Monday, March 27, 2023

2020 picks Shuster, Elder jockey for position on Braves staff

With just four picks and one of the lowest bonus pools available in the 2020 draft, Atlanta had to get a bit creative in how it drafted and what terms it could offer.

Having forfeited its second- and third-rounders for signing qualifying offer free agents Will Smith and Marcell Ozuna, and gained a third for the loss of Josh Donaldson, the Braves went into the five-round affair owning picks 25 (1st rd), 97 (3rd), 126 (4th), and 156 (5th). Their bonus pool was just $4,127,800. To make up for the lost second-rounder, the Braves were hoping to hit a home run later in the draft. But in order to get aggressive there, they would need to save some money early on.

So, while it may have seemed early to hear Jared Shuster's name called late in the first, there was a plan. The Wake Forest lefthander was one of the fastest rising players in his class, having broken out on the Cape the previous summer after struggling for most of his first two collegiate seasons. Still, he was only ranked 47th by Baseball America ahead of the draft and 77th by MLB Pipeline. But by taking him early and signing him to an under-slot $2,197,500 deal, Atlanta saved $542,800.

That money, along with $100,000 banked on a bargain deal with third-rounder Jesse Franklin, allowed the Braves to splurge on fifth-rounder Bryce Elder, who slid due to signability concerns. Elder was regarded as a risky pick for some clubs, leaving BA's No. 84 talent available at pick No. 156. Elder, a polished righthander from Texas, agreed to an $847,500 deal a week after the draft, more than half a million over the pick's $336,600 slot value.

The only Atlanta pick to sign for even close to his pick's preordained value that draft was Clemson righthander Spencer Strider, who received $449,300, just $2,500 under slot. Strider was coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him his sophomore season in 2019. Having thrown just 12 innings in 2020 before the pandemic ended the college season, he was a bit of a wild card. Of course, that gamble paid off, as Strider reached the majors less than 16 months later, appearing in two games out of the bullpen in October 2021. He may have received the smallest bonus of any Atlanta pick in 2020, but he more than made up for it by signing a six-year, $75 million contract extension last October after finishing second in National League Rookie of the Year balloting.

Elder was the second member of the class to reach Atlanta, debuting last April. He was up and down throughout the 2022 campaign, making 10 appearances in all for the Braves and compiling a 3.17 ERA over 54 innings. He was one of the early favorites for the No. 5 starter job heading into training camp this spring, but after allowing eight earned runs in 11.2 innings he was optioned to Gwinnett on March 15, along with righthander Ian Anderson, who had seemed almost a lock to make the club.

So while Shuster and his below-slot deal made it possible to bring Elder into the organization back in 2020, Elder's disappointing spring cleared a path for Shuster to make the Opening Day roster, along with fellow lefthander Dylan Dodd, himself a well below-slot signing as a fifth-year senior in 2021. Both hit their spots within the zone this spring, something Elder failed to do. But should either of them falter, Elder will be more than happy to swap places. (Strider, of course, seems unlikely to make way for anyone, health willing.)

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