIP in five starts. Hitters were still putting the ball on the ground at an astronomical rate (a welcome sign!). Strikeouts looked, basically, like they always have. But with Soroka’s skill set, he has to work in the zone and induce swings to let his defense do the work. The shaky command isn’t encouraging when he has to work his way back from what he does.
Again, small sample. But last year’s five starts were in Gwinnett. Major League hitters aren’t going to be less patient. I’m still of the belief that Mike Soroka will be an important part of Atlanta’s success, and can be a viable fantasy starter, at some point in the future. I just can’t be duped into acting upon those thoughts for a second consecutive year. This 2023 season is about health. The fact that the command is secondary to health will very likely rear its head for a while until he’s starting again full-time.
Key Concept: Vaughn vs. Dansby
While it isn’t a total shock that Atlanta appears primed to hand the keys at the six over to young Vaughn Grissom, it’s certainly a little bit surprising. The assumption early on is that Swanson would be back. Local product, likely the easiest of the four shortstops to sign, etc. There was some buzz at some point about Trea Turner as a possibility, as well. But here we are. Unless some shocking trade comes down the pipe, it’ll be Grissom making up the double-play combo with Ozzie Albies in 2022.
The comparisons are inevitable. And while Grissom will get plenty of run to boom or bust, the contrast between the skill sets is stark: