Tucker Davidson has been in this position before.
There was Spring Training, when he was mentioned as a sleeper candidate to crack the Atlanta rotation. (He was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett the day before the sport shut down.) There was Summer Camp, when his Major League hopes were given new (though temporary) life.
But in reality, he’s never been closer to getting a Major League look than he is now.
The Braves were already down an injured Cole Hamels, an opted-out Felix Hernandez and a designated-for-assignment Mike Foltynewicz when they lost ace and reigning NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka to a torn Achilles earlier this week. It’s a big enough injury to send shock waves to the pitchers at Atlanta's alternate site in Gwinnett — many of whom worked closely with Soroka through the club’s Minor League system — and at the same time gird them for the opportunities ahead.
"It kinda feels not necessarily like a tryout, but it’s more, 'Show us what you got,'" Davidson said of the mood at Coolray Field of late. "If they feel like we’re ready as a starter and can fill that role, then they’re going to let us take that opportunity, especially if someone’s pitching well and can give the team five, six innings every fifth day and help the team win. It’s been very competitive."
The Braves pitching corps in Gwinnett is strong enough to make any prospect lover bemoan the lack of a Minor League season even more. Those at the alternate site had been working with five starting pitchers since the beginning of the Major League season, each of whom might be the headliner elsewhere: No. 3 Braves prospect Ian Anderson, No. 6 Bryse Wilson, No. 8 Kyle Muller, No. 10 Davidson and No. 12 Huascar Ynoa. Ynoa, who appeared in two Major League games as a reliever last season, was recalled Tuesday, leaving the other four to wonder when and if they'll fit into Atlanta's more immediate plans. In the meantime, they're working through bullpens, intrasquad games and other throwing sessions best they can under the circumstances.
"It was Muller vs. Anderson last night," Davidson said Wednesday, "and I know fans are missing that."
And yet of all those hurlers, Davidson seemed like the one most well-positioned to make a leap in a normal 2020 and who still could be poised to surprise when he is given the opportunity at the top stage.
Taken in the 19th round of the 2016 Draft out of Midland (Texas) Junior College, the 24-year-old left-hander didn't enter the Braves system with the same esteem as some of his colleagues in Gwinnett. In fact, he began as a swingman at Class A Rome in his first full season and didn't enter the rotation for good until 2018 with Class A Advanced Florida.
His big breakout came last season when he proved to be one of Double-A's best pitchers. Aided by a velocity jump that put him in mid-90s with more regularity, Davidson posted a 2.03 ERA for Mississippi. That ranked second among Double-A hurlers with at least 100 innings last season. He also struck out 122 batters in 110 2/3 frames with the M-Braves -- and perhaps most importantly -- his walk rate dropped from 11.3 percent in 2018 to a more manageable 10.0 percent. That led to an August promotion to Gwinnett and four Triple-A starts, over which the southpaw posted another solid 2.84 ERA.
The 2019 campaign made it easy for the Braves to protect Davidson from the Rule 5 Draft with a 40-man roster spot in November, and that placement gave the 6-foot-2 hurler at least a puncher's chance at cracking the Major League club out of Spring Training. Indeed, Davidson entered camp in North Port, Florida, with legitimate (if slightly inflated) hopes of competing for a job in the big league rotation. There was added excitement after a Driveline tweet in January noted Davidson was throwing triple-digits at max effort.
Soroka, Hamels and Max Fried had locked-down spots, but the other two remained open with Hernandez, Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb, Wilson and Davidson all legitimate options. The left-hander worked out of the bullpen in the Grapefruit League and scuffled some with his control, walking four in 6 1/3 innings, but he still limited the damage to only one earned run.
Even getting optioned on March 11, there was hope Davidson's move back to the International League would be a short one and he could be an option for Atlanta in the first half of the coming campaign.
Then the sports world shut down on March 12, including Spring Training and the start of the 2020 season.
"When it first happened, I thought it would only be two weeks," Davidson said. "I took very limited stuff home with me, and I regretted that. You just had to take it week by week, and that was probably the hardest thing. Obviously, you want to be ready to come back as soon as possible whenever they announce it, so each week, I was wondering if I should throw live that week or stick to bullpens. That was the hardest thing."
Home was back in Amarillo, Texas, which Minor League fans should recognize as the home of the Padres' Double-A affiliate. Davidson and other local pitchers received permission from the Sod Poodles to use HODGETOWN as a workout facility, and that's where the Braves prospect tried the best he could -- and as safely as he could -- to pick up where he left off in the Sunshine State.
"We didn’t really have a shutdown period from baseball," Davidson said. "We were still able to do everything every week. Throw our bullpens, get our lifts in, do soft toss. It felt like an instructs to me, just without coaches."
The focus in those Amarillo sessions remained on commanding his fastball better while maintaining the newfound velocity. Davidson's best chances to stick as a starter will come if he can keep his control numbers in check, and that might mean he'll have to do the same with the heat.
