Max Fried is a dude again.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that it is so. Being a dude in baseball is much preferable to being just a guy.
After a lengthy rehab from Tommy John surgery and a shaky return, Fried finished the 2016 minor-league season by striking out 44 against seven walks in 25 innings over his final four starts. He touched 97 mph and the knee-melting curveball was back. According to the reviews out of Braves camp, he has picked up this spring where he left off in the fall:
Watching Max Fried throw in sim game/live batting practice, and his fastball/curveball mix is just nasty. Very impressive. #Braves
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienAJC) February 24, 2017
— Jim Powell (@Jim_Powell) February 28, 2017
Max Fried with an Eddie Perez guest appearance pic.twitter.com/AKrhWQj57n
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) February 22, 2017
You might recall that Fried was once the second-best pitcher on his high-school team, behind staff ace Lucas Giolito, but was talented enough to go seventh overall in the 2012 draft.
After an encouraging start to his career, ranked 53rd in Baseball America’s preseason rankings in 2014, Fried required Tommy John surgery in August of that season. Despite the surgery, the Braves wanted him included as a key piece in a trade that sent Justin Upton to San Diego four months later.
Fried is emblematic of the Braves’ approach to and acceptance of risk under president John Hart. All three of the Braves’ first-round picks during the Hart regime have been high-school pitchers. Twelve of their first 14 picks in the 2015 draft were pitchers, and seven of their first eight picks in 2016 were pitchers. Maybe pitchers were just often the best player on their board, but it feels like a strategy was implemented. Kolby Allard (No. 37), Mike Soroka (No. 48), Ian Anderson (No. 66) and Sean Newcomb (No. 78) are all arms drafted or acquired by the Braves to rank in Baseball America’s top-100 list this spring. The list doesn’t include Fried, who has perhaps the most upside of them all.
As the sport deals with an epidemic of pitching-related injuries and Tommy John surgeries, as clubs like the Chicago Cubs have used premium picks to draft position players and seemingly become more risk averse with regard to amateur arms, the Braves have gone in the opposite direction, loading up on arms and risk.
The club, of course, understands the perils associated with young arms. I interviewed Hart when he was still at MLB Network for a story about the Pirates’ historic commitment to prep arms in the draft.
“A truism is if you have 10, you can really count on two of them making it,” Hart said. “I came up in the (1980s) and never believed it. I said, ‘Come on, there can’t be that much attrition.’ Then bang: This guy gets hurt. This guy doesn’t develop a third pitch. … You can never have enough pitching.”
What’s also interesting about this quality-from-quantity approach is that the Braves have been so pitching-focused despite leading baseball in Tommy John surgeries since 2005. But this is, of course, a relatively new front-office group. The organization parted ways with long-time pitching coach Roger McDowell in November, and while one individual can hardly be blamed for the injuries, it is perhaps a signal of a different philosophy in the club’s handling of pitchers.
For instance, the new leadership group has exhibited a more conservative approach with return-to-action timetables. Fried didn’t pitch at all in 2015 and went nearly 21 months between minor-league starts.
He was held out the entire 2015 season by the Braves, whose current front office errs on the side of caution with prospects coming off surgeries. They now add months to typical rehab periods, after the Braves of the past had pitchers Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters get re-injured following Tommy John surgery and 12-14 month rehabs.
“It was a long time,” Fried said. “The two-year rehab process and on top of that, just my little scuffles at the beginning (of the season), trying to find myself again after so much time off. It’s definitely been a journey, but it’s something I wouldn’t trade because I’ve learned so much about myself and what I need to do in times of either adversity or just trying to find yourself again.”
For some time, at least anecdotally, it seemed like the medical and athletic industries’ focus was on reducing return-to-play timetables. Now, more and more, teams seem interested in player rest and efficiency, while perhaps erring on the side of caution with regard to returns.
The Braves seem likely to benefit from a conservative approach for the moment, given not only their wealth of young arms but also the modest expectations of the major-league club in 2017.
Hart knows the danger and risk in loading up on young arms, as he recounted some history in speaking with me two years ago:
“Remember the Mets with the Big Three? With (Paul) Wilson and (Bill) Pulsipher and (Jason) Isringhausen, that whole group?” Hart said. “Some years, some development systems, it works out better. For some others, it doesn’t work out at all.”
Will the arms the Braves are collecting turn out more like the Atlanta staffs of the 1990s, or the Generation K Mets of the early 1990s who never fulfilled expectations? We’ll have to wait and see. But as we’ve seen through Fried’s finish to 2016 and an early snapshot of electric stuff this spring, perhaps a recipe of significant risk tolerance, combined with a volume of arms, and a conservative development approach is the right formula in creating the next quality Braves rotation, and yet another successful rebuild led by Hart.