Definition of a good problem to have: the Braves have so much talent in the minor leagues that it’s difficult to find spots for everyone. As the saying goes, these things have a tendency to take care of themselves, but here in early February with no injuries and no poor performances it’s a tough job to place everyone.
This is part 2 of a 3-part look at Braves starting pitching depth, covering the AA Mississippi Braves and the high-A Florida Fire Frogs. The pitchers designated Top 30 Prospects have more detailed write-ups in my Get To Know a Prospect series, linked in front of their names for your perusal.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Patrick Weigel
No Braves minor league pitcher improved his prospect status in 2016 more than Patrick Weigel. A 7th-round pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Houston, Weigel had been a high-velocity reliever with bouts of wildness. A year-and-a-half later, Weigel is coming off being named Braves Organizational Pitcher of the Year, a designation that in this system really means something.
The Braves have worked diligently with Weigel to correct problems with his delivery to the plate to work on his control issues. They still flare from time-to-time, but it’s a much more manageable than when he was drafted. Weigel has a solid fastball-slider-curveball combination that overwhelmed less experienced competition in low-A Rome. After a double-promotion to Mississippi in August, the more refined hitters in AA were able able lay off Weigel’s breaking stuff. Contined success for Weigel as a starting pitcher may depend on his developing change-up.
STARTER: Michael Mader
Mader (rhymes with Vader) was acquired in August from the Marlins organization in the Hunter Cervenka trade. A 6′-2″ lefty drafted in the 3rd round in 2014, Mader impressed in his 30 innings with Mississippi last season, pitching to a 2.40 ERA/2.19 FIP. Mader’s strength is being able to stay around the strikezone with his three-pitch mix. Mader has a fastball that sits in the low 90s, a curveball that he can control the spin on to give different looks to the hitter, and a developing change-up. Mader will be working this year on repeating his delivery and staying on top of his pitches to limit damage in the strikezone, but he’s on a good trajectory for a major league role as a back-end starter or long reliever.
STARTER: Matt Withrow (Promotion)
Withrow was Atlanta’s 6th-round pick in 2015 out of Texas Tech and is the younger brother of former Braves relief pitcher Chris Withrow. Withrow skipped low-A Rome completely to start the season with the Carolina Mudcats. Withrow was the most consistent starter for the Mudcats, which had a turbulent pitching rotation; only three pitchers finished with over 100 innings for the team, and Withrow’s 3.80 ERA was almost a full run better than the next lowest. Withrow saved his best pitching for down the stretch, with a 1.59 ERA in his last 7 starts with 45 strikeouts in 34 innings.
Withrow fits the recent mode of young pitchers drafted by Atlanta, standing tall at 6’-5” and 230 pounds. Withrow’s fastball can touch the mid-90s but he operates mostly in the low 90s. His fastball has a lot of natural sink, and when he’s on he will generate a lot of ground balls. His off-speed pitches are both works in progress. He has a slider that has a lot of break but will often miss out of the zone. He can sometimes generate swing-and-misses with it because he can be deceptive, but it has to play off the fastball. He also uses a change-up to counter left-handed batters, but it is definitely his weakest pitch; lefties hit him to a .781 OPS versus only .599 against righties.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Max Fried (Promotion)
Fresh off being added to the 40-man roster, I am predicting a double-promotion for Fried from Rome. Coming off of nearly two seasons lost to Tommy John surgery and rehab, Fried was understandably rusty coming out of the gate for Rome in 2016. After a setback with a blister issue midyear however, Fried exploded in the second half, leading Rome to a Sally League Championship. Now going into his age-23 season, if Fried successfully builds off his second half success, he could move up quickly.
STARTER: Tyler Pike (Promotion)
Acquired from Seattle this offseason, Pike is no stranger to the Southern League, having pitched 16 starts for the Jackson Generals in 2014 and ’15, but most of his work the past three season has been in the high-A California League, one of the worst pitchers’ leagues in the minors. In that type of environment a young pitcher can get into bad habits by pitching too much away from contact, and that looks to be exactly what Pike did. Last season saw some marked improvement however with his fastball command, and when he’s on he can drop a plus curveball in for strikes. Despite pitching essentially three seasons at high-A, the left-hander is just going into his age-23 season, and it will be interesting to see if the Braves can put the former 3rd-round draft pick’s career back on track.
BACK-UP: Jesse Biddle
BACK-UP: Wes Parsons (Promotion)
Biddle is a former 1st-round draft pick of the Phillies in 2010 and at one point was considered the Phillies top prospect. Unfortunately, as he climbed the Phillies system his command didn’t really come along as you would hope for a pitcher who’s fastball regularly sits in the low 90s and relies on pitching to contact with a sinking change-up and a deep curveball. Biddle finally got to AAA in 2015 but overall the season was a disaster as he pitched to a 4.95 ERA over two levels and went on the disabled list late in the season with what was thought to be simple arm soreness, but turned out to be a torn UCL that required off-season Tommy John surgery. The Phillies dealt him to the Pirates, who tried to sneak him through waivers. But John Coppolella’s thirst for left-handed reclamation projects will never be slackened, and the Braves snatched him and stashed him on the 40-man roster. Now Biddle will try to follow in the footsteps of Max Fried and A.J. Minter as recent successful TJS recoveries. I expect Biddle to start the season in the bullpen somewhere, but if all goes well he could see time in a rotation.
