Spencer Strider injury: Where Braves could turn internally, in trade with ace out for 2024 season

The Atlanta Braves announced on Saturday that ace Spencer Strider will miss the remainder of the season following elbow surgery to install an internal brace. Strider, who made his first career All-Star Game in 2023, had complained about elbow pain after showing diminished velocity and effectiveness in his second start this season.

The Braves, off to an 8-4 start this season, must now submit their answer to a near-impossible question: how do you replace one of the best starters in the majors?

In the short term, it appears the Braves will audition various internal candidates. Allan Winans took the first replacement start, but he will not take the second after surrendering seven runs in five innings against the New York Mets. The Braves optioned Winans to the minors on Friday in favor of Darius Vines. It’s to be seen how Vines fares — he had some success last season in a small sample — but let’s say he doesn’t take the job as his own. Then what will the Braves do? Who can they turn to?

Below, CBS Sports has highlighted six realistic candidates to take Strider’s rotation spot as their own the rest of the way. Our pool includes internal contenders and several realistic potential trade targets. (It should go without writing, but we’ll do it anyway: the trade candidates are subject to change based on how teams perform.) Keep in mind that this is more of an art than a science. With that established, let’s get to it.

Internal options

1. RHP Bryce Elder, Triple-A Gwinnett

Remember Elder? On paper, it’s odd that he’s not in someone’s MLB rotation. He made the All-Star Game last season, for Pete’s sake, and he’s still sporting a career 119 ERA+ in 228 innings. The disconnect between those results and his assignment to Triple-A has to do with sustainability. Most teams, the Braves included, have constructed analytical models to evaluate pitch quality. Elder is very much a command artist, which is a gentle way of saying, “Those models don’t like his stuff.” Combine that fact with his abysmal second-half performance (5.11 ERA in 13 starts), and evaluators have ample reason to dismiss him as a viable big-league starter despite his past credentials. 

2. RHP AJ Smith-Shawver, Triple-A Gwinnett

Smith-Shawver debuted last season as a 20-year-old, posting a 4.26 ERA (105 ERA+) and a 1.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six games. He’s struggled out of the gate in Triple-A, walking four batters and surrendering six runs in three innings. Smith-Shawver’s arsenal includes a mid-90s fastball and a slider that generated nearly 40% whiffs in 2023 against Triple-A competition. The Braves may want to see him have some success at the minor-league level before they push him to The Show. But the stuff advantage he possesses over Elder makes him a more compelling long-term fit.

3. RHP Hurston Waldrep, Double-A Mississippi

Waldrep, Atlanta’s first-round pick last summer, has tremendous strikeout ability. He pairs a mid-90s fastball with a trapdoor splitter that was one of the best offerings in his class. The problem that has plagued Waldrep, and that caused him to slip to the back of the first round, is his command. He averaged five walks per nine during his draft year, and he’s since handed out about that many free passes per nine as a pro. Maybe the Braves are OK with Waldrep serving as a right-handed Blake Snell, or a slightly more erratic Dylan Cease. Our guess is they’d like to get him in the strike zone a little more often before unleashing him in a big-league starting role.

Now, onto the potential trade candidates. 

External options

4. LHP Jesús Luzardo, Miami Marlins

Luzardo has an ugly ERA after a disastrous start against the New York Yankees, but we feel safe writing that it won’t stick. We think Luzardo will be the most sought-after pitcher come trade season. That’s because of his track record as an above-average starter and his additional two seasons of remaining team control. Presuming the Marlins are serious about moving him — and new boss Peter Bendix has no incentive to keep him given the state of that roster — they could extract quite the ransom in return. Whether or not the Braves would come out on top in bidding is anyone’s guess.

5. RHP Paul Blackburn, Oakland Athletics

Blackburn has been an obvious trade candidate since the owner-imposed lockout ended in spring 2022. He’s a former All-Star who is already on the shady side of 30. In his last 45 appearances, he’s started 44 times and compiled a 98 ERA+ and a 2.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Blackburn isn’t flashy (his hottest pitch this year checked in at 94.8 mph), but he has a broad arsenal and an additional season of team control left. The Braves and Athletics have linked up for several trades in recent years, including the Matt Olson and Sean Murphy swaps. (Given how those have worked out for the Athletics, maybe they should be committed to taking their business elsewhere?)

6. RHP Zach Eflin, Tampa Bay Rays

We’ll end with a wild card who may not make sense at first blush — after all, the Rays themselves are likely to be contenders — but hear us out. The Rays expect to have several injured pitchers return throughout the year, including Taj Bradley, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Shane Baz. If all goes well, the Rays will have more pitchers than spots. Should that come to pass, it reasons they could move someone from their surplus. We’re highlighting Eflin here because he’s slated to earn $18 million next year in the final season of his contract. Anytime a Rays player is making that kind of bank, you can be sure they’re going to be floated in trade talks. Moving Eflin at the deadline would be risky for obvious reasons — you don’t want to set off a clubhouse mutiny during a playoff chase — but it’s the kind of unconventional deal that the Rays front office always has to weigh given their owner-imposed financial restraints. 

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