"I would love to hit 100 mph, and that might happen earlier in the game," he said. "But really, it’s about consistently keeping the mid-90s velo throughout the entire outing, staying strong and trying to make pitches. In the past, I’ve gotten very velo-happy and tried to ramp up and throw past guys. I now realize you can’t do that in the big leagues as much. It’s more taking of what I already have with the velo in my fastball and being able to command it."
The time back in Texas afforded more opportunities to experiment with a slider Davidson had been working with during Spring Training. His curveball has long been his primary breaking ball, but in order to stand out against opposing batters and his fellow Braves pitchers, Davidson knew he needed to add more diversity to his arsenal.
"I was using it in Spring Training a little bit, but obviously, I was competing for a job, so the curveball was my go-to," he said. "They really liked the shape, but then we got shut down. My goal was I wanted throw the ball harder. I was only 82-83 in Spring Training. So how do I keep the shape that I have and increase velo? It forced me to think about throwing a cutter, and that cue clicked for me. It took off from there. Now it’s at 87-88 and kept the same shape, so I’m very happy with it."
The left-hander even estimates that the slider has become a better pitch than his changeup at this stage and he's relying on it more and more as he continues to hone his curveball, which he's hoping he can add more vertical break to in the coming days and weeks.
The whole improved package could have gotten Davidson some extended looks in the revamped Summer Camp, especially following the news that Hamels will be out until at least September with a triceps injury, but following the earlier option, he already had a pretty good notion where he stood.
"I had an idea where I was in the pecking order, but when Hamels went down, there was another free spot," Davidson said. "There were a couple of us that wanted to fight for spots and give it our all. But really, it was Kyle Wright’s job to lose, and he knew that. I hope he runs away with it. I think it was us wanting to compete and get better because it’s going to be a crazy season. We’re already realizing that. Hopefully, we all get our opportunities and help the team."
As of Wednesday, Davidson's last outing was scheduled to last five innings or 80 pitches, and his next one after that was meant to bump that ceiling up to 90 pitches, if all goes well. That's important to note because the Braves have a recent history of using their pitching prospects out of the bullpen before easing them into the rotation. Fried, Toussaint, Wright and Wilson -- to name four -- all have Major League experience in the bullpen, even though they were strictly starters in the Minor Leagues. It's a history Davidson is all too aware of, but with the way 2020 is going and the Braves keep needing to fill starting spots, he's keeping his attention fixed to the plan he's been on since 2018.
"Strictly, I’m getting stretched out to start right now, so that’s what I’m thinking about," Davidson said. "I’ve pitched out of the bullpen. I know that’s a possibility. They’ve done it with several guys. Right now, it’s just about getting my pitch count up, so if I do have to go up there and start, I’m fully ready. And if it’s out of the bullpen and me having to come in for three innings and piggyback off somebody or whatever the case may be, I’m in an OK place right now. I think it’s about being in the right mind-set of knowing what I do well and going out and doing it."
Understanding his strengths should come in handy should Atlanta shift course with the southpaw.
"I’d still try to be extremely aggressive," Davidson said of how he'd work in relief. "If you’re going through the lineup once, you throw everything you’ve got and show your best stuff. As a starter, you might not show a card until their second or third at-bat. So that might be a curveball if you threw only sliders those first two at-bats. But when you’re facing that lineup just one time through, you’ve got to do whatever you can to get an out. You’re going to your best stuff and trying to get that strikeout or ground ball."
As of now, the Braves seem settled on four of their five rotation spots. Toussaint struck out nine Thursday night in his best appearance yet of 2020, thus solidifying his spot for at least one more turn through the rotation. Wright -- coming off 3 1/3 scoreless innings against the Mets -- is slotted to pitch Friday in Philadelphia followed by Fried (the new de facto ace) on Sunday and Newcomb on Monday. The only TBA on the schedule is for Saturday's game. The club could turn to Wilson -- who has Major League experience -- or Anderson or Muller -- both of whom are higher-ranked prospects than Davidson. But the latter two aren't on the 40-man and Wilson lacks the upward trajectory of Davidson coming off a breakout 2019 with a new tool ready to go in his slider.
The 2020 season was always poised to be Davidson's potential big break. Now it just might come in the weirdest circumstances in recent baseball history.
"It’s going to be different without fans, for sure," Davidson said of a potential Major League debut. "I’ve played in the Florida State League so I’ve played without fans before. You’re still gonna have that adrenaline with Bryce Harper, J.D. Martinez, all those guys stepping in the box against you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be ready to go. It’s about slowing down and making those pitches.
"Take that extra five seconds. I know it sounds dumb, but take in that five seconds to take a deep breath and focus on, ‘OK, fastball away, let’s execute this.’ Taking it one pitch at a time."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.