Parsons was a non-drafted amateur free agent signing out of Jackson State Community College before the 2013 season. After a very impressive debut with the Rome Braves, Parsons started getting some serious prospect buzz, even some mentions on Top 10 prospect lists, albeit for a very weak Braves farm system. Parsons had a rougher time with high-A Lynchburg in 2014 and missed time with a pinched nerve. The next year was nearly a lost year for Parsons as he battle through a variety of ailments, and 2016 started with him back in high-A in the bullpen. Parsons still wasn’t quite right, and he shut down in mid-May. Parsons was able to come back in the second half and pitch in an emergency start for Mississippi, then go back to Carolina and finish the season well, including an 8-inning, 2 hit outing to finish the season. When healthy, Parsons has good control of a three-pitch arsenal that includes a sinking two-seamer, a slider that’s his primary swing-and-miss offering, and a developing change-up.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Mike Soroka (Promotion)
Along with Patrick Weigel before his promotion to Mississippi, Soroka was the steadiest of Rome’s starting pitchers in 2016. Going into is age 19 season, Soroka has an advanced understanding of his craft and shows superior command over his ridiculously talented rotation-mates. The question for Soroka going into high-A is if he will be able to maintain his excellent efficiency in pitching to contact with more advanced hitters, and if not will his stuff be able to produce strikeouts when needed.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Kolby Allard (Promotion)
Rated by most prospect pundits (myself included) as the Braves’ top pitching prospect, Allard will go into his first full season at the ripe old age of 19 years old looking to refine his change-up and clean up his command. Like fellow 2015 1st-rounder Soroka, Allard has a relatively advanced feel for pitching, but unlike Soroka already has a pitch that rates as plus with his curveball.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Luiz Gohara (Promotion)
A newcomer to the Braves system, Gohara came over from the Mariners organization in the Mallex Smith trade. Gohara is the rare lefty-starter with a fastball that sits in the high 90s. Even more rare is that the fastball has some movement on it. Gohara has several things to work on in his first stint in high-A, namely being able to throw his slider more consistently for strikes, developing his change-up, and maintaining his conditioning, which had been a problem for him in the past but is an area in which he made a turnaround last season.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Touki Toussaint (Promotion)
The second half of 2016 turned out to be a breakthrough for Toussaint, a pitcher whose potential had always shown much brighter than his performance. Toussaint has a potent three-pitch repertoire and now he will face higher level hitters that may not consistently chase his curveball out of the strikezone. Toussiant will need to work on repeating his delivery and making sure he hits is spots with his fastball and (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) refining his change-up.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER: Ricardo Sanchez (Promotion)
Lost a little bit among the horde of first-rounders in Rome’s rotation last season, Sanchez quietly saw better results down the stretch for Rome as well. Sanchez’s control issues were a little more frequent than Toussaint’s, but his stuff is almost as good. Key to Sanchez’s development will be again the change-up; without that reliable third pitch Sanchez could see a move to the bullpen as another wave of pitching prospects rush up behind him.
BACK-UP: Ryan Clark
BACK-UP: Enderson Franco
Clark was a 5th-round pick in 2015 out of UNC-Greensboro and as befitting a college pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire he dominated in the rookie leagues and was named Danville’s Pitcher of the Year in 2015. The Braves certainly liked what they saw and gave him a double promotion to high-A Carolina for 2016. Clark was a workhorse, pitching 135 innings, but was largely ineffective over the course of the season, pitching to a 5.75 ERA/4.99 FIP. A command-and-control pitcher, Clark lost both through chunks of the season and he was hurt by extra base hits. Clark had college experience relieving, so barring an injury I expect him to return to high-A and start off in the bullpen.
Franco was a rotation-mate of Clark’s in 2016 and had a very similar season, going to the post every turn through the order but pitching largely ineffectively. Franco is a former Astros farmhand who was picked up by the Braves before the 2016 season, and has re-signed for 2017. Franco did have some late-season success, and his best start was his last, a 7-inning, 3-hit, 7-strikout outing.
FINAL THOUGHTS: While there are intriguing prospects up and down the organization, the team to watch, at least out of the gate, will be the Fire Frogs. The rotation that lead the Rome Braves to a league championship will advance largely intact, only now enhanced by the addition of Luiz Gohara. While the pitchers that are projected to start at Mississippi won’t be quite so heralded, there is some intriguing talent there as well, even with lesser known prospects like Michael Mader and Matt Withrow. In short, every night the starting pitchers of these two clubs should give their teams a good shot at taking a win.
OFR TOP 10 STARTING PITCHING PROSPECT RANKINGS (WITH EXPECTED LEVEL):
- Kolby Allard (A+)
- Mike Soroka (A+)
- Sean Newcomb (AAA)
- Touki Toussaint (A+)
- Max Fried (AA)
- Ian Anderson (A)
- Luiz Gohara (A+)
- Patrick Weigel (AA)
- Lucas Sims (AAA)
- Joey Wentz (A)
Other entries in this series: