Bill Shanks

Soroka could be first pitching prospect to graduate to Atlanta

Atlanta Braves pitcher Michael Soroka.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Michael Soroka. AP

Mike Soroka stands out, in more ways than one. He’s a tall kid, 6-foot-5, so you’re going to notice him. But Soroka stands out among a crowd of great pitching prospects for the Atlanta Braves for another reason.

He’s good. He’s really good.

Soroka will start Friday with the Gwinnett Stripers, the Braves’ Triple-A minor league affiliate. He’s only 20, and while he won’t be allowed to legally drink until August, Soroka might just make it to the big leagues before then.

The Braves think Soroka is close. He skipped High-A last season and bolted up to Double-A. Soroka proved the Braves made a smart move, posting a 2.75 earned run average in 26 starts. Then, this spring, Soroka made another great impression.

Coaches just shook their heads when asked about him. They know kids with Soroka’s youth, his stuff and this kind of projection don’t come around very often.

Prospects are never a sure thing, but Soroka feels like one for the rebuilding Braves. Their list of pitching prospects is long, and the talent is starting to bubble to the top. This is one of those “only the strongest survive” type things, as the quality will overwhelm the quantity.

Soroka can throw a slider, and a sinker and a change-up. His curve isn’t bad, either. And guess what happened this spring? His velocity was up, near 97 mph in some Grapefruit League games, making him even more dangerous.

“It’s kind of steadily come up the last couple of years,” Soroka said a few weeks ago. “Out of high school, it was 93-94 and still sat 89-92 and every year it’s come up a couple of ticks. This spring is the first time it’s come out noticeably harder. Having learned how to pitch first and then having maybe a little extra stuff come later isn’t a bad thing at all.”

No, it’s not. And Soroka still understands there is more work to do in the minor leagues. He’s close, but he can still work on certain things to get over that last hump.

“It’s consistency with the off speed,” Soroka said. “Sometimes it comes out in the first inning. Sometimes the slider’s not there and the changeup is. Then it makes an appearance in the fourth inning and then it’s gone. I think that just comes from doing it every single day. You get more consistent. Then comes command with the off speed as opposed to just throwing it for a strike and for a ball.”

The last time the Braves had a 20-year-old pitcher like this knock on the door of the big leagues was 1990, when Steve Avery was baseball’s best prospect. Avery made his debut that June and that could be Soroka’s timetable. Forget about his age. This kid lights up when he talks about getting that call, and he feels he’ll be ready despite being so young.

“Yeah, definitely. If I said I wasn’t, I’d be lying,” he said. “At the end of the day, it (his age) really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is you know how to play the game and you know how to put your best stuff on the line every single game.

“It’s something you’ve been working towards your whole life. We’re not about just working hard until that call up. We’re about working hard to be able to get there and hang banners in Atlanta again. That’s the most exciting part about it.”

That’s what Braves fans want to hear. That’s what they’ve been waiting for. This season will be a work in progress. The roster will get better when Ronald Acuna, Jr. comes up in a few weeks, and then Soroka will join him in a few months. That’s when the real fun begins.

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