- By David O'Brien The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
They don’t make movies about the Arizona Fall League.
It ain’t glamorous.
Less than six weeks after Max Fried beat the Cubs at sold-out Wrigley Field in his first major league start, and just nine days after working 4-1/3 innings on short notice in the Braves’ season-finale win at Miami, the left-hander found himself facing the Glendale Desert Dogs. This time, just a few hundred subdued folks in a 12:35 p.m. game under the harsh Arizona sun at Peoria Sports Complex.
The league is a proving ground for prospects, most of whom have not had a major league call-up, much less won at Wrigley against the previous year’s World Series champions.
But if there were any questions about how Fried would handle the fall league assignment, whether he might find it difficult to get focused or excited about pitching in near-empty stadiums while the baseball world’s focus was on postseason play, it didn’t take long for the lanky lefty to answer.
Fried struck out seven in three scoreless innings of that first AFL start at Peoria and would go on to allow no earned runs in four of six starts in Arizona.
This was a youngster not thinking about getting through the fall league and getting home to southern California to relax. No, he viewed this desert experience as another step in competing for what likely will be no more than one opening in the Braves’ starting rotation this spring.
“I mean, you have to (view it that way),” said Fried, 23, who might have to beat out a few others in the spring battle for a rotation spot, including Sean Newcomb, the hard-throwing lefty who spent more than half a season in the Braves rotation as a rookie.
Rookie Luiz Gohara, another big lefty with great stuff, impressed so much in September that he seems likely to open the season in a rotation currently set to include incumbents Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz and veteran Brandon McCarthy, who came from the Dodgers in a December trade that sent Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles.
Barring another trade or free-agent acquisition, the field of potential candidates for the fifth rotation spot could also include Lucas Sims, who made 10 starts as a rookie, and top prospects Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, though neither has pitched above Double-A and both seem likely to get more seasoning in the upper minor leagues.
“It’s so competitive, especially with all the guys that we have,” Fried said. “I don’t want to look back at any kind of situation and say, I could have done more. So for me it’s just, go out there, give everything I’ve got, and really just leave it all out there.”
He did that in Arizona as Fried led the AFL with 32 strikeouts in 26 innings and finished 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts. He maintained mid-90s velocity on his fastball, routinely made hitters look silly with his vaunted curveball, and was first among starters with a .163 opponents’ average and second in fewest base runners per nine innings (7.96).
“Maxy came out (to Arizona) and you could tell he was on a mission, I’ll just put it that way,” said Braves assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz, who went to check on Braves prospects during the fall league that ran through mid-November. “He wants to really prove himself and be considered for one of those spots in Atlanta, and he’s doing everything he can to put himself in that position.”
Motivation was not a problem for Fried. A quiet but tenacious southern California native and a previous Padres first-round draft pick, he’s taking nothing for granted as he tries to seize an opportunity with the Braves, an opportunity for which he’s hungrier than ever after getting a nine-game, four-start taste of the big leagues in 2017.
Ranked among baseball’s top 50 prospects before missing two seasons recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, Fried’s first full season back was 2017, when he was slowed by blisters that forced him to miss a few weeks at Double-A. But soon after getting that under control, the Braves were satisfied he was ready for a call-up despite his 5.92 ERA in 19 Mississippi starts.
Fried proved worthy of their confidence. He posted a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings for the big-league Braves, who had him make four relief appearances – that was new for him – before his first start. He gave up three runs in 2-2/3 innings of a relief appearances at Coors Field and only one run in four innings over his other three relief appearances.
Then came the start at Wrigley, where Fried stepped up in a big way, limiting the Cubs to four hits, one run and three walks with four strikeouts in five innings to win his first big-league decision.
He got knocked around six days later in a start against the Marlins (3-2/3 innings, six hits, three earned runs), but after that Fried allowed just three earned runs and two walks with 11 strikeouts in 10-2/3 innings over his final three games including strong starts against the Mets and Marlins on a season-ending road trip.
Fried barely had time for a few days at home before reporting to the fall league and resuming a journey he hopes has brought him closer than ever to realizing his dream.
“Just trying to keep it going, really,” he said midway through his dominant showing in the fall league. “I learned a lot at the end of the year (in the majors), so I’m just trying to implement it here and keep it going.”
“Max Fried is a totally different guy than I had all year,” said Peoria manager Luis Salazar, a Braves staffer who was Fried’s manager at Double-A Mississippi. “I think he got confidence when he went up to the big leagues. He went to the big leagues and came back (to minors), where he had been scuffling, and he dominated. Attacked the zone.
“I said, you need to practice throwing your fastball, you’ve got great stuff. He’s dominating with the fastball (in the AFL). He’s got a good change-up, good breaking ball, and he’s throwing the breaking ball when he needs to. But he’s using the fastball 95 percent; he’s dominating with the fastball.”
Fried said, “I think it’s just experience and knowing what it takes to succeed at that (major league) level, and trying to keep my same mental approach, just the mentality of going after guys and not taking off (mentally) for one pitch. Because I just know if you take any pitch off in the big leagues, you get a lot of damage done.
“It’s just been more about believing in myself, believing in my stuff, and what can happen in the future. My goal is to pitch in the big leagues, so I want to make the most of every opportunity that I have to try to make that come true.”