The Braves’ future rotation relies heavily upon a Canadian kid who can’t yet legally enjoy a beer.
Mike Soroka knows the importance his development holds, and he accepts the challenge. He won’t even mince words: The majors are close, and they’re never far from his mind.
Soroka had the chance to showcase his readiness against the Tigers’ regulars March 1. By the end of the day, Miguel Cabrera, who’s seen a lot in a career ticketed for Cooperstown, looked taken aback.
The righty doesn’t turn 21 until August, but he’s popularly referred to as the best arm in a deep system. With just three spring appearances, he has not only affirmed those beliefs, but possibly heightened expectations.
The debut was slightly bumpy. He allowed a homer to the leadoff batter and then hit the ensuing batter. But Soroka stayed calm and retired the remainders. His third appearance permitted a single and nothing more across two innings Tuesday.
But his second outing was most noteworthy. Soroka threw a perfect two innings against the Tigers, highlighted by a battle with Cabrera.
Soroka set down Cabrera on strikes, zipping in a 95-mph fastball for strike three. Cabrera shook his hand afterward and told him nice job before exiting.
It was the first time Soroka had faced a player he admired while growing up. He wasn’t going to approach it subtly.
“I’m not going to waste pitches being too careful with these guys,” Soroka said. “I’m going to do my best to make sure I get them more than they get me. You get those guys out and you get a sense of belonging.
“But at the same time, you’ve got to realize it’s not necessarily getting them out that’s the hard part. It’s doing it over and over again.”
That veteran-like wisdom is why the organization holds Soroka in such high regard. Some with the team compare him to the student who’s always engaged, asking and answering questions while the rest of the class monitors the clock.
His maturity has won him the respect of several veterans. His friendly demeanor has won him the respect of his fellow prospects. His “stuff” has earned him the respect of his rivals.
“Soroka, I think, is the one,” Braves starter Brandon McCarthy said. “I’ve watched (him throw) a bullpen (session), and it didn’t look like a 20-year-old throwing a bullpen. And this isn’t to knock any of the other guys I haven’t watched as close, but it was well-commanded, everything was just where (he) wanted it to be. Watching him in the weight room, he looks like a guy that is a big-league rotation guy that just has it together, knows what he’s doing.”
Those praises echo through the clubhouse, including by players such as Mike Foltynewicz, who hasn’t interacted much with Soroka, but already holds him in high regard because of others’ opinions.
Hearing the elders brag on him put a smile on Soroka’s face. He hasn’t gone out of his way to impress peers. He’s quiet in the clubhouse and soft-spoken in interviews. He blushed and gave an innocent grin when asked about striking out Cabrera.
It’s what happens on the field that makes him ferocious.
“It’s no surprise,” catcher prospect Alex Jackson said of Soroka’s swift impression. “Soroka has unbelievable stuff. He’s a bulldog on the mound. He likes to get out there, go after you. He’ll attack and he never gives up. He’s never just going to fold. He’s going to keep coming at you regardless of the situation. Soroka is an extremely talented kid. He just keeps getting better and better.”
Soroka worked with former Braves reliever Chris Reitsma in the offseason. Reitsma was known for his change-up, a pitch Soroka is trying to hone as his primary weapon.
The prospect attests it’s a work in progress, but the man catching Soroka’s first spring appearance was dazzled by what he saw.
“I was very impressed just by the stuff that he had, the action on the pitches,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “The force behind his fastball; even though it’s not upper 90s, it feels that way. The heavy ball sank, seems like he’s really got one of those. Sharp slider. Really good change-up, really good. I think that’s his thing. And if it’s not, it will be. It’s very deceptive with a very big change of speed, especially with how the fastball feels velocity-wise.
“He definitely made an impression on me. This guy’s going to be pretty good. Now you just look for the consistency.”
Kurt Suzuki caught Soroka’s second appearance and came away similarly intrigued.
“He’s been great,” Suzuki said. “The sky’s the limit. He’s got so much potential. It’s just about going out there, putting it together and staying healthy.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker constantly praises Soroka’s command and composure on the mound. He and Suzuki were blown away by Soroka’s age.
“The facial, the business, the ‘on the attack,’ competitiveness, his pitches, how he executes his pitches. It’s way beyond his years, that’s for sure,” Snitker said.
Soroka partially credited Reitsma for the respect he’s garnered in the clubhouse.
“Chris Reitsma and I had a lot of talks before spring training,” he said. “He made it clear, you get in there and you be you. Get your work done and show that you want to be there and you want to get better and learn. Veterans and everybody else will see that and respect that. That’s very important. To hear some of that (compliments) from those guys is pretty incredible. I really hope I can just keep doing it day in and day out. That’s the goal.”
Kolby Allard’s made noise himself. One of Soroka’s best friends, the 20-year-old lefty was selected 14 picks ahead of Soroka in 2015. They insist there’s no rivalry, instead focusing conversation on creating a dynamic duo in the Braves rotation.
“It looks like it could happen, so why not talk about it,” Allard said. “Me and Mike both have the same philosophy. A lot of people are so focused on getting to the majors, but we have that same mentality. We’ll make our big league debut and that’s going to be a very special moment for our friends, family, that kind of thing. But we’re not here to be all wide-eyed, woo-hoo I’m here.
“We’re here to win. We’re here to compete right when we get up. That’s one thing that we both share that’s very good.”
As competitively minded as Soroka is, he won’t be part of the opening-day rotation. But he’ll be in the majors soon, be it mid-summer, September or in 2019.
He knows it’s coming, but it won’t cloud the big-picture thinking.
“It’s been of importance since draft day. Nobody wants to spend too much time in the minor leagues,” Soroka said. “But being able to put that in positive terms and realizing that the only way you’re going to get there is taking it pitch-by-pitch, getting out there with the mindset to dominate every time you go out.
“I’m definitely looking to the big leagues. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But at the end of the day, it’s not about getting there and having one good year. It’s about doing it year in and year out.”
And the Braves, crossing their fingers that a pitching-heavy rebuild yields at least one ace, would excitedly take it.