Welcome to a new on-going series that will examine the Braves system depth by position as the calendar turns oh… so… slowly… towards the opening of spring training, with pitchers and catchers set to report on February 14. No doubt the Braves will make a couple of roster moves before that time, so I will start this series with the position that will likely have the least amount of shifting in the next couple of weeks, first base.
STARTER: Freddie Freeman
Freeman will open his 7th April with the major league club coming off his finest season of his career. Freeman turned in a Chipper-esque .302/.400/.569 batting line and played in 158 of 161 games coming back from a scary wrist injury in 2015. If there’s one position on the diamond that the Atlanta Braves have locked-in, it’s first base thanks to Freeman.
BACK-UP: Sean Rodriguez
As we go through this series, you should plan on seeing Rodriguez’s name come up a lot. Rodriguez may end up starting in a number of positions or possibly in a platoon situation. He won’t be platooning at first base with Freeman of course, but he’ll be the first choice if Freeman has to come out of a game.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Matt Tuiasosopo
Tuiasosopo, 30, played 27 games at first base for Gwinnett in 2016, along with 30 games in the outfield and was briefly called up to Atlanta last May. Tuiasosopo actually lead the organization in home runs when he was hit by a pitch by Homer Bailey against Louisville and wasn’t able to return until the playoffs. Though he was a minor league free agent after the season, Tuiasosopo quickly re-signed with the Braves.
CHALLENGER: Balbino Fuenmayor
Tuiasosopo’s main competition for the Gwinnett first base job may be Balbino Fuenmayor, who signed as a minor league free agent in November. Fuenmayor spent the last two seasons in the Royals organization, hitting 17 homers in 2015 before his season was cut short due to a blown ACL. Last season he hit .291/.325/.405 for AAA Omaha, so he’s looking to bounce back. It’s possible that if Fuenmayor sticks that Tuiasosopo could find playing time in the outfield, though it may be crowded to start the year with the likes of Dustin Peterson and Mel Rojas, Jr. projected at the corners and Ronnier Mustelier in the mix for outfield and DH time.
BACK-UP: Blake Lalli
Lalli is a catcher by trade, but found himself leading the team in games at first base in 2016 due to injuries to projected starter Tyler Moore in May, then Tuiasosopo in July. Here’s hoping that Gwinnett can avoid their back-up catcher getting significant innings at first base in 2017. Utilityman Sean Kazmar and third baseman Kyle Kubitza could also be pressed into service at first base if need be.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Jake Schrader
Time may be running out for Jake Schrader, a 27th-round college pick in 2013 who has gone a whole lot further than most 27th-rounders but fell off in his first taste of the AA level last season. While possessing good raw power, Schrader seems stuck in the 11-15 homer range, which isn’t enough to off-set mediocre on-base skills, baserunning, and first base defense. Schrader needs a bounce-back season in the worst way.
CHALLENGER: Joey Meneses
Meneses has shown less power in the minors than Schrader and is of the same age, but the arrows are starting to point up. Meneses started last season a second time at the A+ level after a disappointing 2015 season for Carolina. Last year though Meneses started strong and produced a .342/.401/.490 line and was rewarded with a mid-season promotion to Mississippi. Meneses mostly played right field in Mississippi, and may return there again, but after a strong showing in Mexican winter ball (.308/.345/.444 with 7 HR) this offseason, Meneses has a good shot at pushing Schrader out.
BACK-UP: Dylan Moore
Somehow acquired from Texas in the trade that sent Jeff Francoeur to Florida last season, Moore has shown a strong bat and the ability to play all over the diamond. He started 19 games as a first baseman between the Texas and Atlanta A+ affiliates. He was called up to Mississippi during their playoff run after second baseman Ozzie Albies went out with an elbow injury and played well, then followed that up with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Moore will get plenty of playing time for the M-Braves this season, but hopefully at a more demanding defensive position than first base. Third baseman Carlos Franco and utility infielder Levi Hyams were also pressed into first base duty at times in 2016 and could possibly again.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER (Promotion): Carlos Castro
Castro was an emergency call-up to Rome late last May after injuries to Matt Tellor, Wiggy Nevarez, and Juan Yepez (in that order). Castro would end up taking control of the position the rest of the way while hitting .266/.301/.508 with 17 home runs. Tellor ended up being released, Nevarez is a back-up at first and catcher (at best), and Yepez will likely remain in Rome to start 2017 so the position looks like Castro’s again for the time being.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Wiggy Nevarez
Nevarez doesn’t hit well, but can back up two positions, which is a good trait to have in the minors.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER (Promotion): Ramon Osuna
A 14th-round pick out of Walters State Community College, Osuna shared time in Danville with fellow left-handed first baseman Alex Lee and ended up edging him in batting and playing time. Osuna produced a promising .276/.342/.423 batting line with 4 homers and 12 doubles in 47 games.
CHALLENGER (Promotion): Alex Lee
Lee was no slouch with the bat himself, and he hit .262/.305/.410 with four homers of his own. There is a chance that the Braves may move Osuna to the outfield, where he played in college, which would open up first base for Lee.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** BACK-UP: Juan Yepez
Another possibility is that Yepez is assigned first base, which would put Osuna and Lee battling for DH time. Yepez is the higher-rated prospect of the three, but was drafted as a third baseman. It’s likely that the Braves will give him every opportunity to prove himself as a third baseman, but a move back across the diamond is always a possibility.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER (Promotion): Griffin Benson
It’s tricky to project Danville this early since the Appalachian League doesn’t crank up until June and the results of the 2017 draft could drastically alter plans, but for now it looks like Benson may get first crack at position. Benson is a 23rd-round prep school draftee that had mixed success in the Gulf Coast League. Having just turned 19, a return engagement to the GCL may not be out of the question either.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Anthony Concepcion
Concepcion was a late international signee and made his state-side pro debut last season with the Gulf Coast League at age 21. As you’d expect for a player older than most of the league, Concepcion hit well, going .272/.358/.439 with 19 extra base hits in 53 games. Concepcion mostly played on the outfield corners, but had 9 games at first and 22 games there in the DSL the prior season.
FINAL THOUGHTS: With Freeman locked up until 2020 and recently cited by ESPN’s Buster Olney as the top 1st baseman in the game (Insider required), the position is essentially spoken for the next four seasons, and with a very high-quality option. As such, first base is not a high priority down on the farm. In fact, my pick for top first base prospect in the system will hopefully establish himself this season as a third baseman. It’s also possible that if Freeman does leave the organization after 2020, his heir isn’t currently in the system, or if he his may be playing another position. Here I’m thinking primarily of guys like third baseman Austin Riley, outfielder Braxton Davidson, or even 16-year-old shortstop Kevin Maitan.
OFR TOP 5 FIRST BASE PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Juan Yepez
- Joey Meneses
- Ramon Osuna
- Alex Lee
- Carlos Castro
Other entries in this series:
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)