Well, it happened. Every fan in the state of Georgia's worst fears have been confirmed. Saturday, the Atlanta Braves confirmed their ace pitcher Spencer Strider, coming off a season where he set a new franchise record with 276 strikeouts, had undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery. In their quest to right the wrongs of last season's postseason disappointment, the Braves will be without their most powerful arm from here on out.

Obviously, it's a brutal emotional blow for Strider and all of his teammates, since there were lofty expectations for Strider as an individual (the odds-on Cy Young favorite coming into the season) and the Braves as a whole (second-best World Series odds in most places). But at the same time, it's never a good idea to write off a team full of superstars just because one key cog in the machine goes out of commission.

So how concerned should the Braves really be about attempting to climb the mountain in the National League this season without Strider to anchor the pitching staff? Who will have to step up and what might the Braves' front office need to do to help relieve some of the burden on the current roster? Let's explore the depths of the situation in the ATL.

Who's picking up the slack for the Braves with Spencer Strider out?

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider (99) prepares to throw a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies on opening day at Citizens Bank Park
© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn't already a huge year for Max Fried, it sure is now. Penciled in as one of the most prolific number two starters in the game, Fried has now been thrust back into the role of the stopper in the Atlanta rotation. And whatever he does will have an enormous impact not only on the Braves' success as a team, but what kind of contract Fried is able to sign when he hits free agency this winter.

From 2019 to 2023, Fried pitched every bit like a true ace, racking up a 60-21 record, a 3.00 ERA and a 146 ERA+, punctuated by a second place finish in the 2022 Cy Young voting. But after his 2023 was cut short due to injury, Fried came into camp for the first time with some uncertainty about where his game was at. And through three starts this season, the results have been pretty ugly. Fried has allowed 11 earned runs in 11.1 innings with a brutal 1.85 WHIP.

Even if Fried predictably turns it around after a slow start, the Braves still need a lot more to break their way to match last season's rotation output. Chris Sale pitching as well as he has suddenly seems like much more of a necessity than an added bonus or a “let's just hope he's healthy come October.” Charlie Morton keeps putting off retirement to post near-All Star numbers, so the Braves are hoping his age-40 season is more of the same.

Beyond that it's the Reynaldo Lopez, Darius Vines and Bryce Elder show, all names that could unexpectedly star for the Braves at a moment's notice. But no matter who gets the ball at Truist Park, the pressure on everyone is dramatically heightened without Strider to dominate for six or seven innings every fifth game. The Braves can keep winning without their ace, but it sure won't be easy.

Do the Braves need to add another starter?

The situation doesn't yet feel dire enough to go out and make a trade. It's a huge credit to general manager Alex Anthopoulos that Atlanta has managed to build a staff deep enough to fill in for Strider with MLB-caliber arms and still put out a batting lineup with All-MLB talent plastered all over it. But the day could still arrive when the Braves determine what they have in house is not enough to compete with the top dogs in the National League.

A lot hinges on Chris Sale. One might be inclined to think the Braves have “fixed” Sale based on the positive early results on the mound, but Sale's problem the last three years was never his performance when he was able to take the mound. Various health ailments have limited Sale to just 33 starts since the start of 2020, a list of injuries that ranges from “typical pitcher arm problems” to “broke his wrist falling off his bike when he was already rehabbing a broken finger.”

So if Sale stays healthy and the rest of the rotation pitches the way it's capable of, it's entirely possible Atlanta can navigate this season without dipping into the minor league talent pool to add another starter. They may get to the deadline and decide they want to add one anyway, because you can quite literally never have too much pitching in 2024 when any pitcher could get hurt with zero warning. And on the flipside, if more injuries come, Anthopoulos will have no choice but to go out and add a marquee starter before the deadline.

Is a championship still in the cards for Braves?

With all those moving pieces, does Atlanta still really have a shot to topple the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the most absurd collection of superstars ever assembled, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who have crane-kicked the Braves right out of the playoffs two years running? Without question.

This is still one of the five most talented teams in the league, with a lineup that can go toe-to-toe with the Dodgers, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, etc. and out-slug them all day, every day. Sure, there are more talented rotations out there, but this iteration of the Braves' pitching staff can cohere into something at or approaching an elite level. Plus, it's baseball and anything can happen. The Braves should know that better than anyone, since they won their lone championship this century with one of their least talented teams of the past decade.

But man, it really would be nice to still have Spencer Strider around. The game will miss him either way, but the Braves are hoping they won't miss him the most when the games are sink or swim.