Inside the Clubhouse: Cy Young races, Braves extensions, Luis Urias and more

This week, Inside the Clubhouse looks at the tight Cy Young races in both leagues, looming extensions decisions for the Braves and more.

Following the 2020 season, one rival executive opined that “A.J. Preller took David Stearns’ lunch money” in a deal that sent outfielder Trent Grisham and pitcher Zach Davies from the Milwaukee Brewers to the San Diego Padres for infielder Luis Urias and pitcher Eric Lauer.

Grisham developed into an above-average leadoff hitter and Gold Glove center fielder. Davies was serviceable and posted a 2.73 ERA in 12 starts. Urias, meanwhile, underwent surgery before the 2020 season to repair a fractured hamate bone, tested positive for COVID-19 and hit .231/.308/.294 in 41 games. Lauer injured his shoulder in spring training and quarantined following close contact with someone who contracted COVID-19, finishing the season with a 13.09 ERA in four appearances.

It’s time to revisit that trade.

Grisham, 24, is hitting .240/.328/.411 in 404 at-bats and now sits against left-handed pitching. Davies, 28, was part of an offseason trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Padres. Urias, 24, has been a revelation with the Brewers this season, posting a .781 OPS and 108 OPS+, while Lauer has a 3.10 ERA in 21 games (17 starts).

When the Brewers acquired Urias, they believed he had untapped power potential. He used to over-rotate his front shoulder in his swing and it would be buried when he loaded. He struggled covering the inside pitch and swung at them too much. So, working with hitting coaches Andy Haines and Jacob Cruz in spring training, Urias tweaked his swing. The result: After hitting zero home runs in 120 plate appearances in 2020, he has 20 home runs in 514 plate appearances this season.

“He has special power,” Haines said. “Pound for pound, he has as much power as anyone in the big leagues. It’s foul pole to foul pole. This guy is special. He’s a huge part of our offense and doesn’t get talked about much.”

Lauer has benefitted from pitching on a more regular schedule this season as the Brewers have moved toward a six-man rotation, implemented to keep Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta fresh for the playoffs. One rival scout Lauer has been “fucking awesome” and added that he’s “one of the best pitchers no one knows about.”

Corbin Burnes vs. Max Scherzer for National League Cy Young

Will Sammon of The Athletic tweeted a strong argument for Brewers starter Corbin Burnes to win the National League Cy Young Award. Then Dodgers ace Max Scherzer allowed one hit in eight innings in his start against the San Diego Padres the next day — further complicating what will already be a tough decision for voters.

The voting, however, might come down to innings pitched. Scherzer, 37, has thrown 162 innings while his teammate Walker Buehler, another prominent name in the Cy Young discussion, ranks second in the NL with 186 innings. Burnes, meanwhile, has only thrown 152 innings, 18th-most in the NL.

It’s not as if Burnes, 26, isn’t pitching deep into games. He has thrown at least six innings in 18 of his 25 starts (72 percent). Buehler, however, has thrown at least six innings in 27 of his 29 starts (93 percent). As Sammon noted, it’s not like Buehler is throwing more innings just because he’s made more starts. It’s more complicated than that. The Brewers have implemented a six-man rotation in part to keep Burnes, who has previously dealt with oblique and knee injuries in recent years, healthy for the postseason. He also missed two starts after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this season.

Still, Burnes’ performance is historic and worthy of Cy Young consideration despite throwing fewer innings. He set a record for most strikeouts to start a season without a walk (58) and tied a major-league record with 10 consecutive strikeouts against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 12. He leads pitchers in fWAR (7.1) while Scherzer ranks fourth (5.2) and Buehler ranks eighth (4.6). His 1.50 FIP ranks second since 1920, behind Pedro Martinez’s 1.39 FIP in 1999.

Scherzer, however, has established himself as one of, if not the best, trade deadline acquisitions in baseball history. The Dodgers have won all eight of his starts. He has posted a 0.88 ERA and 72/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings since the trade. He hasn’t allowed an earned run since Aug. 21, spanning 30 consecutive innings, and has a 2.17 ERA in 27 starts this season.

If voters value innings, Buehler figures to warrant strong consideration. If they don’t, it’s likely to come down to Burnes vs. Scherzer — and if I had a Cy Young vote (I don’t), it would, at least right now, go to Burnes.

Braves have some decisions to make on contract extensions

The Atlanta Braves have been among the most aggressive teams signing players to contract extensions this season — and their top priority remains getting a deal done with Freddie Freeman, whether that’s before or after the season.

But the timing aligned on finalizing extensions for Travis d’Arnaud and Charlie Morton. The Braves began talks with d’Arnaud in the winter and were able to complete a deal on Aug. 20, almost a week after he came off an 86-day injured list stint following a thumb injury. Like d’Arnaud, Morton was set to become a free agent at the end of the season, though general manager Alex Anthopoulos said “the uncertainty of whether he would keep playing or not” factored into their decision to finalize a midseason extension.

The Braves have also talked to Freeman about an extension, as Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported, and while there is a strong expectation a deal will get done at some point, the possibility remains that he could test free agency. Here are some other potential extension candidates for the Braves:

Dansby Swanson: Swanson, 27, is scheduled to become a free agent following the 2022 season and might be tempted to test free agency considering the two sides have not yet reached a deal. He has flashed star potential at times but has struggled offensively. He remains a well-above-average defensive shortstop and considering the Braves do not have a shortstop prospect ready to take over after 2022, could make Swanson a candidate for a multi-year extension.

Max Fried: Fried, 27, will be second-time arbitration-eligible this winter and is still three years away from free agency. He has missed almost two full seasons following Tommy John surgery and has established himself as a frontline starter, posting a 3.13 ERA in 198.2 innings since 2020, and could be open to signing a long-term extension that ensures financial security.

Austin Riley: This is a longshot — and that might even be an understatement. But the Braves have done similar extensions with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies in the past and could try to do the same with Riley, 24, who is likely to finish top-10 in the MVP voting this season and won’t become a free agent until 2026.

How did Robbie Ray turn things around?

Robbie Ray finished last season with a 6.62 ERA and 1.90 WHIP — in large part because of an MLB-worst 45 walks — in 51.2 innings with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays.

This year, Ray is the favorite alongside New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole to win the American League Cy Young Award. So, how did he get here?

Ray, 29, is hitting the strike zone with more consistency, with 51 percent of his pitches being in the zone, up from 42.9 percent in 2020. His walk rate has decreased from 17.9 to 6.5 percent, with the 11.4 percent difference being among the most among pitchers to throw at least 50 innings, according to MLB.com.

Ray leads AL starters with a 2.07 ERA since the All-Star break. He struck out 10-plus batters in four straight games, tied for the best stretch by any pitcher this season, and his 233 strikeouts are the most in baseball.

He leads the AL with a 2.64 ERA, slightly above Cole, who has a 2.75 ERA and has recently battled a left hamstring injury.

Cole, 31, said his hamstring responded well following a five-inning appearance against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. But Ray further strengthened his Cy Young case on Wednesday, striking out 13 while allowing one run in a seven-inning appearance against the Tampa Bay Rays.

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